Thursday, June 16, 2016

latest research suggests CICs are still trying to make their way in the wider world of social enterprise

So - as some of you know, I can be a bit of an anorak when it comes to sector governance, and statistics. Not just because my brain seems to enjoy doing it, but because I think that sometimes it's hard for us to get a proper understanding about what's really going on in our sector unless someone looks at published data afresh and offers an alternate view. (David Floyd and Nick Temple are both great at this, and also much more thorough too - I tend to look at headlines only here on my blog)

Anyway - every so often, someone publishes a survey about their part of the sector, and inevitably they never benchmark their charts against other peoples findings... This makes it hard to understand what might be really going on in the context of the 'bigger picture', and therefore how we can best support and celebrate each other.

So in spare half hours, I try and find a comparison against which to try and make sense of such published surveys.  Last time I did this was on the Big Potential programme from the Social Investment Business. Comparing their report of social ventures supported against the wider sector suggests that they've been very successful in engaging a 'new breed' of social enterprise.

But this time I'm interested in CICs, because the CIC Association has recently collated and published its 10 year survey of this form of social enterprise. Now, I want to be very open and honest here in that I've never been completely sold on the idea of this legal form for various reasons, but I've always been open as to why, and also supported some clients to gain this legal form (see other posts here tagged with 'CIC' for more).

The CIC Association survey contains lots of charts and headlines, and in trying to make sense of if these show this type of social enterprise to be in 'good health' or 'having some cause for concern' I've compared it to the wider Social Enterprise UK 'state of the sector' report.

But - a few words of caution before proceeding further:
1) the CIC survey was published in spring 2016, and the SEUK survey in autumn 2015 so there's bound to be a little 'drift' in the sector over that year
2) the CIC survey is concerned with CICs only; the SEUK report includes CICs as part of the wider response base, so there's also some variance and risk of some 'double counting'

However, for my own purposes and interests in trying to stimulate some wider discussion, I'm not too hung up on such technical variances as I think the 'broad brush' comparisons are what are interesting:

  • CICs are more likely to be trading directly with the public (75%) than other forms of social enterprise (30%)
  • CICs are more likely to fail in their applications for finance (43%) than other forms of social enterprise (20%)
  • CICs are more reliant on grants - 25% have them as their main income compared to 11% of other forms of social enterprise
  • CICs are likely to be smaller than other forms of social enterprise - most have turnovers under £10,000 compared to in excess of £50,000
  • CICs are more likely to be structured to have share capital (private ownership) than other forms of social enterprise (34% vs 11%)
  • Both CICs and other forms of social enterprise prefer grants as the preferred option for financing growth
  • Both CICs and other forms of social enterprise are likely to be micro enterprises (less than 10 employees)
  • Both CICs and other forms of social enterprise are growing year on year in similar ways (60% and 52% respectively)

So there's potentially some clear markers here that make CIC very different to their wider family of social enterprises (more public facing, more open to having private ownership), but also a lot of common ground too (size, growth, and preference for grants to support growth).

However, might there also be some contradictions emerging within this latest survey of CICs too? Potentially they could be seen as a weaker form compared to their 'cousins' in the wider sector, based on their being:
- more likely to be reliant on grants,
- seen as a riskier proposition by investors (based on the extent that they're able to access finance applied for),
- more likely to be marginal businesses (based on most having turnovers below what the average salary in the UK currently is..,)
- that 28% of CICs saying that this form has not had a positive effect on their business.

But its still relatively early days for CICs: while their 'honeymoon' period looks like it might be starting to wane, other forms of Social Enterprise have been around for a few hundred years longer, so investors and funders are probably still getting to grips with the CIC form.
And as I caveated earlier, the above are very much 'broad brush' findings that I've drawn out in a half hour over a cuppa.

However, my hope is that this will help to contribute to the wider discussion, debate, and further analysis. The aim of which should be to help us to better understand how to best support and encourage this (and other) form of social enterprise, so that they can realise their full potential. And in doing so, help bring about a slightly shinier, fluffier, and groovier world for all of us to enjoy.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

rebirth of a super hero?

3 years ago, I decided to try an experiment. As part of my overall approach to my personal CPD, I asked a selection of contacts what they thought my superpower was. Not because I wanted to be Batman (well, OK, I do - but who doesn't?), but because I'm genuinely interested in how I'm perceived professionally. And that's not for the sake of vanity but better understanding my 'personal brand', and what makes be special in an already crowded marketplace of advisors, consultants, and trainers.

3 years on, and I thought it was time to repeat the experiment - but this time with a twist. Not only did I ask people what they thought my superpower was (that thing which I can do better than anyone else, or makes me the first person people want to call in certain situations), but also what my 'kryptonite' is. What are the things which I'm powerless in the face of or which can seem to paralyse me. Some may see asking such a question as foolishness, but as part of my CPD I need to know what things really are beyond my reach, and what things I should invest in myself around.

So - 3 years on, and are my powers changed (necessitating a new costume perhaps?) or have a remained a constant 'professional'?

As before, I've collated and anonymised people's responses below, but the headlines seem to be:

- being a 'babel fish': able to translate complex ideas and technical jargon into simple to understand terms and concepts
- acting as a 'human google': having a breadth and depth of knowledge on a range of subjects (but it seems that none of them ever relate to the topics in pub quizzes)
- clearly living out personal and professional values that people admire
- having high ethical and professional standards, but also being able to be pragmatic
- I also liked the response of one particular person: "you're bloody awesome"!

- sometimes not making myself vulnerable with others (which could limit opportunities to build trust and deeper relationships)
- occasional risk of over-egging written documents (something I'm going to try and work on by tightening up my written prose in future!)
- nerves (although I tend to manage them well by doing things like dancing on tables when giving key note addresses...)

So - what do the rest of you think: are these a fair summation or are there things that I should be more aware of about myself? After all, it's only through being honest about who we are (the good and the not-so-good) that we can offer the best service and support, and ultimately do our bit to bringing about a slightly shinier, flufflier world for everyone to enjoy.

All responses - 

1) Clued up with the sector, seeks out collaberative approaches - toned down networking approach in informal settings, best to use in warm lead situations - Self-aware, genuine and positive attitude, which comes across.
It's apparent to me that you have worked incredibly hard to put your worldview/philosophy out into the soc ent world. I have an understanding that you have areas of knowledge and specialism that are in high demand e.g., intellectual property, and that you are incredibly giving to folk who ask (there must be limits of course). You are a straight talker.

2) Help people find answers for themselves, rather than doing it for them. Regularly reflect on your work, and that of others to learn and improve. Not setting yourself as 'the expert that knows it all'.
Your super power is your ability to take the complex process of setting up a business and to explain and break it down for people in an accessible way. You don’t use jargon, you meet people where they are at and you are incredibly approachable and generous with your time & expertise. People leave meeting you reassured about their next steps.

3) I'd say your super power is a hard one to put into words but a your wide breath of knowledge and ability to communicate it effectively to the audience at any chosen time with effective tools and examples. When I talk with you I see more things clearly and am able to absorb what you are saying without any barriers, understanding comes about naturally. I think this comes from many different skills that you have as an individual to long to list here.
Kryptonite - I struggle to think of something. Perhaps having only seen you do one or two workshops. But I'd say perhaps vulnerability...just a random one as nothing particularly stands out. An ability to trust in those you are communicating with deeper things about you. 
I would say as someone who is the font of knowledge and often the one in the know it would be good to know more deeply who you are and be able to connect with that on a more personal than just professional level. But you're bloody awesome and don't go changing 

4) Superpower? I don't think there's a single factor, more a combination of things. You are someone I feel I can work with - I put this down to the way you combine high ethical and professional standards with a pragmatic view of the work itself. Your own social impact reporting, CPD and overall commitment to the job is impressive and inspires trust. At the same time you recognise we're not in an ideal world, and can adapt to meet its imperfections and those of clients in order to get the best result.
I've also appreciated the fresh thinking and ideas you bring to our work.
Kryptonite? I don't think so. I can't think of any situation where you would flounder or panic. If you're looking for improvement ideas, the only thing I might suggest - and it's very minor - is written drafting. I have to confess that I've found a few of your drafts a bit wordy. I say this knowing I'm influenced by a one-day Plain English course I did several years ago. May be worth looking at if you've not already done so? Or google 'Gunning Fog Index' if you're not familiar with it. 
As I say this is a very minor point, and overall I've greatly appreciated working with you - mainly because we think in the same way and almost always come to the same conclusions independently. Thank you for what has been, and I'm sure will continue to be, an enjoyable experience

5) Knows everything yet keeps it simple. You don't over complicate things to make yourself look clever but the knowledge and willingness to help is outstanding. Sorry, no negatives.

6) Superpower: super enthusiasm! I have previously called upon you because you are super reliable, jolly,  you use your imagination and creativity to come up with ideas to inspire and develop the knowledge of others. You're also really well informed and I see you as an expert on co-ops.

Kryptonite: Hmm not sure what that is. But I remember you saying you were a little nervous at a high profile event ahead of the sessions and debate. Though you did also stand on a  table - to calm your nerves..?! 

Monday, May 23, 2016

what I've learned from being an enforced 'digital nomad'

As some of you may recall, along with thousands of others over the last Christmas period my family and I were hit by flooding. We had to move out of our home while it (and my 'home office') were restored.

5 months on and we're now back in, the furniture's out of storage, and we've nearly unpacked all the boxes, so it feels like a good time to pause and look back on what I'm taking from the experience of having been an enforced 'digital nomad':

- its easier to set up than you might realise
given the bulk of the work I do, I don't need much by way of specialist equipment or stock. I 'upgraded' my laptop and invested in a few extra toys, so can pretty much work anywhere now. I was initially worried about printing but realise that we print a lot more stuff than we need to out of habit and using cloud storage and such like, haven't been hampered by not having a printer to hand 24/7.
Now we're all back in the house, I realise just how many distractions there can be here, so am intending to remain as mobile with my 'office' as possible going forward.

- clients and other people can be very generous and patient
there seems to be an expectation that we're not allowed to hold up our hands in the business world and say we're struggling. But when I have (framing it in the context of recovering from having flooded), clients, collaborators, and suppliers, have all gone out of their way to try and lend a hand. That's even more true of fellow businesses who were also flooded.
The 'macho' image we present can sometimes get in the way of relationships in our business. I've found that taking the risk to show some vulnerability actually only strengthens links between us all.
I should also name check Gareth Nash of CMS here - at an event we both found ourselves at during this period, he took it upon himself to make sure that I got well fed and watered from the catering that had been laid on at it, in light of my not always knowing where my next meal was going to be...

- libraries can be great places (with the emphasis on 'can be'...)
there are countless hotdesking and coworking facilities out there, (and some offered me discounted rates on the basis of being flooded and wanting to show support). And while they can be fun places, I found libraries to be overlooked great places to work: big tables to spread all your notes and files out across, comfy chairs, good heating (and toilets!), and free wifi too. On the down side, heaven help you if you need to take or make a phone call, and the wifi usually blocks any file sharing or social media sites (unless its a private library like the Portico in Manchester).
On the issue of overlooked places I should also put in a mention for the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce members' lounge, as in addition to the tables, chairs, heating, free unrestricted wifi, and toilets, they also have sofas and free coffee! 

- hotel chains usually aren't worth it
I've found myself staying in a lot of hotels as I've bounced around the country over the last few months. I wish I could say that I picked them on the basis of their being independent local guest houses as part of my commitment to supporting local economies, but I'm afraid it was more pragmatic on the basis of relative location to train stations and client premises. And my experiences of having stayed in big brand chains to local cheap B&B's is that usually paying the extra for a posher stay isn't worth it. On the whole you seem to get better local knowledge, services, and value from the small local hotels that don't look as highly polished, but do at least seem genuinely interested in getting your feedback (and acting on it!)

- you get a lot fitter
I didn't have access to a car while the house was being restored (my family needed it to help with getting kids to school each day, shopping, etc) so I walked a lot more. And being a 'digitial nomal' meant carrying my office with me as well as my wardrobe for the week (up to 4 bags in total!). 
It meant I took up a lot more space on trains, but also made me realise how much stuff we usually carry around with us that we never use... But walking from train stations to clients premises and other venues isn't that arduous so as long as it's no more than about a mile and a half, so I intend to try and continue this habit.

- its more lonely and stressful than people let on
While my house was being restored, my family stayed with relatives, and my travelling around to meet clients and such like meant that it was only usually at the weekends when we got to properly spend time together as a family.
Being self-employed is stressful enough at the best of times for all sorts of reasons, but add to this being technically homeless, not knowing when your house will be ready for you to move back in, not being able to be around emotionally for your partner and kids... 

- you're always looking for the next plug socket...
There's an old saying amongst travellers that you should always eat well because  you never know when your next meal will be. As great as mobile devices and laptops are, they can't last as long without being topped us as we can go without food. And just as with hotels, it seems the coffee shop chains aren't as good as local independents when it comes to being able to offer us opportunities to 'plug in'.

- you can get away with a lot more...
and finally, using the rider "I've been flooded" means you seem to be able to get away with a lot more than you might otherwise feel able to. That's ranged from suggesting to clients that we meet in a pub, to getting suppliers to offer extended credit terms at no extra cost.
I've always been aware that I've pushed the norms of accepted business etiquette, but this will only encourage me to do so even more in the future!

I've always argued that it's important to allow ourselves opportunity to reflect on our experiences to see what we can take from them to our (and others') benefit in the future. And while everyone always agrees with the sentiment, its very rarely done.
Part of the reason that I committed to starting this blog 7 years ago was to allow me such opportunities for reflection - and to do so in way that is open in inviting your comments and contributions to them.

Given the severity and impact of the flooding that's had a massive impact on this valley, I hope that many of my fellow freelancers, self-employed, and other enterprises will find ways to similarly reflect on the experience of recovering their businesses as they start to get back to 'normal'. That's not just to help them think about how they build their resilience for any future knocks, but also as a wider encouragement to the rest of us too.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Why I'm publishing my tax return (despite not being a politician or big tech firm...)

There’s been a lot of apparent media interest around how much tax big firms pay, and then, in the wake of the ‘Panama Papers’, how much tax our politicians pay. And I don’t think it’s because as a nation we’re obsessed with accounts and tax schedules, but rather, we want to be assured that we feel we can that the people and firms we’re reliant upon are acting responsibly.

Now, I’ve always been open that I’m very happy to pay tax for all sorts of reasons (and most small business also recognise the importance that our tax makes to supporting local communities and public services), and over the last 3 years have increasing started to wonder aloud if I should be more open and transparent in my own tax affairs as part of my annual social impact report on myself.
Since then, I’ve also ‘taken the pledge’ with Fairtax to always act with integrity and honesty in my tax affairs. 
So in light of all of this have decided to tell the world how much tax I pay as part of my impact reporting framework!

Now, some of you may be slightly disappointed when you read the report to see that rather than cite a cash amount, I have instead presented it as a percentage of my turnover. This is because after thinking it through and chatting with others for a few months, I felt this was a better way to be able to benchmark myself against others, and also offer a more consistent measure over time which wouldn’t appear to fluctuate wildly subject to how well I’m able to secure fee-earning work over the year.

But what do people think? Is it a good thing that I’m now sharing my tax affairs with you all; is how I’m measuring/reporting it the right way; does anyone really care? (other than me)…

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

why I don't bother with social media analytics

WARNING: if you're a social media manager or consultant, you should probably stop reading now.

For the rest of you (and those brave enough to remain!), here's why I personally think that the industry around analytics of our on-line activity (page views, number of likes, followers, and such like) is potentially damaging to our respective enterprises. But as with all my ideas, I also recognise that this won't be true for everyone, and that it's a biased/prejudiced view that I hold which is based on my experiences to date (but which hasn't stopped from being nominated as the lead advisor in several funded local and national enterprise support programmes on using social media...)

1) a few years back I was identified as one of the top500 most influential people on twitter, but at the time had less than 1,000 followers (out of over 300 million users) and also (horror of horrors), didn't even have a smartphone to tweet from on the move! (I've also become a hashtag on twitter on several occasions!)
Conclusion: the engagement and relationships I try and nurture through twitter via conversations, etc, is what's important. Not the number of people who follow me (although it's always nice to have more to reassure my ego ;-)

2) I have a lovely website supported by Smart Bear, with google analytics running in the back of it. However the site's there not as a sales tool, but as part of my personal brand, and also as part of meeting clients and markets expectations of me. I know from conversations with clients and others that most people don't look at it (although that have are always complementary)

3) I've an active profile across 13 different social media channels (far too many to list here - but just got started on Vine!), because I recognise that not everyone likes twitter (but 300 million do!), not everyone gets on with facebook, some people are into slideshares, and others into hipster photos - as the work I do and support I offer sees in a wide variety of communities and sectors, I think it's important to show some respect where possible by engaging with clients through their preferred on-line channel (see point 2).

4) But ultimately, all the analytic reports I see always leave me asking "so what?". 
What's the point of thousands of sign ups if none of them want to actually talk with you or buy your product. What's the point of having more followers on twitter if you never get to meet them in person to find out what they like and how you can support each others endeavours in the future?

Of course, all of this is a very biased view drawn from my own experience and business model - I'm not an on-line retailer for whom I recognise such analytics are crucial in understanding where effort is being wasted in reaching customers and where to invest more time and resource.

So I'm writing this as a cautionary note, as I see too many entrepreneurs and enterprises getting caught up in the hype of analytics, when at best it's only a distraction to their business model.

I also like the way the vooza summed it all up in one of their typically excellent short vids debunking hype around trends and fashions in enterprise: 

Thursday, April 7, 2016

does anyone really care how far we're open and transparent in how we do business?

In recent news, there's been a furore of activity over leaked papers about tax havens and money laundering by an international finance firm on behalf of the rich and famous, (allegedly). 
This comes on the back of various campaigns and calls for big business to be more responsible in paying tax and treating employees and people in their supply chain with dignity and respect.
And all of this comes on the back of previous movements around fairtrade, environmental impact, sustainability, and such like.

You would think that all of the media coverage of these themes means that as consumers we've a keen interest in how responsible the businesses we spend our money with are acting, and calling them to ever greater account through demanding that they're more open in how they work.
And yet, anecdotally despite petitions and campaigns, most people I know still shop with the likes of Amazon, buy coffee from Starbucks, and similar... so my question is that while we're outraged when we hear of such unethical corporate behaviour, if it doesn't change our own personal behaviours, actions, and shopping choices, do we really care that much?

Because if we don't, then why should firms strive to be more open and transparent in how they do business?

Many of the businesses I support are social and charitable enterprises, and there's been various encouragements to them over the years to show such openness through reporting on their social impact. And yet researches and surveys show that increasingly, when they do, it's making less of a difference to their customers in influencing their purchasing from them.
For myself - as the only freelance consultant globally (to my knowledge) to openly publish an impact report on myself with openness about my supply chain and other business activities, I know that doing so has never made any difference to my clients and customers final decisions about engaging and commissioning me (I know this, because I ask them!).

So with all the calls for more openness and transparency, I'd like to start another call - this time to start a conversation about what we as consumers really would like those businesses and firms to be open and transparent about, and if they start to, if we'll actually read and act on them...

Monday, March 14, 2016

why spin the bottle beats psychometrics in getting Boards to perform better

I often find myself working with the Boards of various social enterprises, charities, and other types of businesses as part of wider packages of support - my time with them is usually spent helping them reflect on how well they're collectively performing in supporting their respective ventures to further pursue their mission, and that can take all sorts of forms...

Case in point: I recently completed several months of working with the Board of an up and coming social enterprise as part of supporting the venture explore and pursue social investment - any venture seeking investment will find it's Board coming under scrutiny sooner or later as part of the due diligence process of any financing body, so I was concerned to make sure that it was fully 'fit for purpose': not just for now, but also for future scenarios it may face.

I agreed with them how we'd approach this and over the space of 4 months developed codes of governance, terms of reference, formalised a range of procedures and practices, and also did some psychometrics (group and individual) with them to help Directors reflect on their individual role and how well they supported each other's performance. And at the end of this process, the only outstanding decision to be taken was who should take on the role of the Board's Chair. 

And that's when everyone suddenly found they needed to check their phones, shoelaces, and bottoms of mugs... formal and professional governance development practices and psychometrics could only take them so far, so I resolved to break this sudden impasse by taking a relatively unconventional process which everyone was surprisingly excited about and wholeheartedly agreed to abide by the outcome of: spin the bottle! (they don't call me #notyourtypicalconsultant for nothing!).

Moral of the story?
It's your venture, not your consultants - if you don't like the approaches being used and suggested, use your own, however 'unprofessional' they may appear as it'll mean you can continue to enjoy working on what you're creating rather than having to compromise yourself into fitting into someone else's expectations of you.