Tuesday, August 13, 2019

the tension of being British and winning business awards

Anyone who's snooped around my website, or followed some of my social media feeds, will likely have noticed that from time to time I'm fortunate to be recognised through receiving various national and international awards.

As a sole trader, such recognition is really valued: I don't have a line manager, team of colleagues, or regular gang of work mates whom I go out after work with that would otherwise help reassure me in those moments where I doubt myself, and wonder if I really am as good as I seem to be (hint: impostor syndrome is much more common amongst freelancers than people like to publicly admit). So such validations are genuinely welcome, and hopefully also an encouragement to other fellow freelancers and self-employed, that we really can achieve great things despite sometimes feeling like a flea when compared to the likes of larger firms and companies.

But recently I've started to notice that there seems to be something 'a bit British' about such business awards: whenever I learn I've been shortlisted for something, I'm keen to share that news as encouragement to others (and also reassurance to clients that they've commissioned the right consultant!). And if I'm fortunate enough to impress the judging panels sufficiently for them to put my name on the trophy, there's a similar post (although not always traditionally posed...) to share my excitement. And what I'm starting to notice is that there seems to be more interest and 'well done' messages when I share news of nominations and short-listings, than there is if I get to subsequently add another 'paperweight' to the trophy cabinet.

And I'm wondering if this is a reflection of our culture as Brits - try hard, strive to succeed, always root for the underdog (in this case, the sole trader who's up again international consultancy firms), remember it's more important to take part than to win, and don't get too cocky... 
But is that a bad thing? After all, it's complacency that is usually at the root of businesses that start to struggle and fail, and that's something I'm very keen to avoid (even though I've managed to remain self-employed for nearly 15 years now, I still fret about being able to find the next paying client or that my invoices will be able to be paid...)

So maybe we should focus more of the celebrations not on the winning of awards, but on those who get nominated and shortlisted (which is often no mean feat to achieve in itself). 
As for me? I'll still keep sharing news of awards nominations and additions to the mantelpiece, but won't be upset if you decide not to comment or like the posts I make when I share the news of it as encouragement to others.

Monday, July 1, 2019

why do we keep insisting on keeping social and 'regular' entrepreneurs apart, when both have the same sh!t to deal with..?

In my experience of supporting various start-up programmes throughout the UK over the last 20 years, and having walked alongside many for part of their journey, most entrepreneurs don't call themselves that. 
They're simply people trying to make a go of an idea to either help them fix a problem they see in their community or help them get a bit more financial security for themselves (usually both).

So I'm increasingly frustrated when I keep seeing national sector bodies re-enforcing a narrative that social and non-social entrepreneurs need special treatment that somehow doesn't seem to apply to the other:




It therefore seems that if you identify as social or not as an entrepreneur, you're probably going to be sharing the same needs, concerns, and preferences for how you access the support you want - and this isn't anything new either: cross-sector research I did into social enterprises, charities, and private businesses all the way back in 2003 (an era of dial-up internet!) found that regardless of which sector people identified as being part of, they all had the same development needs and shared preferences for how they accessed learning and training.

And to my mind that suggests that we're continuing to miss a trick in amplifying the impact that entrepreneurs could be making on society's problems, and the wider economy - why are we creating this artificial segregation of entrepreneurs based on their founding motivations, when the support they need is the same.  And surely by learning and growing together they might better encourage, inspire, challenge, and ultimately "be" more than the sum of their respective camps..?

In the enterprise programmes I've been fortunate to have been able to manage and lead over the years, I've always sought to encourage such a 'mixing it up' philosophy, and although none were ever evaluated on the grounds of it being mixed-sector entrepreneurs, no-one in them seemed to have any problem in undertaking their journey as an entrepreneur with the others who had differing visions or motivations to their own.

So when we will we start to see (social) enterprise support agents admit that these divisions between sectors aren't really that valid or justifiable, and in doing so, be able to be more inclusive in releasing support into our wider communities and economies for the benefit of all..?

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

a truly 'out of this world' consultant..?

I've always prided myself on trying new approaches and ideas in not only how I manage myself as a provider of enterprise support, but also the ways in which I offer that support.

But I think I may have just overreached myself, and signed up to something that I can't see how I can ever 'top' - being the first freelance enterprise consultant on Mars from next year!



Those lovely people at NASA are planning their next Mars Rover trip for 2020, and as part of the kitting out of the equipment, have offered to engrave my name onto it - so from next year, I'll have a physical presence on another celestial body (although if any would-be interstellar clients want to try and call me, I'm not quite sure what the prefix code is for earth, nor what the roaming charges would be...).


Conventional business wisdom always argues that in order to be successful, you should not just aim to excel at what you do, but be the only person who does what you do. Well, my list of being the only person in the world who does what I do seems to be growing - 
1) the only business consultant to openly publish an annual social impact report on myself;
2) the only business that's deliberately chosen to remain a sole trader to maximise (rather than minimise) the tax that I pay on my earnings;
3) the only adviser who regularly asks for 360 degree feedback from clients in the form of pictures and asking to be likened to superheroes;
3) and now the only freelancer to have a presence on another planet.

Where do I go from here??

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

will current trends in csr ultimately see charities and social causes losing out..?

Corporate Social Responsibility ("csr" - or also, 'not being a d!ck') has been around for as long as there have been businesses : it's the equivalent of what companies do against our giving to charity or volunteering for causes important to us personally.

It's also something that can be mired in suspicion, scepticism, acclaim, legislation, policy, and so on - although interestingly, recent research by the Institute of Business Ethics finds that our trust in businesses to 'act ethically' is at all time highs (despite high profile backlashes to do with tax, and workers treatment, by some global firms...).

But in the main, the csr initiatives that companies 'do' (either gifts in kind, sponsorship, corporate volunteering, and such like) are at the direction of the business itself that's doing the giving - in much the same way that we as individuals decide which charities we want to give money to, or which causes to volunteer with.

A few years ago, a company in America called Tom's Shoes refined this csr model into a key plank of its marketing strategy: 'buy one pair of our shoes, and we'll give another pair to someone in need of shoes who can't otherwise afford them' (aka 'Buy 1 Give 1' - B1G1). This model of csr offered a way that we as individuals could more easily assuage any concerns that we have personally that we should somehow be trying to do more to give to those in need, without having to actually give anything, or make any effort beyond our usual consumer purchases (some might say, a very effective way that the private marketplace has made it easier to be philanthropic painlessly).
Subsequently, this model of B1G1 has been adopted by lots of other companies and platforms, even though studies suggest that this model of philanthropy may ultimately actually do more harm than good.

But Tom's shoes has now revisited it's csr model in a way that makes me think that we may be starting to see a sea-change in the face of csr (and possibly to the detriment of the charities and causes we want to try and support) - the company is now offering customers the choice over what the value of that other pair of shoes that are being gifted should be used for: either giving a pair away as before, or contributing to a choice of social causes that the customer can pick.
Now, this model of customers choosing the recipient of a company's philanthropy isn't entirely new: the Co-operative Group, and Tesco stores invite shoppers to vote for which local charity should receive a financial gift from their trading (albeit as part of a wider csr programme).
But it marks the first time I'm aware of, a company changing the way it does csr because of what it's customers are telling it - in effect, it's co-producing it's csr with its customers, being increasingly led by our personal interests, whims, and fashions.

And is that a good thing? Well, it fits with classical marketing strategy of responding to/being led by customers, but if more and more companies start to follow this lead (as they did with the B1G1 model), then we start to risk some causes and issues 'losing out' because they're not as visible or popular as others, but are nonetheless equally important.

Csr plays a distinct role in the wider fabric of community and voluntary support, but supplements what we choose to do as individuals. If we as individuals start to direct the businesses we buy from as to the causes we want them to support, then we're likely to give less to those causes ourselves: after all, that cause or group will still be getting something from our purchase price, right? 
But it's unlikely that any private business's csr will ever equal what we collectively give individually, so this crowdsourced approach to csr may ultimately start to see more of us giving less to charity, and spending more as consumers... 

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

A question of grace and bad debt...

I've recently published my 13th annual social impact report on myself - and as with previous years, continued to 'evolve' the framework by adding further indicators (specifically, in relation to how far I'm adopting working practices that reduce environmental impact). 

The framework I've developed is overall designed to reflect my values, but I'm wondering how far I should include additional indicators relating to 'grace', and more specifically, 'forgiveness'...

You see, businesses of all types will, at some point, face the prospect of having to deal with bad debt - a customer or client that either refuses to pay, or whose venture has become insolvent. In such circumstances, conventional wisdom decrees that we (as the people the debt is owed to) enact recovery processes: debt collection agencies, applications for court orders, striking them off our Christmas card lists, and such like. 
But sometimes, the people we've worked to support and now can't make good on the payments we've agreed, haven't made a conscious or deliberate choice to run their businesses into the ground, or to happily walk away from their dreams and ambitions with little care for the consequences. They're just as, if not more, upset than we are that circumstances have played out as they have and are simply trying to minimise the fall out (albeit that usually means by 'doing an ostrich' and hoping it all goes away by itself...).

In such instances, grace would seem to require that we at least consider the option of forgiving them their debt - not as a 'carry on and mess up other businesses' type approach, but rather as a measured and reflective conversation about how working relationships have been bruised, and helping all involved understand the cost that such a forgiveness of debt will entail (but the benefits it could also offer in the longer-term to all concerned as well). 
As a sole trader, my experiences of exercising grace in this way is 'quite painful' as I've no larger company or wider team of colleagues to help soften the hit of not now receiving the income I'd anticipated. I also need to work at least doubly hard to find additional work to replace the earnings I've lost and budgeted to receive, (earnings that help sustain my family, home, and other commitments).

So the question I'm grappling with is - when I exercise grace in this way, should I record and report it, as I do with other workings out of this value (such as the extent to which I currently report on the pro bono support I've given to various people and groups).
Would such open reporting simply encourage a culture of clients 'crying off' when they see that I'd be willing to forgive them their debt, or would it mean we can all start to have more grown-up and mature adult conversations about money, and the way in which we recognise and have responsibility for others through ensuring that we pay them what we owe?

Monday, April 8, 2019

accelerating to 'Launch' speed...

I've always been a keen proponent of enterprise education in all its forms, and for all ages too - not just for the sake of encouraging more start-ups, but because I think it can offer genuine benefits in whatever we choose to (or find ourselves doing) in the future.

As part of this, I've always sought to work with Schools, Colleges, and Universities - one of which is Salford University, with whom I seem to have built something of a long-term relationship, as I'm now well into my 7th year of them asking me back to work with their subsequent intake cohorts of undergraduates.

The design of their offer to students who are interested in exploring and launching their own enterprises has changed over the years - including seeing more leaders of courses and schools within the university becoming more interested in 'exposing' their students to speakers like me to help them better understand 'the enterprise option'; (I've always especially liked it when the drama school asks for these as it means I can perform my 1-man startup show on a proper stage!).
But perhaps most excitingly, the university's enterprise team has recently launched a dedicated accelerator on campus, branded 'Launch'.
And rather than assume that just because they have a business school and an MBA programme they know what the best content to teach and offer through it would be, they've linked in with the Growth Hub, Santander, and others to offer students a more rounded, complete, and stronger support offer.

Fortunately for my own enterprise practice, they've asked me to reprise my role as a mentor and adviser to some of the latest cohort in the accelerator, to which end the University recently invited me to the launch of their latest Launch programme.
And it was at this launch that I was inspired to jot these thoughts down for my blog for 2 reasons - what undergraduate students want to get out of being part of an accelerator, and the key message that seemed to be being broadcast to them:

in contrast to what we seem to hear from other national and international accelerator programmes who laud themselves on the investment they help start-ups to gain, students motivations at Salford's Launch feel much more 'earthy' and 'real life':

- people are wanting better clarity over the future of their business
- people recognise that being part of a peer community can offer them the confidence and accountability structures they know they'll need to see their ideas through
- some people feel they's lost their mojo, and the accelerator is a good opportunity to find it again

And as for the key message to these start-ups: "be a sponge (of knowledge and ideas), rather than a sponger".

As to the journey that this cohort will be taking, and what their experiences of it will be - well, I'm going to be fortunate enough to walk alongside some of them over the next few months, so I'll try and check in later this year with some thoughts of what happens at the other end...




Thursday, March 28, 2019

the joy of lunchtime lectures

I recently attended a lunchtime lecture - now, don't run off just yet... I know it's not the most thrilling of openings, but bear with me as I think I may have an important idea about why they're better than podcasts, webinars, and MOOCs as a format* - 

I've always been a fan of lifelong learning, and recently being able to spend an hour, immersed in the stories and ideas that surround the topic of "working class writing and publishing in the late twentieth century" (there's even a book published about it!), I was reminded that learning for its own sake can be of as much value as gaining knowledge and skills needed for an exam or particular workplace task. Learning doesn't have to be tied to pre-set outcomes, qualifications, or career progression, to create enjoyment and further our understanding of, and thinking about, the wider world around us.

Historically, adult learning would be only available in such formats: guest lectures at reading rooms and museums, but today technology widens their accessibility through webinars, podcasts, and the like.
But in making such opportunities more accessible to all, I wonder if we haven't lost something along the way - being in a room reduced the distractions to my being able to retain interest and focus on the subject matter. Physically sharing the experience with a roomful of other 'real' people (rather than avatars) re-enforced the value of being there by being part of such a tangible peer community. Needing to invest time to travel to the venue (the impressive and under-recognised Working Class Movement Library) made it more of an occasion - further adding to the experience and my subsequently being a in a head-space that made it far more enjoyable than listening in on a pair of headphones... And the fact that there was tea served afterwards for us all to further reflect on the questions the lecture had started to raise within us was halcyon!

So next time you see a lunchtime lecture (or similar) advertised anywhere, and you the subject matter briefly piques your interest - I'd urge you to make every effort you can to get to it.


(*Of course, I recognise I may be a little biased in having delivered lunchtime lectures myself in the past...)