Wednesday, November 17, 2021

the great resignation, being pushed, and becoming superheroes

There seems to a growing awareness of a movement that's come to be known as "the great resignation" - Covid and the pandemic have forced people to re-examine of what they were doing almost automatically in their lives, and many are finding that they're unhappy with what's become their lot, and are spurring themselves to change that. Mainly by quitting the jobs that currently leave them unfulfilled to pursue hopes and dreams that will better feed their souls.

And it got me thinking about our origin stories as freelancers and entrepreneurs.

Usually, when people share them, they seem to echo the current 'great resignation' - people "felt the fear, but did it anyway" and heroically quit their jobs to pursue their dream. (and research studies like this one from theRSA re-enforce this)

But, as usual, my origin story isn't in keeping with this typical narrative. (TL:DR = relocated my family to the other end of the country in a pre iphone age to find said job didn't exist, and the first work I could find to allow my family to remain housed and fed meant I was forced to go freelance).

And it's made me wonder about if we should all try and be a little more honest about where we've come from (especially if it's not from what seems to be the usual position of having savings, a partner still salaried, and clients already confirmed, before jumping off an otherwise dependable monthly payroll). The point of which would be to better challenge stereotypes and misconception, and encourage others who might otherwise think that they haven't 'got what it takes', and subsequently live a live of regret and missed opportunity for themselves and those around them.

And the actual research out there also seems to encourage this: theRSA's "salvation in a startup" found that there's actually a far wider range of motivations in play for those of  us who find ourselves self-employed than might be otherwise first imagined:

Might it also also make us more like the superheroes we always wanted to be when we were kids (although some might say that if you're part of the Freelance Heroes community, you're half-way there already!) - because we remember and know who the likes of Spiderman and Batman are in large part because we know what their origin stories are...?

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

sharing squeaky bum moments, swearing, and bread - my contributions to European Freelancers Week 2021

Each year, there are initiatives and campaigns to help highlight the contribution that freelancers (like me) make to our economy and society, and also the realities and challenges we face in being overlooked in government business policy (including being taxed at higher rates than other types of employees).

One such initiative is European Freelancers Week, which each year stages a week (and 2 weekends) of events, gatherings, and conversations across Europe.

This year, part of its programme was an on-line conversation hosted by Freelance Heroes, and I found that my calendar wasn't demanding that I be delivering a workshop or meeting with a client at the time, so took the opportunity to 'click in'.

Now, my intention of doing this was to listen in to others' experiences, insights, and ideas, as part of the wider CPD framework I've designed for myself over the last 16 years - helping me better reflect on my own thoughts and practices.

But as the conversation progressed, one of the key participants had to offer apologies and leave early, and the host of the call spotted I was watching along and press-ganged me into joining the panel - with no intention to have been an active part of any of the EFweek2021 events this year, I hadn't given any thought to what I might contribute or argue...

(I start to appear at around the 34:30 mark - 

Watching the call back, I realise that my unscripted and spontaneous offerings (which saw me talking about squeaky bum moments, swearing live, and the importance of bread), may not have been what people might have expected to be hearing about - but in the spirit of EFweek2021 being about allowing us to all share our voices with each other in mutual encouragement and support, it's hopefully added something to the mix that enriched the overall experience?

Monday, October 11, 2021

the dilemma of reverting to my pre-pandemic business model of digital by default

In 2018 I made a deliberate choice to try and move to a 'digital by default' model for how I delivered all my work - which meant that when the lockdowns that defined 2020 came, I had something of a head start (which may be why so many bodies sought my support in helping them move all their delivery models to a similar on-line format).

And there were several reasons for this choice I made several years ago:

  1. it helped my desire to try to better manage / reduce my environmental impact, by reducing the amount of travel I needed to do (and although I've always prioritised public transport where possible for business travel, even trains and buses create pollution of sorts).
  2. it meant I could increase my productivity by not having to factor in travel time to/from clients (and not needing to find ways to cover that time - after all, I'm not salaried), meaning that I'd be able to offer better 'value for money' to clients.
  3. reducing the need for travel means I can be at home more, which means I can do more to support my family around their circumstances and needs.

All of which seemed eminently sensible when I committed to trying to work this way, but then the pandemic was upon us, and things have shifted, which now leaves me in a dilemma.

As part of their recovering their lives (and sanity) from the disruption and upheaval that Covid has wrought, most people seem to be desperate to meet in person again (almost to the point of fetishing the need to meet and undertake activities IRL).

But my business model that developed to deliver virtually seems to be working very well in a digital format:

  • most people have found that they prefer to engage with learning and workshops I deliver on line, to the point that they don't want to go back to an in person physical classroom model when given the option;
  • every Board and senior management team I've supported with facilitated planning of various types over 2020 and early 2021 are now committed to using an on-line format in the future, having experienced how well it can work for them with me;
  • and in the year before the lockdowns, 3/4 of all my client activity was delivered virtually (a figure that was up over 20% on the previous year). 

But the lockdowns have also exposed that more people than we might have hoped are still struggling with on-line access through no fault of their own... (see here)

Some my dilemma - do I remain true to my values and the commitments I made in my business model 3 years ago and continue avoiding doing things IRL wherever I can, or do throw my lot in with others and be part of helping them recover what they feel they've lost by agreeing to start to spend more time away from home and family, and need to increase my charges to cover travel costs and time?

Answers on a postcard / or over a pint in the pub (but only if we've going to be near one together at the same time).

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

days like today

 Days like today come round every so often, when the planets align in an unusual way:

- calls we've booked are suddenly postponed or cancelled at the last minute;

- the weather seems unexpectedly nice;

- there's plenty of coffee in the pot;

- there's a stack of actions and follow-ups to do for client projects, reading to catch-up now, and our own business development which no longer need to be being deferred or delayed;

- and yet...

Some days we just don't feel it - it's hard to get motivated despite all the signs apparently looking good for us to be making headway and getting ahead for once.

Last week, I would have almost paid good money for a day like today - a clear block of several hours with no interruptions (other than resisting the temptation to play Lego Tower on my phone), in the desperation to be able to be able to get on with some of the aforementioned tasks.

But it's just not happening, and its nearly lunchtime already.

So this is a time to try and practice some self-care: to remind myself that it's ok to not be able to be working at the usual high-level pace that I seem to on a 'normal' day. That I am, after all, only human and am allowed to have 'off days'.

Tomorrow will be different I'm sure, but for now, maybe I'll go and gaze at the sunflowers in the garden...

Friday, September 3, 2021

Is the growth in CICs actually damaging the wider social enterprise movement?

Some people may be aware that I've always questioned and challenged the Community Interest Company (CIC) legal form (see previous blog posts here) - largely because I've found that most social enterprises who've incorporated with this form have subsequently learnt that it wasn't actually the 'best fit' for them and their business model, and because what they're usually presented/'sold' as it being, doesn't actually stand up to scrutiny when looked at by evidence and research...

However, there are several social enterprises out there that I've supported to gain this status - I've always seen my role as an adviser to help people make better informed choices, not to tell they what decisions they should be making.

And it's in that vein, that I come to be typing this latest blog - prompted in part by a recent article by Pioneers Post on the 'explosion' of CICs during the pandemic: and CIC regulator wind up extent and causes

My concern about this sudden 'blossoming' of CICs is that rather than being a good thing in showing the growth of social enterprise in general, it may actually be more damaging to the sector in the long run...

Let me walk through through my thinking here, so as to try and help clarify and explain this rather bold assertion - and as always in my blog posts, you can leave comments to refute or challenge any of these:

1) Social Enterprises should be trading businesses, but most CICs aren't

In the absence of an overarching legal definition of what absolutely defines a social enterprise, the sector bodies have reached a consensus on what their defining characteristics should be (interestingly, none of which specify particular legal forms). Front and centre in these is that a social enterprise should be (or be clearly moving towards) generating most of its income from trading activities - but there is no requirement for CICs to need to trade, in order to generate their income or achieve their social mission! 

  • when you apply to be a CIC, the application asks "if" you make a profit, not "when" - so the CIC Regulators' assumption is that most CICs' default business model will be that they expect to them lose money each year and/or will be reliant on grant funding to achieve their social purpose (you can't make a profit/surplus from grants);
  • according to the CIC Regulator in their own published annual reports, most of the CICs they register will be wound up within 18 months - usually because they were unable to access the grant funding that they thought this legal form would enable then to be awarded.

2) Why are social entrepreneurs being encouraged to set up social enterprises in ways that mean they don't need to trade? 

As this legal form seems to be oft promoted to start-up social enterprises and social entrepreneurs as being the 'best form' for them, but it doesn't actually require them to act in ways that facilitate them to better meet the qualifying criteria of being what they say they want to be - how do we reconcile this apparent contradiction?

3) Are the public now seeing CICs as another form of charity, creating confusion about what social enterprise really 'is'?

If the most feted legal form for social enterprises to adopt therefore doesn't encourage the 'social enterprises' using it to act as social enterprises (with some evidences finding that CICs are actually more reliant on grants than charities are!) - it's going to cause confusion amongst others (who are already confused about what social enterprise is from the lack of a legal definition). If CICs are seen as not trading to achieve their social purpose - how will this not confuse people as to the need for social enterprises to trade: are social enterprises therefore just another type of charity, rather than a revolutionary/innovative/transformative way of doing business?. And this confusion will surely mean its harder to create more consistent messages about what social enterprise is and can do, in order for the sector to realise its full transformative potential.

However, as will all things, there are exceptions to the above - there are social enterprises out there who've never taken a penny in grant funding; who have found clever ways to harness what many feel to be 'too risky' elements of the CIC form with regards to the powers of the CIC Regulator over them; and who are trailblazing for the wider sector as a result.

My interest here isn't to decry this specific legal form wholesale, but rather to try and contribute to a wider ongoing discussion that means as a sector we can be more coherent, and ultimately make it easier to achieve the things we aspire to.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

What every business and charity can learn from my pelvis

As background and context: several years ago, after a surprise ride in an ambulance following my falling over and finding I couldn't stand back up, I was diagnosed with a 'wonky pelvis' - usually, not a problem, but every once in a while, it doesn't 'sit' in my overall skeleton as it should. In turn, that causes everything else to be pulled out of alignment too, which causes issues for the muscles in my back and legs, and in turn also sees my sciatic nerve 'gripe'.

A few weeks ago, I woke up to find that in my sleep I'd managed to rotate my pelvis. Which in turn, meant that my spine had decided to twist itself into more of a snake shape rather than the traditional straight line owing to a kink in it, and my whole upper torso was then twisted as if I'd become a zombie that had fallen down several flights of stairs, but was still compelled to try and chase people in pursuit of their brains...

But despite this being absolutely painful and involving regular trips to the medicine box several times a day, it didn't actually stop me being able to any of the things I'd normally do - it just meant that I had to approach them in (literally) different ways, and that they took longer than usual.

I also know that it's not a forever thing when it happens - thanks to a combination of what appears to be me wresting with myself as I enact physio-prescribed stretches and Pilates/yoga style moves, everything is usually back where it's supposed to be within a few days. But while I'm doing these, I'm also regularly checking to see if I'm able to put my socks on while standing up - my usual dressing routine, which, when my pelvis is 'out', means I have to revert to sitting on the edge of the bed to do.

The reason why I try and put my socks on whilst standing up during times like these isn't because I'm a masochist. It's because I'm trying to figure out which of my usual ways of living and being I might be able to re-adopt (as they were how my body was originally intended to work), and which of my 'work around' practices I should maintain for the foreseeable future (because circumstances have interrupted my usual way of life).

Given how we're all now exiting the pandemic, this 'pelvic episode' of mine seems quite timely: at the start of last year, without apparent warning, we were thrown into turmoil because we suddenly couldn't work or deliver our services and activities in the way that our organisations had always been designed to be.

We found ourselves having to figure out work-arounds and new ways of doing things - all the while whilst also living with pain and discomfort.

But we largely managed this - we kept things mostly going and found ways to live and cope with the upset.

Now: my idea about why my pelvis is so important for businesses, charities, and everyone else right now - just as I found new ways of getting on with a skeleton that was out of kilter, I knew that not all of those new ways of doing things I'd adopted would be good for me in the long run. I needed to regularly check if the things I could before, I was able to do again - because that's how my body was intended to work. 

Since the start of this year, I've found myself supporting lots of charities, social enterprises, businesses, and others reflect on how they've been impacted not by the pandemic but how they've been affected by the new working practices they've introduced to be able to continue through it. While many seem to be intending to retain these new practices, I can't help but wonder if it would be useful to occasionally trial some of our pre-pandemic workplace routines and systems - just to check if now is the time that they might be able to be re-introduced, or its still appropriate to continue working in the ways we've come to.

For some, the new practices they've adopted will be vital to their being able to continue, because the pandemic has seen them fundamentally redesign how their organisations work - but for those who were trying to keep going 'on the fly', it may be helpful to take inspiration from my pelvis and see if you're able to get back to 'business as was usual' now, or if you may still need to use the new practices you've figured all to mean things can keep going for a little while longer?

You won't know until you try - and although we've all tired of having been trying different things over the last couple of years, if we don't keep trying new/old things, we'll never know what we might have found or we could yet become/or regained...  

(for the sake of decency, and to protect people's eyes, I decided not to include any images of my pelvis, spine, or torso in this blog post)

Thursday, August 12, 2021

aping Spock - why you see me go 'Star Trek' when I leave zoom calls

It struck me recently that I've developed an unusual habit on zoom calls (you may have noticed it if you've shared a screen of postage-stamp sized faces with me) - which involves me usually 'doing a Spock' from Star Trek when we say goodbye.

But before I explain what it's all about (other than a love of Trek), it may be useful to rewind a little bit to before the start of the zoom calls - all the way back to the end of 2019, when few of us had used zoom for meetings at all, before they became our new norm.

When this great transition began, I wondered about how such a dramatic shift in how we (professionally) interact with each other, and the loss of usual physical cues and customs we practice together, might impact on our shared working relationships - so as far as possible, I've tried to introduce models and habits when I'm on zoom that mimic the prompts and sensations people may have otherwise experienced, had we all be sitting in the same room together.

Now all those practices will probably form the basis for other blog posts in the future (assuming people might be interested to learn a bit more about them) - but for now I wanted to focus on Spock.

Most people who know Star Trek will know about the character of Spock - and how his species are famous for not only revering logic above all else, but also trying to avoid having direct physical contact with others unless absolutely necessary (which offers them a clear advantage in pandemics!).

When distancing began in the spring of 2020, there were lots of ideas floating around as to how we might introduce a new custom to replace the handshakes we now could now no longer engage in with other people we met with. Ultimately, the 'elbow bump' became the norm, but many made concerted efforts for it to have been the Vulcan hand gesture.

Traditionally, when we end spending time with each other, we enact some ritual to mark the closure of the conversation or activity - with friends and family, that's been a hug; and with professional colleagues it's a handshake (but these can sometimes be reversed!),

Zoom robs us of the ability to maintain many of these physical practices we used to rely on to signify to each other than we'd satisfactorily concluded our conversations (a handshake), so I wanted to try and introduce something other than a cursory "see you, then!" before hitting the big red button to end the call.

And that's where Spock comes in.

At the end of each encounter or episode, when Spock was leaving a meeting or parting company with someone, he usually raised his hand and intoned "live long and prosper": a wish for the future of the person or people he'd gotten to know a little better as a mark of respect.

And that's the wish that most people know - but given our precarious economies and changing shifts in employment, it might seem almost insensitive to wish that someone would prosper in the apparent face of diminishing opportunities, and the ongoing shrinking of the welfare state to offer us security.

So instead, I prefer to use the response to "live long and prosper" - "peace, and long life": in this chaotic and turbulent world, being able to find peace is perhaps the most desired state for most of us; and the fear of pandemic and shortening of our lives because of it (which has already started to happen with average life expectancies now going backwards), is an equally potent hope that we might have as much time as possible to keep finding ways to achieve and enjoy that peace in our lives and with each other. 

So until next time, keep on Trekking, and...


Thursday, July 15, 2021

be kind, above all else in your professional life

As a consultant-type (of sorts), I'm often seen as someone who is clever, knowledgeable, experienced, etc. Most other consultants you see will probably present themselves as being these things as part of assuring you that they're worth your spending your money on them.

But I've often wondered how far these things really matter when businesses, co-ops, charities, social enterprises, universities, government bodies, and others who invite me to work with them, are really wanting and valuing these attributes.

And my wondering about this has, over the years, seen me introduce some unusual practices (such as asking people what they think my superpower is, and not being overt about the various qualifications I've come to hold ), and subsequently also make changes to how I work as a result of what I learn about how I'm seen, and how people value what it is I'm able to do with/for them.

So why am I sharing this with you here? If you're someone who's kindly offered me feedback about my working practices in the past, you'll know this already. If you're someone else, you may be thinking that this may be sound vaguely interesting, but it's all very personal, and are struggling to see the relevance of why I'm reflecting on it so openly?

Well - wonder no more, because I now have an empirical data set (of sorts) to help me validate these ideas!

I recently came across Google's Ngram viewer, which is a nifty little site that allows you to track how frequently any given words have been used across all books published. So I thought I'd pop in a few keywords about how as consultants we think we're supposed to portray ourselves, and a few about how people seem to value the way that I work with them (click on the image to open the original google page and graph):

All those words about how the support consultants and advisers are supposed to 'be' and the attributes they're valued for, all pale against the approach to how we work with you.

Fortunately, kindness is one of the KPIs that I track within my annual impact report (listed as 'grace' and 'pro bono'), along with knowledge; so I know that I'm making sure I try and keep this at the forefront of how I work with people (following the adage that "we manage what we measure").

As consultants or advisers we're often initially commissioned on the basis of expertise or specific skill, but as the Ngram and my experience suggest, those things become far less important in the working relationship that we subsequently form when delivering on the agreed project. 

But I wonder how far others might agree with this?

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

So how do you actually start a social enterprise?

'Social enterprise' is a phrase that seems to be increasingly commonplace, and something that we're all being encouraged to start-up to if we think we have an idea for a new project or a business that might do some good in some way.

There's also a lot of 'stuff' about them out there: mapping by Social Enterprise UK; webinars on how they can best report their impact and how they're changing the world for the better by Social Value UK; offers of funding for how they can support local communities continue to recover from the impact of the pandemic; and such like...

social enterprise start-up course
But I'm often approached by people who want to know the answer to a much more basic question about social enterprises - how do I actually set one up?

Well, the good news if that I've been running seminars, boot camps, and webinars covering this for about the last 20 years, and hopefully will be able to distil them down into a few pithy bullet points in this blog to help you start to chart your adventure into the lands of social enterprise...

1) You'll already have a (social) idea, but is there actually the potential for a trading enterprise in it? 

Have you identified people or organisations who might be willing to pay you money (which is different to offering you philanthropic grants) for what you're going to be doing? 

2) How are you going to raise the money you need to get it started?

It's very rare than a start-up enterprise of any kind will have customers who line up in advance of it officially opening for business, to pay for the services and goods before they've even seen them. So have you thought about not only how you'll raise the cash you need for those early bills, but also where you'd be happy to seek it from?

3) Do you see yourself as a lone hero, or part of a 'Scooby gang'?

Creating any new enterprise is hard work and risky. Social enterprises even more so, because of the additional dimensions they have (balancing social mission with need to generate cash; trying to keep a set of values and ethics central in every decision made; feeling a responsibility to try and save the world...). So do you feel you can take it all on by yourself, or are you looking to recruit others to work with you in developing, leading, and managing it (and how will you ideally structure these relationships between you all)? 

And what measures can you think about putting in place to support yourself (after all, if you're supporting the birth of this exciting new social enterprise, whose looking out for you in return)?

The next steps in starting up a social enterprise flow from these, and may seem far more mundane in comparison, but are true for any enterprise thinking about starting up:

- create some budgets to help you manage costs and make sure you're going to be charging the right prices;

- pick a legal structure that will help you manifest and protect all of the above;

- register the enterprise with HMRC and whichever regulator is responsible for the legal structure you've picked, and open a bank account;

- do some marketing;

- Oh yes: and get out there to tell people you're now 'here' and so some selling!

Once these are in place, then everything else you come across out there about how social enterprises can thrive and prosper should start to make more sense.

But if you'd like to explore these steps in more detail, chat about how to tell if your idea really does have sufficient potential to be a trading enterprise, or would like to know about any other aspect of social enterprises, feel free to get in touch: I'm always happy to have an initial conversation by phone or video without charge or obligation.

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?