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.

Monday, September 8, 2014

is #socialsaturday giving the wrong message about social enterprise?

So – in a few weeks time, #SocialSaturday will be kicking off: one Saturday in September that’s been hijacked to showcase, celebrate, and generally let everyone know how great social enterprises are, and to encourage everyone to do more trade with them.
Good idea? Possibly...
You see, while in theory I like the idea, other sectors have been doing this type of thing for some time already: international charity day, Manufacturing Day, national freelancers day, and so on... heck, some sectors are so expansive in the scope and range of their constituent organisations, they have a whole fortnight!
And all of them tend to take place during a weekday – a day when people are in their places of work; in roles where they can immediately start to influence and reflect on their workplace behaviours and practices, and are in a mind-set of being open to new ideas.
But fast-forward to the weekend: most people tend to want to relax, enjoy time with family, pursue personal interests – not be recipients of campaign activity designed to get them to change their spending and business habits. And by staging this day on a weekend, it sends a message that social enterprises are only really active in those businesses whose main trade is at weekends: retail, consumer goods, tourism – and that makes it harder to showcase those involved in manufacturing and construction, investment and finance, healthcare and education, public services, employment support, public transport, and so on...
I’m concerned that by staging the showcasing of social enterprise on a weekend, a lot of the wider sector will miss out on the opportunity to be seen and to show how vibrant and full of potential the sector is in all parts of our economy and society, leading many to assume that the sector is mainly about high street stores that are trying to do things a little differently (rather than enacting what many see to be a revolutionary business model) by not bringing it into everyday workplaces.
But as with all things I take a view on, I’m very open to be proved wrong on this (and hope I am...)

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Making the tea – the most important skill for being part of a co-op?

As some will know, I'm involved in supporting the start up and growth of co-operative enterprises of all types through various programmes, contracts, invitations, (and 'personal accidents'...). And having done do professionally for nearly 20 years at local to international levels, I'm of the view that often, the support offered to co-ops doesn't emphasise enough the importance of “co-op working” skills.
On the face of it, co-ops are much like any other business – they buy and sell stuff, keep accounts, pay taxes, employ people, and so on. But at their core is a set of values and principles which set them apart from all other types of organisations. And it’s how the Members and workers in co-ops understand and apply these values and principles in their work and relationships with others that usually determines whether the enterprise will succeed or fail.
Now I know of fellow co-op enterprise supporters who have written at length on what these co-op working skills are and what's involved in developing and encouraging them. I know of others who offer detailed training programmes on them (myself included!). There's even been a scientific formula for co-operation developed and endorsed by the national body for Co-operatives in the UK.
But I have an idea that like all great ideas and systems, they can all be summarised in a simple concept – for me, that concept is making a proper 'milky brew' (cup of tea).

Making a round of drinks for your fellow co-op Members and workers involves various things that are crucial to establishing and sustaining appropriate working relationships: knowing when the best time of day is to step away from the servicing of customers for a time without risking losing their trade to brew up; knowing that there's enough tea bags, milk and clean mugs to hand; knowing how people like their tea (I'm a “leave the bag in for ages, then lift it out before adding a splash of milk” type myself...); and knowing when they prefer to receive it. All of which can be taken as clear allegories for establishing the basics of the systems, procedures, and knowledge of others that underpins good working relationships in any context (and if you can't see what they are, then I'll explain it to you over a cuppa sometime... ;-)
Of course – not everyone likes tea; some prefer coffee, or even gin as their afternoon tipple. But in my experiences so far, it’s usually the things that appear inconsequential, like making the tea, that turn out to be the most important in revealing the state of workplace relationships and corporate culture.
(Oh yes – and my proper first office job was as a tea boy: within a year I was supporting the firm to gain new business and had discretionary control over budget spends, but always made sure that everyone kept getting their tea on time, just the way they liked it and as a result I became one of their longest-serving and most trusted employees...)


Thursday, July 31, 2014

great co-op myths of our time (or why we need more competition and less collaboration...)

Co-ops: they’re great, right? Everybody seems to love them, and they’re often held up as models of enterprise that can fulfil some of the most challenging aspects of our societies: creating sustainable employment, empowering the disenfranchised, addressing poverty, ...
But sadly, there are many myths and mistruths perpetuated about them through ignorance, which are probably part of the reason why co-op enterprises have never really ‘taken off’ in this country like they have in others, and are often treated with trepidation by the wider business community.
There’s plenty of material already out there (if you only look or ask for it) that helps to dispel some of these myths that relate to decision-making needing to involve everyone, all employees needing to be paid the same wage, etc, but I wanted to pick up on one that seems to be creeping in to not just rumours about co-ops, but also has implications for the wider economy too: competition.
Co-ops are defined by a set of universal values and principles, which include ‘co-operation amongst co-operatives’: the sense that the sector grows stronger by actively supporting each itself and each other. But this isn’t the same as not competing with each other as some seem to think (based on a few recent twitter conversations...)
Competition, if open and honest, between co-ops is actually quite important and vital: it forces them to constantly question assumptions about how things should be, what customers want, and if there might be a more effective way of achieving the end goals. That doesn’t mean co-ops have to undercut or metaphorically backstab each other, but as part of co-operating with each other, it should mean that there’s a healthy and open discussion about what each might be able to do that’s different to the others, and which will ultimately also mean more choice and benefit for customers and the wider community and society.
Competition stops us stagnating and being overtaken, and surely better to be in ‘healthy competition’ with people who share our underlying values, than a faceless corporation whose only interest is in making as much money out of people as possible?
And this sense of competition being something we should encourage amongst ourselves shouldn’t be limited to just co-ops - collaboration is being increasingly encouraged between businesses within all sectors and industries, so as with so much else, the co-op movement would seem to have some useful learning for other these other marketplaces and enterprises to draw upon and be inspired by.
Competition – it shouldn’t be a dirty word for co-ops, but rather one which should be encouraged and celebrated as a means to make sure we keep upping our game so we can have ever greater impacts on our communities and the wider world.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

'enterprise accelerators' - the blind leading the blind?

I've noticed a growing trend for 'enterprise accelerator' programmes over the last few months, and usually dismissed my curiosity to investigate further as they mostly seem to be based in London (I'm a Northern lad..)
However I recently had the opportunity to attend the opening workshops of one that's being delivered by an "international professional services firm" so thought it'd be a good idea to see what sort of support qualifies being labelled as 'accelerator', and from the private sector (as most of the enterprise support programmes I'm involved in have been publicly funded).
Sadly I was very disappointed and even shocked.
The opening workshops of this 'flagship scheme' explored basic marketing principles (understand what your customers are interested in, and be able to present the benefits of your service not just its features), and some initial basic concepts of good meeting skills.
Now, I'll agree that such basics are important for any start-up enterprise, but to form the basis for an 'accelerator' that's targeting aspiring high growth businesses in high value industries?
What made me more concerned was that of the start-up entrepreneurs present, none really had any aspirations to scale the enterprises they were thinking of setting up beyond their immediate community, but the cuts by government to enterprise support meant that they couldn't find any other type of free training or advice.
But what really stunned me were the 'expert presenters' of the workshops: a communications officer on temporary contract who introduced their subject using the phrase "I don't really know about these things myself, but I'm led to believe...", and another who closed with "...and these are all a few ideas based on my experience of internal meetings with colleagues."
So in actuality, the content of this flagship enterprise accelerator programme was more 'start-up101' than high-growth, and those leading the sessions had no real understanding or first-hand experience of either start-ups or high-growth ventures.
And yet there were glossy brochures and banner stands which make it appear professional and trustworthy.
If this is the future of enterprise support, I fear for the future of our economy and business communities.

Friday, June 27, 2014

the dirty secret about social franchising...

Most people tend to agree that social enterprise is generally a good thing because of all the positive impacts it can/does create, and that it would be great if that impact could be multiplied. Traditionally, the way social enterprise has done this is through ‘organic growth’ (slowly getting bigger, employing more people, selling more stuff, etc itself). But in more recent years, there’s been a growing interest in the concept of ‘social franchising’ as a way to grow impact more quickly.

It’s worth demystifying ‘social franchising’ at this point: it’s not the same as Costa, Subway, or McDonalds, but rather a more flexible way to replicate a model of social enterprise through either informal licensing agreements about sharing a brand to more formal ownership and shareholding agreements in each other. These guides from Social Enterprise UK (which I contributed to!) are good starting points:
But there’s a problem in the land of social franchising that few people seem willing to acknowledge or talk about: broken models. In the private sector, an enterprise model is replicated only when it’s had a few years of successful (profitable) trading to assure it and others that it’s sound. But in social enterprise land, there’s a push from the powers that be, sector bodies, government ministers, investors, etc to see more happen now... and that can create a problem.

As part of my support to enterprises, I’ve been involved insocial franchising in various ways, including researching several social franchises offers that groups were considering taking on. And you know what? Many didn’t work – looking at their finances, speaking with other groups who’d taken on franchises, etc showed that what was being offered wasn’t a ‘dead duck’ as such, but was being talked up a lot more than it was safe to...

Just as in other parts of the economy, enterprises fail. Market conditions change, people come and go, and legislation and copycats mean we can lose what was once our competitive edge.
It’s only recently that ‘failure’ in social enterprise is starting to be talked about more openly, but so far it’s only in relation to individual, stand-alone ventures. There’s a dirty secret at the heart of social franchising that not all of them actually work as business models, and that’s not something we seem to want to talk about, often to our (and our communities’) cost...

Friday, June 6, 2014

can we really trust people who tell us they do good things?

Having recently published my annual social impact report (still the only freelance consultant on the planet to do so...) I was challenged by none other than Liam Black, one of the godfathers of social enterprise, as to why it wasn't independently audited.
And rather than get upset and start to doubt the veracity of my findings, the robustness of the methodology, (all of which I've always been very open about), it gave me pause to wonder why, after 9 years of my reporting on my social impact that no-one has ever asked me who they've been verified by before.
After a morning of tweeting each other about this, I've come to the following position given that:
1) the vast majority of financial accounts of all types of enterprise (private, social, and charitable) aren't audited, and yet we accept them willingly enough;
2) the tax office and regulatory bodies accept our returns without question or asking for them to have been independently verified and audited;
so why then, should there be a different standard applied to our social impact reports (which are subject to far less regulatory rebuke if we're found to have 'cheated' on them)?
Audits take time and energy that might be better spent elsewhere (if we can even afford them in the first place!); and I've never know any commissioner to ever not accept a social impact report on the basis that they've not been independently audited.
So - should social accounts be audited before we can have any trust in them?
No - because we take far more important and risky things on trust all the time; with regards to social accounts, as long as they're transparent and open, then surely we risk losing our trust in ourselves and erode the value of that same trust that underpins everything we do and achieve if we can't accept them on the basis of our own judgement and common sense?

Monday, May 12, 2014

I dare you to go to a library...

Libraries are dangerous places...

They're full of ideas, inspiration, encouragement, excitement, reassurance, and comfort;

Full of stories of worlds that have been, could be, and are still to come;

Places for people to meet, to plan, to escape;

Shelves loaded with adventures, sadness, and hope;

Libraries are places of revolution and refuge - they allow us to redefine and reshape ourselves and our communities.

They are our stronghold against injustice and tyranny, our celebration of how far we've come.

When was the last time you dared to spend time in a library?

Friday, May 2, 2014

why social accounting encourages us to delude ourselves...

I've been thinking a lot about approaches and issues relating to social accounting/impact reporting lately – perhaps because it’s about that time of year when I publish my own latest annual report! (and to my knowledge, am still the only freelance consultant on the planet to do so...)

A regional enterprise support agency asked me in conversation recently about one of the measures I report on in my framework: the percentage of my turnover that I directly reinvest in my own CPD – they wondered why I'd measure that, rather than simply keep a log of all my CPD activity (which I also do!). And I think my answer surprised them: it’s so I know how well I'm actually doing in respect of CPD - keeping a log of activity only helps me understand what works for me, it doesn’t allow me to compare how I'm structuring what I do in relation to my counterparts – and in regard to CPD, there are benchmarks from bodies such as the CIPD who I can look at to consider if I’m investing more/less than the market norm.

Without being able to compare the findings of our social impact reports, how confident can we be in what we think they tell us about ourselves? I can create measures and standards that will generate what seem to be impressive figures and statistics, but they're only really impressive if I can compare them against other peoples'...

And that’s where most of the approaches to reporting social value/impact/accounting come unstuck – while there may be standardisations of overarching methodologies, the way they're enacted can vary incredibly between organisations who adopt them: I know of one instance where 2 homeless charities compared their impact by both using Social Return on Investment (SROI) – one seemed to be clearly outpacing the other in terms of the final calculated financial ratio, but in comparing their ‘workings out’ it became clear that this was because they'd not been consistent, with one counting far more stakeholders and outcomes than the other had...

Unless we use measures in our social impact reporting that have a consistent applied methodology and can generate data which we can directly compare against others' in the confidence that they've measured it in exactly the same way – any social impact report we create falls short of its true potential in helping us to decide how well we really are doing in the world beyond the inside of our own heads, and as such lacks credibility with others (such as commissioners, investors, etc...)

Monday, April 21, 2014

the paradox in exposing corruption...

I recently had the opportunity to hear a presentation fromLaurence Cockcroft, one of the founders of Transparency International, on the progress made over the last 20 years in exposing and challenging corruption around the world.
And while it was encouraging to hear about the introduction of various pieces of legislation, regulation, and how the rise and rise of social media has enabled instances of corruption to be highlighted much more quickly and easily, I was left wondering if the drive to expose corruption isn’t somehow normalising it...
You see, we increasingly hear of instances of corruption in business, government, and even charities, but the sanctions levied against them subsequently only seem to fuel our outrage further for their seeming insignificance in light of the original transgression. And that’s what’s concerning me – it seems that whenever an MP might fraudulently over-claim their expenses, or companies dodge their taxes, when they’re caught and exposed, their ‘punishment’ seems trivial of how much they’ve originally defrauded others by.
And that starts to create a wider narrative which says: if you cheat, you’ll be caught – but it’s OK as the cost of your punishment will be far less than you’ve gained by illicit means, so why not do it anyway?
Exposing corruption isn’t enough. We also have to fight to ensure that the punishments on those found guilty far outweigh what they hoped to gain by cheating others for their own personal gain.
Global Corruption: a lethal mix of politics, money and crime was one of a series of lectures organised by RSA Yorkshire

Friday, April 4, 2014

Do you really need to win an award to start your enterprise?

I was following an enterprise start-up awards ceremony on twitter recently that had sought applications from people who felt they had great ideas for a new venture, to be considered for being the recipient of a relatively small grant to support their start-up needs.
There are always programmes such as this running somewhere, all with different priorities and criterion for applicants and would-be entrepreneurs, but how much do they actually help?
Setting up any new venture takes time and involves risk – anything we do during this critical stage has to assure us of the best possible return for our investment of all-too-precious time: applying for a grant/award takes valuable time, and is inherently risky: not just in outcome, but also with the conditions that will invariably be attached to it.
By encouraging start-ups to apply for such funds are we therefore actually doing more harm than good? Not only will any such awards will come with constraints on their use, and have an economic cost of other options not pursued, they also engender a culture and mindset of 'handout': establishing a venture on the philanthropy of others means that it will ultimately weaken its ability to be sustainable and viable – always needing a crutch of some type, rather than standing on its own two feet as other enterprises who've bootstrapped their start-ups are subsequently better able to do.
For some, such awards really do make all the difference owing to their personal circumstances: there's no way that they could afford, or be able to access the finance they'd need any other way. So such awards have their place – perhaps we therefore need to be more stringent in their application criteria, encouraging would-be award winners to explore other options first that they may have recourse to that others in our unequal society can't?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Why the government's latest scheme to encourage start-ups will lead to generation of failed entrepreneurs...

The current government seems to have a somewhat lopsided approach to encouraging entrepreneurship – while making speeches about how much they admire and how much they want to support people to set up their own businesses, legislation and policies are passed that make it harder for small businesses to be able to afford to employ people, for local authorities to be able to offer rate relief, and tax regimes that favour large international corporations over local enterprises...
But its their latest initiative that perhaps gives me cause to be most concerned – not because it affects 'us' (people currently setting up new enterprises), but our children: the next generation of entrepreneurs...
As a parent, I'm constantly trying to make sure my boys are best equipped to get on in the world, and develop resilience to be able to deal with the inevitable adversity and set-backs that we all face. Part of this is about appreciating the true value of money, and the need to earn it. But the governments' latest scheme is to offer primary school children 'loans' of £5 to set up their own businesses as a means to help them learn about being an entrepreneur – all well and admirable on the face of it, as it will offer some children an opportunity they might not otherwise have enjoyed, but there are 2 key issues with this that make me upset:
1)      in the 1980's, there was a short-lived scheme that gave unemployed people small grants to set up their own businesses as a means to move out of unemployment: 30 years on, and this government policy has so impacted the collective consciousness that most people I meet who are thinking of setting up their own enterprise expect that they're automatically entitled to such a hand-out without having to do anything to merit it – if this is the legacy of a scheme targeting unemployed adults, then this £5 'loan' will surely engender at least the next generation of entrepreneurs to expect that there'll always be government cash to help them out and so become less resilient...
2)      what about all the work of encouraging entrepreneurship amongst school children of all ages that already takes place through national bodies such as Young Enterprise and Live Unltd? Their approaches seem to work very well without the need to be offering 'financial incentives' to participants, and are based on developing long-term supportive relationships – much more beneficial to any enterprise than a quick cash hand-out...
If government really is serious about encouraging entrepreneurship amongst children, then it needs to make some more informed choices about how it does this: investing in existing, proven national programmes rather than wasting money on new schemes and managing them would be a good start; teaching financial literacy from an earlier age would be good too – I can't tell you how much I despair when start-ups I'm walking alongside deliberately avoid wanting to understand how the money in their enterprise is working and as a result, many I haven't been able to 'win over' have subsequently gone bankrupt, racking up greater personal debt and making people unemployed, and yet could easily have been prevented but for their being more comfortable with some basic financial literacy...
So – the government’s latest great idea to stimulate and encourage business growth and entrepreneurship seems to not only be doomed to fail (like so many before it), but will so do in such a way that it'll drag down the next generation and limit the future potential of our children.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Why are we encouraging the lottery to increase inequality in our economy and society?

The national lottery – you've got to be in it to win it; it could be you; millions raised for good causes;... we all know the slogans and headlines – but is it actually causing more damage to our communities than good?

Lotteries tend to work on a pretty simple basis of wealth redistribution: everyone pays in a bit and someone gets the pot at the end. Effectively, we all make ourselves (the majority) a little poorer and someone else (the minority) a lot richer. Sounds a lot like the stuff that loads of people and campaigns are railing against at the moment when it happens in banking or politicians, but someone we don't seem to mind it when we've willingly made ourselves an active participant to the process...?

But what about the money it distributes to good causes? Well, yes – its supported a lot of good projects and activities, but to what extent is this just a sticking plaster over an increasingly big wound? - to what extent is the 'good' that it supports being surpassed by its model of encouraging and celebrating extreme wealth inequality?

Be fascinated to know if anyone’s done any research on this, or any social science or economic researches might be interested to look into this further...

(oh, and for the record – I don't play the lottery and never have: but only because I'm a saddo who's worked out the odds and realised I can make better use of the £ every week that would be otherwise spent on tickets and scratchcards...)

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

the risk of offering ‘women-only’ finance

I recently came across the female business angel network and was encouraged and depressed by its existence in equal measure:
while it’s always good to have finance tailored to specific groups of enterprises (increases the likelihood of engagement, makes it easier to develop supportive relationships, etc), there’s a very large associated risk that it stifles the potential of the enterprise being financed;
an entrepreneur engaging with such specific and niche support is highly unlikely to subsequently engage with the wider business support community on the strength of the relationship they develop with it, and so won’t want to look for anything else – ultimately this means that they’ll miss out on opportunities that may have been open to them elsewhere, in programmes that have a more ‘mixed’ recruitment to the businesses they’ll support.
Think I’m blowing smoke over nothing? Well, there are two things I’d point to which have led me to come to this perspective:
1)  the rise of Islamic Finance: it’s generally not a mainstream offer, and since its introduction I’ve anecdotally been aware that there is a significantly decreasing diversity amongst entrepreneurs in the more general business support programmes I’ve been involved in supporting...
2)   I like to think I keep pretty clued up about support available to entrepreneurs of all types (it’s what some clients feel they value the most about me), but as someone who’s been involved with enterprise financing for 14 years in different guises at local, regional and national levels, this is the first time I’ve come across the female business angel network...

So – the female business angel network: along with other niche enterprise support offers it’s a great resource to engaging those entrepreneurs who might have otherwise ‘slipped through the net’ on the basis of sexism or other bias and prejudice (however explicit or implicit) within wider business support programmes and bodies, but with an increasingly fragmented marketplace of such support, I’m increasingly concerned about how well its being ‘joined up’ to ensure that those being supporting to pursue and realise their dreams and hopes don’t inadvertently find themselves being unnecessarily stifled or curtailed...

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

the real reason libraries are struggling...

Some of you will know that I've a long-term interest (love) in libraries - especially with regard to the support that they can offer local communities in light of increasing cuts to others public services. I also curate a twitter list at https://twitter.com/AdrianAshton2/lists/libraries
Contributors to that list often cite various reasons as to the decline and difficulties our public libraries currently face, but I'm coming to the idea that actually the biggest problem for our libraries isn't changing demographics, the rise of the internet, etc but something far more mundane - council bureaucracy! 

I was recently invited to have my picture taken by my local newspaper in Todmorden library as part of a feature on the support that's available to start-up businesses in the local area. However, despite speaking with the library staff and making 2 phone calls to heads of departments, we could only gain a provisional permission to have picture taken of me (a library-card carrying member) looking at some of their books on business start-up (to encourage more people to check them out and use the library), in a public building!, and that final permission would only be given once they'd seen the pictures that the press photographer had taken...

With this clear lack of leadership, is it any wonder that libraries are struggling to remain engaged with the changing faces of their local communities? 
Maybe this is why many feel that the future of public libraries lies in their being managed by the communities they serve, and moving out of local authority ownership and control (after all, that's how public libraries originally started!)

updated - well, it looks like we finally got full permission after all! the pictures now on-line in glorious technicolour - http://bit.ly/KfrKN3