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'...