Monday, March 16, 2015

the truth about LinkedIN recommendations and cake

So - most people use LinkedIn to a lesser or greater extent; I'm a fan it it myself, having been around long enough to have had a 'magic rolodex' of people's business cards back in the day that were heavily annotated, only to swear when I'd call one of them up and find that they'd moved job - without their new business card I'd lost them as a contact. 
Until LinkedIn...

Now, over the years, LinkedIn has added various features, and the one that seems very popular is "skills endorsements" where you can 'one-click' on a contact to share what you think they're good at. And people seem to have been very generous in using this to highlight that a lot of them think I'm pretty hot at social enterprise, entrepreneurship, strategy, policy, and governance. But I also know that LinkedIn automates a lot of its site and that people will be offered the option to 'endorse click' me whenever they log in - so how do I know people really mean it?

Well, I had an idea that I've just started to test - I've created a new skillset for my list of 'one click endorsements': "eating cake". And you know what? I've just been endorsed for it by the lovely Michelle Rigby (who I've not had opportunity to share cake with yet, but who has obviously heard of my legendary abilities in this regard!).

So - LinkedIn recommendations: take them with a pinch of salt, but don't be afraid to have some fun with them :-D 

Monday, January 19, 2015

my alternative (social) entrepreneurs' A-Z

It’s all Chris Lee and Liam Black’s fault.
If they hadn’t started their ‘entrepreneur’s A to Z’s, I’d have happily sailed on, but something like that, to someone like me… well, you can see from Chris’ blog where he published his A-Z that I was compelled to offer some kind of ‘harsh truth’ alternative. And then he asked me nicely if I’d do my own social entrepreneurs’ A-Z, based on my own experiences of being a micro enterprise these last 9 years, and supporting countless others over the last 3 decades….
So here it is – a no-holds barred, ‘what they don’t tell you about what it’ll be like’ A-Z of being a (social) entrepreneur. And I’ll probably change my mind about most of these after Chris has posted them up, but nothing lasts forever, so here’s my alphabet for now:
A – anxiety; this is natural. Best to medicate symptoms with beer and cake.
B – bluster and bravado; people will take you more seriously the more confident you sound, so don’t be so British: be more American in how to present and promote yourself!
C – coffee; there’ll be many late nights. And even longer weekends, so make sure there’s always plenty in the kitchen.
D – denial; you’ll deal with a lot of this in your clients. Brush up on your diplomacy with them.
E – eggs; they’re good for you. Eat healthy. You’ll thank me for that later.
F – fooling around; don’t forget to try and have fun in what you do. It you wanted a boring job, you should have got that job stacking shelves in a supermarket.
G – goosebumps; there’ll be moments of such excitement when you realise you’ve pulled off what you thought wasn’t possible within the laws of this universe. Enjoy them, revel in them, and encourage others with stories about them.
H – hype and spin; there’s a lot from sector bodies and politicians. Learn how to spot it, and how to ignore it.
I – internet and social media; a wonderful source of faux companionship, and also of filling those odd bits of time between meetings and other things.
J – jumping through other people’s hoops; you can choose not to, but then you won’t get any paying work. Choose your hoops carefully…
K – kleptomania; keep your stationery supplies topped up by taking the free pens, etc from exhibitors and conferences
L – lies, damned lies, and statistics; you’ll start out wondering how anyone can behave apparently completely dishonestly in their dealings with you. If you’re not careful, you’ll eventually start to turn into them…
M – money; you can never have enough, and you often won’t have enough. As much as you wish you could get through this world on love and fresh air, someone’s got to pay to keep the lights on.
N – naughtiness; get into trouble – it’s the best way to get noticed and create impact (and you can always apologise later…)
O – opportunistic; grab chances where you see them – they’ll probably not come around again for some time…
P – pubs; you won’t see the inside of these as much as you used to/would like to.
Q – questions; people don’t asked enough of them, especially about (sometimes questionable) advice they’re offered from ‘expert advisers’
R – research; you can never do enough: keep learning about everything or you’ll quickly be surpassed by others.
S – stories; in the end we’re all stories. Make sure yours is a good one.
T – time travel; you’ll wish you had this to cope with shifting deadlines by clients.
U – universe; the universe is a big place – don’t forget that: it might help keep things in perspective.
V – values; know what you stand for, what you’re willing to compromise on, and where you’re not happy to go: once you’re out there, it’s easy to drift into ‘bad habits’ otherwise…
W – wives (and other types of spouse); you’ll spend less time with them, so make sure when you do, that they know they have your full attention.
X – xenophobia; don’t avoid outsiders – they’ll often be more interesting and challenging to your ideas (and therefore success) that you usual crowd of mates will be.
Y – yellow snow; never eat this. And never overlook the value of advice and support that also reflects common sense – it’s a rare commodity.
Z – zoos; sometimes you’ll be the zookeeper, sometimes the animal being expected to perform. Remember that both have their place, and neither can flourish without the other.
 
This post first appeared as a guest blog on enterpriseessentials blog on Dec 17 2014

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

on being a (sector) fan boy!

As a freelance consultant who’s had his share of (mis)adventures, academically not shined when I was supposed to (but since made up for it), been embroiled in a few controversies over the years, and not really had anything resembling a traditional career path, I’m not afraid to admit that I do sometimes doubt if I’m really as good as everyone says I am.
And that sense of self-doubt is probably quite useful in stopping me getting complacent (or heaven forbid, even arrogant!), but it does lead me to have some unusual reactions from time to time... specifically when some of the sector leaders and ‘heavyweights’ make a direct beeline for me to find out what I know or think about various issues, and I’ve realised it’s the same feeling I had as a kid when I met Darth Vader after winning a competition in the local paper: I’m a fan boy!
 
So, should I take the next step as a true fan-boy and share an initial roll-call/apology to some of those sector leaders who’ve approached me over the last year and I’ve found myself blustering my way through initial conversations with them out of nerves/disbelief that they’d want to talk with me (but who’ve none the less had the good grace not to allow it to get in the way of our having what I hope were useful conversations)?
Comments, emails, tweets, please to see if you’d like to know whose made me go (professionally) weak at the knees this year...!
(and that also goes for you 'sector heavyweights too' - you hopefully know who you are, and I know at lease one of you reads this blog... ;-)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Why I like hearing about social enterprises failing

That's a bit of a provocative title for this blog, but then, I've always tried to take an approach of 'poking a stick' at accepted wisdom and cherished institutions to get people fired up enough to start to ask questions they should be, and not meekly 'going with the flow'. If nothing else, I hope that in doing so I can encourage people to think more for themselves and seek out what the right options might be for their enterprises and ideas, rather than simply accepting what they're offered by 'a professional advisor'...
 
But back to the topic in hand - why I like hearing about social enterprises that fail (and there was one that was lost in Scotland recently, to much apparent wailing and gnashing of teeth locally...).
 
Social Enterprises are politically in vogue (and have been for some time - apparently, every year since 2001 has been 'the best time' for them, and the point when 'their time has come'...). And that means with such interest from the state and investing bodies, we need to make sure that we show a successful story and evidences of great things happening. Heaven forbid we should let slip that just like other businesses, we sometimes struggle, stumble, and fall, as that would run counter to the messages that sector bodies and funders are keen to project...
 
And as a result we hear a lot of case studies showing how great it can be, and hear a lot about 'good/best practice' in the sector. But I've never been a fan of 'best practice' as it's usually based on specific people being in a specific place at a specific time. And that's very hard to replicate elsewhere. 'Bad practice' by contrast, tends to be a reflection of more common mistakes and erroneous assumptions - and as a result is much more applicable universally in the learning we can gain from it.
 
Only talking about successes can also create false and unrealistic expectations amongst communities, individuals and investors/funders. And so when they fail to deliver, this wider ecosystem of support and encouragement gets dented and becomes less supportive and interested in working with us.
 
So, lets be more honest about the realities of social enterprise: just like any business, they can sometimes fail. And in being more open and honest about that, we can better learn how to make them stronger in the future, and how better-grounded relationships with others we engage with.
 
Let's celebrate social enterprises and the success stories that exist, but lets also celebrate the learning to be had from when they stumble - it's nothing to be ashamed of, and in the times when we've not succeeded, through the sharing of our stories we may paradoxically better support others in their journeys that if we had succeeded...

Monday, October 20, 2014

is the honeymoon for CICs over?

I’ll begin by outing myself (again) on the subject of Community Interest Companies (CICs) – I’ve personally never been a big fan of them for all sorts of reasons that include:
  • their not offering any features that are truly unique,
  • are generally not advantageous in securing income,
  • usually allow very weak governance to emerge,
  • offer little security for their Members and Directors in light of their regulators’ powers to overrule them...
(all of which are detailed in previous blog posts), BUT I have supported some clients to gain this ‘hallowed status’ and am always pleased (really!) when an enterprise proves me wrong on why it’s the best form for them to adopt.
However, I’m wondering of the wider world may be catching up with me now in light of trending data published by the CIC Regulator themselves that suggests CICs may be increasingly seen as a ‘bad apple’ by those who set them up, and those they engage with...
You see, I’m a geek in oh, so many things, but particularly in the governance of organisations of all types, and as a result, find the annual reports from regulatory bodies fascinating reading. And despite my personal misgivings about the CIC form, I’ve always said that the CIC Regulator published perhaps the best designed and most accessible annual report of all the regulators. And this year I decided to dig into some of the stats they publish in a little more detail –
I looked at the period 2011/12 to 2013/14 (3 years) to see what trends there might be amongst CICs that are emerging and it’s not an encouraging picture:
  • as context, over the last 3 years, the total numbers of CICs have increased by 44%;
  • but last year, over 10% of all CICs on the register were wound up – a figure that’s also growing year on year (and has floated around the 9% mark in previous years);
  • and the biggest reason (70%) for CICs being wound up is that they’ve been struck off the public register by Companies House for failing to meet their associated statutory legal duties! - which amongst other things means that the Directors of them may subsequently face difficulties with being able to act as Directors or Trustees of other organisations as well as against their own personal credit ratings;
  • and the number of formal complaints being made about CICs to the CIC regulator has also been doubling year on year as a proportion of all CICs on the register
So – is all well in the land of CICs? More are currently registered every year than are being wound up, but the trends in each suggest that most CICs currently don’t make it past 5 years. And with a growing trend of CICs failing to fulfil their basic statutory legal responsibilities, it’s perhaps illustrative that many are adopting this legal form on the basis of poorly informed advice and guidance. It also perhaps suggests that CICs are approaching a plateau in terms of their prevalence, and are not in fact the ‘magic bullet’ to solving the sectors’ woes and concerns that many have presented them as being? (but as with all things, I’m open to being proved wrong of this...) 


UPDATE - 6th Nov
after sharing a link to this post with the CIC Association, there's been a clear response offered against my closing invitation to 'be proved wrong about this': http://cicassoc.ning.com/profiles/status/show?id=2691611%3AStatus%3A72861

Thursday, October 9, 2014

whatever happened to the Conservative Coops?

So, its party season again, and with a general election looming, every sector seems to be vying for attention with all the separate parties to become the solution that they’re each hoping to find that’ll help them to deliver on all their aspirations but won’t bankrupt the economy in the process...
One such sector which every party (at least in recently history) has embraced and talked up are co-ops: marrying social justice with economic independence and free market economies, they seem too good to be true and have often been cited in many a politician’s speech as to their ‘fab-ness’. Recently, co-op sector bodies such as Co-operativesUK have also started to more explicitly publish the ways in which co-ops can help each party deliver on their conference promises too.
But how far can we really hold faith in these political parties’ interest? Historically, government and political parties were so anti-coops that the movement formed its own political party to ensure that the sector wasn’t discriminated against in parliament! In more recent history, the Conservative party launched its own co-ops initiative. “The Conservative Co-operative Movement” (CCM) to capitalise on politicians’ interest in co-ops and to help keep this sector at the heart of parliament and to their policy and thinking. And they even set it up as a co-op society! (Intrigued, I even became a Member of this society, despite my father being a Labour councillor and a Co-op party Chair...)
But fast forward 4 years. In that time as a Member, I’ve had 3 general emails; 1 item of post (with postage underpaid on it); no notifications of Members’ meetings (or minutes from them); and I also spotted that they’ve been identifying themselves by another co-op society’s registration number in their stationary. Their website seems to have disappeared and I’ve not been able to get any response to messages I’ve sent to contact details I have.
What can I conclude from this?
In the absence of any response that may suggest otherwise, it seems like the CCM were an opportunistic political attempt to cash-in on the integrity and hard work of the co-op sector over the last few centuries. It’s obviously not understood what it means to be a co-operative by not acting as one. And it doesn’t seem to notice when it stops being able to deliver what it was set up to do.
Some might say the above analysis and conclusions are reflective of this wider political parties approach in general, but I couldn’t possibly comment...

Monday, September 22, 2014

why not all coops should live to be 100

There are any milestones in the life of any business: the first (and 1,000th?) customer, the opening of new sites, and the length of time that the venture has continued to trade (this is no mean feat given that most fail within the first 3 years...)
 
Many ventures mark their trading histories with parties and such like at 25, 50, and 100 years (although there’s not many of that last group!). And as a supporter of various types of enterprise, it’s always gratifying to see how some business forms seem to survive the ‘test of time’ better than others – I’m not sure the empirical data has been collected to prove it beyond shadow of doubt, but my hunch is that proportionately speaking, co-ops tend to last a lot longer than any other form of business model.
And that’s important, because it shows there’s recognisable value and merit in specific types of business over others that make it easier to argue for them on the groups of sustainability, long-term impact and benefit, etc...
But – that might cause a problem for some co-ops.
Co-ops are created by groups of people to meet common shared aims or addressed shared needs, (rather than the ‘traditional’ motivation of private businesses which is to keep making money for as long as possible...) Once those aims have been achieved, or needs have been met, is there a benefit to it being continued?
Some aims and needs will always be ongoing (creating opportunities for employment, ensuring access to healthcare, or supply of energy), but what of those that can potentially be ‘fixed’ within a given time (supporting each other gain access to financial services through rebuilding credit ratings, or building members’ profiles in their respective marketplaces)?
As well as supporting them to start-up, I’ve also been involved with supporting co-ops wind-up because they were so successful in addressing the needs that they were created to address, that their members agreed there was no point in continuing it for the sake of it.
So while a long-standing business may be a cause to celebrate on the face of it, it might also suggest it’s been very ineffectual in achieving what it was set up to do: let’s therefore start to celebrate the impacts that co-ops create rather than how long they might have been trading for.