Tuesday, April 13, 2021

the impact of a pandemic on the impact we create

Some of you reading this will be aware that for the last 15 years, I've annually published an 'impact report' on my activities as a sole trader/freelancer - and each time I do, I try and pause to reflect here on some aspect of it that's particularly struck me.

Most businesses, charities, and social enterprises who are currently talking about the impact they've created through the pandemic, successive lock-downs, and the disruption to communities and people's lives over the last year, seem to be largely focussing on what they've done over this last year. Which is fine and proper, but it doesn't help us fully understand the wider, longer-term impacts of the pandemic on how we try and achieve our respective missions - only what our immediate responses to it have been.

But I've been using a consistent framework and measures in how I monitor, report, and reflect on, my impact for over a decade. That means that this year's impact report has allowed me to better explore just how far the disruption to how we work, think, and feel, has truly had on my practices - and as such, I'm better able to consider what changes I might need to introduce as we emerge into our brave new vaccinated world (and which I can politely pass on).

Spoiler alert: it seems the pandemic has had little (or as expected) effect on the metrics I use to capture the impacts I create across different themes.

But what I do find of particular note is:

tax paid: it's been already shown by others that in being self-employed, I already pay proportionately more tax on my income than my counterparts both on payrolls, and those taking their earnings as company Directors. But this year, the amount of tax I've paid has significantly increased - and tracking this back into the data shows that it's because I was fortunate to be eligible for some of the government's coronavirus business support schemes: but that support I received to help me sustain my business (and family) was always going to be subject to being taxed - so although it may have initially seemed I could have breathed a sign of relief when HMRC said I was eligible to apply for SEISS, I always knew that there'd be at least one painful sting in the tail associated with it...

grace: in my last impact report, I'd started to capture and monetise my 'grace': the amount of lost earnings I'd suffered due to people either forgetting that we had arranged to speak/meet, or cancelling training sessions with only a days' notice (with no recourse for me to claim any late cancellation fee). Perhaps the most distressing part of this year's impact report is not that this figure hasn't changed, it's that if anything, its actually increased. Which means that the respect we're showing each other in making sure we turn up (or phone in/log on) when we've agreed to, or at the very least, sending apologies in good time if we know we can't, is on the wane...

But there's lots of other things in this years report. It now runs to 11 pages, with 12 indicators, 3 charts, 3 tables, and a slew of summary case studies and testimonials - in the first year I created it, covering the year 2006-7, it only had 3 numbers and was a footnote in my corporate CV!

And you can view it in all it's glorious technicolour and images, here.

Therefore, please do take a look through it - I'd be keen to hear what strikes you about it as being of particular interest in help me better understand it myself, and to therefore continue to create as much positive impact as I can into the future.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

is it any wonder we're all so confused about tax?

Happy 6th April - the first day of the new (tax) year in the UK.

I agree - it's a bonkers system we have that means for the 5 million+ of us who are self-employed or doing personal tax returns, we can't divide up our income and receipts neatly according to the annual cycle of one calendar year ending on Dec 31st, and the next year starting on Jan 1st - or even according to the quarterly cycle of 3 months used by HMRC for VAT returns.

It's bonkers-ness is also compounded by limited companies being able to (re)align their accounting periods to line up with the calendar year, but not us as freelancers and sole traders.

There's a good comprehensive story telling of why the 6th April is the date that the government has decreed should be the start of the year for tax purposes over on the Tax Advisory Partnership's website 

(TL:DR and spoiler alert: it's to do with Britain wanting to have it's own calendar system that was at odds with the one that the rest of the world had adopted, and the Treasury wanting to max out on what it could demand from us as hard working people).

But then add in a few extra oddities about the tax system here in the UK. For example:

- VAT can be charged at 3 different amounts (and it being added to the price we pay depends on who we are, what we're using it for, and other factors)

- National Insurance contributions are deducted from our earnings at 4 different levels (depending on who employs us, and how)

Further, for organisations, add into this things like business rates on commercial premises which are managed by local authorities (so what you pay in one neighbourhood may be markedly different to what you pay in an adjoining town for the same space).

And if you drive a car, then you're paying taxes on:

- the purchase cost of the car,

- annual car tax,

- tax on the fuel you use to travel around in it;

- tax on any repairs or parts you buy for it,

- tax on the insurance you have for it.

Is it any wonder that (1) most people are confused about tax and the tax that they owe; and (2) that most people therefore try and avoid paying tax in light of our paying so much of it everywhere all the time (with little apparent benefit to us or the wider community)?

Monday, March 22, 2021

Co-ops will never succeed until they start demanding more money from people who want to join them

The co-operative movement is often referred to as having emerged from Rochdale in 1844 (although it's history goes far further back than that) - a time when the average life expectancy was a mere 21 years; and most people died in the streets wearing nothing but rags.

The co-operative society that was formed then did two very powerful things that have since resonated through history: one has defined the movement globally (documenting a set of core values and principles); and the other has come to limit the interest of people in not only becoming members of co-operatives, but subsequently also not being interested in being actively involved in their governance (the setting of a membership fee of £1).

Whilst those values have gone on to be argued about, expanded, refined, and ultimately codified by the International Co-operative Alliance as the acid test of what makes a co-op a co-op, that membership fee has largely remained resolutely steadfast at £1 in nearly all co-ops.

Today, most people in the movement would argue that it should remain £1 - this is the lowest amount the law will recognise and allow, and allows for inclusivity: after all, no matter what your circumstances, you can scrape £1 together relatively quickly and easily.

But adjust for inflation, and that £1 should actually now be £128.

However, inflation only looks at the nominal buying power of that £1 - it doesn't recognise the extremes of poverty and deprivation people whom that co-operative in Rochdale was created for, and how those might transpose to our society of 2021.

A couple of quick google searches identifies that in 1844, people were most likely to be factory workers or labourers, with an annual earning of around £20.

Compare that to the average UK salary in 2021 which is £29,600 (as at 18th March).

And suddenly we start to some some big differences.

If I were to join a co-op in 1844, it would cost me 5% of what I could hope to earn in a year = roughly 3 weeks earnings (nearly a months wages) .

3 weeks wages today would be equal to £1,700.

Suddenly it becomes apparent just how radical the co-op of Rochdale was, in what it represented that meant people were willing to give up so much of what they would have otherwise spent on their rent, meals, and health (no NHS in those days!).

If you invested nearly £2,000 or a month's wages in something, you'd want to make sure you were getting value for money and a return on what you've otherwise have been spending it on (insert your favourite vice here). You'd want to make sure your voice was heard: you'd engage with any and all opportunities the organisation offered you to be part of its governance and decision making.

In short - you'd be actively involved, because it had hurt you financially to be part of it.

Most co-ops today struggle to not only recruit members, but also to encourage and maintain their involvement and engagement in their co-op's governance and activities.

Could it be because the movement hasn't paid enough heed to its history, and forgotten just how much it asked of people who wanted to be part of it, in order to keep this cost of membership current and relevant?

If co-ops today suddenly made the cost of membership £1,700 (after all, they all echo nearly everything else that the Rochdale co-op mandated and advocated), I suspect we'd seen an initial drop in member numbers. But those that did become members - how active and dynamic would they be in the democracy of their co-ops?  

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

spreading some 'polite anarchy' (and pretending to spider-man)

Bit of a different post, this one (just to warn you).

I was recently interviewed as part of an ongoing podcast series (which is hosted on youtube) called 'Delightful Dissent' - exploring a range of assumptions we make in how we work together, and think about how we approach different circumstances in our lives.

You can catch-up with the arguments and stories about how I explored an assertion about how our trust in others, and our relationships with them, is damaged/enhanced in equal measure when we bring challenges in the workplaces and communities we're part of:

NB: you may need to follow a link in this window to watch the recording, or you can jump directly to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tzj55l-pGhQ 

But watching it back (and having watched a few in the series before me), it struck me that I've probably managed to come across as rather 'unprofessional':

  • you can see me enjoy a single malt whiskey throughout the conversation;
  • I openly retch when the topic of marmite is raised (I'm in the haters camp);
  • I encourage Matthew and I to play at being spider-man;
  • lego makes an appearance with an encouragement from me that we should all play with it more;
  • and I advocate that we should all try and revert to being more of who and what we were as children (because being an adult sucks a lot of the time).
But watch it through, and check out some of the other conversations in the series and see what you think - did I go too far, lower the tone of what should have been a more sombre and thoughtful process, or should I have pushed it further?

Thursday, February 4, 2021

perversely, spending less (not more) time on social media seems to be bad for my well-being...

Some might say that with profiles on 15 different social media channels (at last count), I'm something of a social media 'whore'.

I never meant to be - I managed to resist joining Facebook for several years until Mel from my old school organised a class reunion using it; and I only signed up to start to Tweet because I discovered by accident that there were people talking about me on there.

(for clarification - I've never sought to censor anything that anyone wants to write about me on-line, but I just like to know who's saying what about me, so I'm not on the back foot when speaking with other people)

And while some people enthuse about how great social media has been in generating paying work for them - it's never meant I've landed contracts or new clients (yet...). Instead, I've always viewed social media as a means to start or continue conversations with people.

This approach seems to be generally well received universally - LinkedIn says I have an 'All Star' profile, and a few years ago, I was named as one of the 500 most influential people on Twitter!

But its hard to not hear people increasingly talking about how toxic and damaging social media is becoming to our well-being, and every so often to hear that a friend or colleague has decided to 'leave' Facebook or Twitter.

Now, over the last however many years (Pinterest and Instagram weren't a thing when I became self-employed 16 years ago - but then, neither was the iPhone either!), I've tried to keep a cumulative 10 minute a day habit on social media: over the course of a day, checking in to different platforms while I'm waiting for the kettle to boil, or in the minutes until the webinar I've joined is started by it's organiser.

But as this pandemic has rolled on, with client contracts and projects become ever more fraught in trying to meet shifting deadlines, and trying to invest more time with family members at home, it's been a struggle to achieve even this with the stresses and distractions that go on around us all.

For some people, such distancing from social media may sound like welcome relief, but over this last month, I've realised that some part of my well-being is starting to suffer from this enforced withdrawal - not because I think I'm addicted to social media, but because it offers me contact with fellow human beings to share what they're feeling, thinking, experiencing, and ultimately, how they're trying to KBO in these turbulent times.

So maybe instead of demonising social media, or hailing it as our saviour, can we try and take a more nuanced approach to recognising what it can offer us to our benefit, and how we can best try to manage this (for example - only using twitter lists rather than the general open feed).

And for anyone who's wondered why I've appeared quieter than usual recently on-line, this is my apology - life's just gotten too fraught and distracting. It's not an excuse, and it isn't a promise I'll be back in full flow next week - but a reassurance that I'm missing you all too.  

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

start-up ecosystems need cold frames as well as green houses

Anyone involved in anyway in the world of start-ups and business growth will be familiar with the range of support models there are out there that make up the 'eco systems' of incubators, accelerators, investor networks, and such like.

And there are good arguments that we need a mix of different supports and types of models because no two start-ups are exactly alike, and different founders and entrepreneurs will respond better to different interventions at different times.

But it struck me recently when I was speaking with a programme manager for a foundation that is seeking to do more to encourage disruptive start-ups (yes Sam, that is you I'm talking about!), that there may be a missing link in all these ecosystems that entrepreneurs and founders can apply to - to use a gardening analogy: there's a lot of 'hot housing' going on out there already (things that help the seeds of a start-up sprout and start to grow more quickly than they would if we'd dropped the seed packet into a flower bed next to the lawn and hoped for the best); but any gardener will attest to this hot housing only being half of what's needed to ensure new plants thrive in the future. 

That's because hot houses are not the norm of the world - our gardens aren't covered and heated to higher temperatures than the British weather usually offers us all year round, so when we move these exciting new plants from their 'bubble' of an ideal world into the real world, it can be something of a shock... Which is why good gardeners will always have a cold frame lurking somewhere - a place that these specially nurtured new plants can best acclimatise, transition, and ultimately get used to the suddenly harder and harsher world that exists outside the hot house that they grew up in and came to rely on.

For our wider start-up ecosystems, where are these cold frames? 

The closest I can think of would be the peer networks amongst founders that they create informally by virtue of having shared the same hot house, but what else might be able to be offered by way of regular check-in, a phased 'moving on' from the hot house facility, and such like? 

Because if we don't have a way to move start-ups out of the hot house in ways that help best assure them on their future survival and success, then they'll get too comfortable, and take up space that other start-ups need if they're to have their opportunity to make it themselves as well? 

Monday, December 7, 2020

sitting in the bath; jaffa cakes; and b0llock sticks - what it takes to get on my (not so) secret Santa list this year

Last month I committed to being a (not so) secret Santa for some of you out there.

The good news is that I've now dispatched 4 lots of surprise random gifts - the bad news is that I'm a little concerned as to what some of you are now expecting of me...

To recap - the criteria for getting onto my 'nice' list, and have something come through the post to you, was that you interact in some way with any of my activity across social media between then and the last week before Christmas.

And to date, the replies and comments that have meant their contributors have had early festive gifts have been:

- someone revealing my secret ability to eat a whole packet of jaffa cakes within seconds;

- people wanting to see me do youtube clips while in the bath (I already do some whilst sat on the toilet);

- celebrating the historical roots of caffeine fuelled networking (aka theRSA); 

- and sharing images of their seasonal b0llock stick tree. 

Thankfully it also seems that what I'm able to send out is being well received - and there's still time for you to share in my festive efforts: my last 'draw' will be on Friday the 18th December, so go start scrolling through my posts on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, YouTube, Medium, this blog, and anywhere else I may be loitering with seasonal intent...