Wednesday, June 2, 2021

how I managed to gain a doctorate during lockdown

Several years ago, I argued why impressive sounding qualifications can sometimes be a dangerous thing in offering a false sense of security that someone may be more knowledgeable and experienced than they actually are...

And I've always stood by this - including up to the point of actively hiding the 'alphabet soup' of letters that I've someone managed to amass that appear after my full professional name.

But then 2020 happened - and many of us found that we more time on our hands than we had before that needing occupying, and we started to hear in our Facebook feeds and Instagram stories how our friends and colleagues were all learning new languages, starting to paint, and other life enhancing things that made us wonder if we weren't wasting our lives by binge watching Netflix box sets while counting the days until we could next legitimately go to the shops...

I for one, found myself being quite 'active' professionally in various ways (see for some of the 'highlights' of what I got up to during lockdowns). But I also started to wonder if I shouldn't somehow also try and structure these experiences around some form of recognised learning (or at least have something to show for when people ask me in years to come "how did you make the most of the extra time you had during lockdown?", now that we're starting to emerge from it).

Now, I've always known that some of what I do (professionally) gets me noticed in countries outside of England - and I've always been encouraged by that, even if I've never had the aspiration to pack a bag and accept contracts I've been offered on other continents.

And it seems that some of this 'being noticed' has seen a University in America decide that it was about time that some form of academic recognition be bestowed on me - and following a short exchange of emails, I've received an honorary doctorate! (But not of a medical type, and not of the definitive article).

So I'm now technically: Dr h.c. Adrian Ashton of Business Counselling, (CCU/USA)

And this puts me in a bit of a quandary: I've maintained for years that professional qualifications and academic recognitions are not only something that I'm actually not that bothered about, but can also be dangerous things to 'flaunt' - but now I'm in the camp where I've a doctorate.

So what to do? 

Should I completely revisit my whole thinking about having the letters to bookend my name with, or just add this latest addition to the shelf with all the other paperweights and doorstops that I've amassed over the nearly 17 years I've been freelancing to date?

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

death and the entrepreneur

There's a famous adage that goes along the lines of "there are only 2 certainties in life: death and taxes".

And whilst there seems to be a constant flow of articles, conversations, arguments, and such like around tax and business, it seems no-one wants to talk about death and business.

Specifically - what happens to your business when you die.

My reasons for such apparent morbidity in starting to explore this theme are multiple - I was asked to support a Board of Directors work out what to do with the business that they were responsible for after its founder and chief exec unexpectedly passed in their sleep (not that easy when they kept all the passwords and security details for the bank, Companies House, HMRC, etc in their head, and for various reasons it wasn't possible for me to obtain a copy of their death certificate from their grieving spouse...); and I'm also occasionally approached by founders of social enterprises who've recently received terminal diagnoses and are keen to try and ensure that their efforts in this life will have a worthwhile legacy.

And there's a clear business case for trying to get us to talk about death more openly too - research shows that most business continue to struggle for years after their founders death.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to succession - whilst we may be very good at planning for all sorts of risks and contingencies in our enterprises, charities, and others, we rarely (if ever) plan for us not to be a part of it, and think about what sort of future it should (or could) have without us being involved with it.

We seem to have also fetishised entrepreneurs - tech entrepreneurs and hailed and presented as saviours of our economy; health ones will save us from suffering illness of all types; and social ones will fix all the problems in our local communities; with nothing but the magical power of their will and without the need to rely on others to get there. That's a lot of expectation to heap on someone who's just trying to see how far their idea will go... 

As entrepreneurs, we're already more likely to suffer mental ill health (which seems to be repeatedly quietly glossed over); have our relationships with friends and family suffer; and be more likely to be victims of targeted crime.

So if we die unexpectedly, then the venture that we've gambled all of the above on, will likely crumble and be messily wound up. It will leave people upset and angry, and mean that all of the above we suffered was for nothing, as it's likely that there'll be no legacy to what we were trying to build up (because we never thought we could die because we're the ones who are supposed to be saving everything and everyone else).

In those rare instances where entrepreneurs do dally with thoughts about the grim reaper, it's usually a conversation with their accountants who direct them as to the ways in which they can get the most money out of the business they've built to date to enjoy their final months with - or can soften the loss on their immediate family.

It seems to me that as entrepreneurs we don't talk about our own mortality enough in ensuring that the visions which have driven us to risk everything we have to realise them, will have a good chance of continuing to impact the world and change communities for the better, even if we're not around to celebrate that as it happens.

Death is already far too taboo a subject, and as such, creates lots of unnecessary problems for those around us when we leave this life.

So - what's your plan for your enterprise (be it social, charitable, co-operative, private or other) if you were to suddenly not wake up, or receive the news from your Doctor that none of us ever want to hear?

Monday, May 10, 2021

laser discs, pagers, and social accounting

History is littered with examples of technologies and systems that were of higher standards and quality, but which were supplanted by inferior products and offers.

And that's the frame I want you to have in mind in this piece on 'social accounting' - a practice that dates back centuries, and in recent years, has seen substantive growth in interest in it through the adoption of Social Accounting, SROI, and such like which businesses and social enterprises have developed amongst themselves.

In large part, this has been driven by government interest in how public services can provide more 'bang for its buck' - starting in 2001 as a policy aspiration, this led to the introduction of legislation to start to mandate how the delivery of government contracts should now include going 'above and beyond' the core deliverables to generate wider benefits to communities and society at large. 

This drive by government is in turn largely responsible for the emergence of 'TOMs' - a relative newcomer to this arena of reporting social impact and value (it wasn't until 2017 that it's first framework was released). And whilst many who've been working in the impact sector for some time aren't fully convinced by it, it's quickly gaining traction as the de facto/go to model for local authorities and other public sector bodies to design and understand how social value will be being created and should be recorded and evidenced in the services they commission and contract.

And that creates a tension in how our services and activities are designed and managed - should the impacts that they can create be constrained to the narrow focus that TOMs has pre-defined (and in doing so, ignoring the wider value we create through how we work); and also only consider our impact through the lens of what it can be financially valued at? (which may make reporting simpler, but misses the point that some things are valuable but can't be reduced to a £). 

But it's not just TOMs - the housing sector created the 'HACT' framework in 2012 to identify and monetise services relating to where and how we live, and the construction industry is also piloting a new national value standard.

Such developments not only add to the confusion over how we should best approach thinking about, and understanding, the ways that our activities and services create benefit in the wider world and for the people and communities whose lives we touch. This is further complicated in that the resources associated with each of these new standards can make it hard to be able to justify adopting more than one of them.

So it seems we have a choice - do we stick with models of social accounting that many feel are of a higher rigour and relevance, and go the way of the laser discs and pagers; or do we accept that the world is shifting around us in ways we can't control, and pragmatically change our thinking and practices so we remain 'in the game' along with everyone else?

It feels like we're approaching another 'betamax vs vhs' showdown, and maybe this is one time that although we feel we're working to higher standards, we have to accept that to remain able to engage with commissioners, funders, and others, we have to shift how we think about how we report our impact to a 'lower standard', in order that we're not 'left out in the cold'... 

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: 

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?