Five things I’ve learned as a social entrepreneur
Sitrep: 547 days (18 months) in to our BrightSparks adventure (which includes establishing 3 new social enterprise companies as well as working with over 150 clients and beneficiaries), I find myself reflecting on our journey so far. (Mainly because we are launching our new site this week and I was told to write some words of wisdom by our very talented Marketing and Development Manager, Leonie).
The truth is though I find it hard to reflect. I’m more of a ‘well that didn’t work so let’s try something else’ type of guy. The new fangled term for this approach is ‘Design Thinking’ which is typified by a strong vision for the end product/service and rapid prototyping and iteration behaviours. It doesn’t leave much time or space for '360 degree feedback', 'SWOT analysis' and 'Prince 2 planning methodologies' which are all staples of the 'plan, do, review' process-driven monotony that we have been fed by leadership consultants, project managers and change experts for the last couple of decades.
I can't think of anything worse than drowning my ambitions for BrightSparks and my other social enterprise businesses in order to accommodate this type of bureaucratic machinery which, in my opinion, is just a smokescreen for folk that either can’t make a decision, or are scared of making the wrong decision. So with that little rant over...
I’d say that the following reflections are things where I’ve tried to avoid the standard observations that seem to appear in most entrepreneurial blog articles I read these days like “build a great team” or “delegate more”. That’s kind of the 101 stuff in my opinion. Instead, my observations of what work really do centre around this concept of being a design thinker and shaping a social purpose company around that type of philosophy. Anyway, here comes the bit you clicked on the article for, my top five observations/advice for running a social enterprise (everyone loves a top five, right?):
1. You don’t have time to plan the perfect business
Run as fast as you can at all of your projects and problems and trust that you’ll get more right than you get wrong (and if you don’t then you probably shouldn’t have started that business in the first place). Make decisions fast, test on the fly and get things up and established in whatever way you can as quickly as you can. Don’t sweat the stuff you get wrong as long as you are pushing forward. Then when you have it up and running and pretending it’s the nuts to all and sundry (which we’ll come on to in point two), then refine and iterate toward perfection.
2. Fake it till you make it
So here is the truth, nobody with cash that is looking to buy or fund anything these days wants to take a punt on a start up. I mean no one! Not even with that flashy business plan you spent 5 weeks creating. If you want to get a seat at the table you need to act like you have eaten there before. Ok I’m going to stop with the metaphors now but in short; make out like you are bigger than you are, do it convincingly and hope someone takes the bait. If they do... read point 4.
3. Do not believe the ‘lets do one thing really well’ brigade, they do not know what they are on about!
So a recent Harvard Business School study examined the business and personal characteristics of a load of self made millionaire entrepreneurs to understand if there was any commonality between them. The study found only one statistically significant correlation between them. They found that they had pretty much all not just started one company in the early stages of their careers, but in fact that they had started multiple. They also noticed that their companies rarely focused on a single product but instead had many products and services (some successful and some not so much). This is all the proof you need that if your social enterprise is built around doing one thing or even a limited range of things then you are on course to be part of the 50% of folk that go out of business in the first year. Bright Bid (BrightSparks predecessor) started up just supporting a couple of social purpose organisations to write funding bids. Inside 18 months we now offer a full range of business development services (web development, programme management, business planning etc), 15 different training and development courses, research and impact services and we are also running a range of bespoke social enterprise projects in York. I have no doubt that in the next 18 months some of this stuff will fall by the wayside and other new projects will replace them and that’s absolutely fine, in fact its the way I want it to work. Who wants to do the same things for the rest of their lives?
4. Say yes. a lot...
...Not to everything but to most things. So I’m ripping off Branson a bit here when he says “if a great opportunity comes along but you don’t know if you can deliver it, say yes and then work it out as you go”. Clever chap that Branson fella, and I couldn’t agree more. Don’t let the big stuff scare you off. It will only result in you staying small. And as for the small stuff, gobble up as much of that as you can get your hands on. Most of the time it’s what will keep the wolf from the door.
5. Stop, COLLABORATE and Listen
Just when you thought this was a serious article for the serious business types I go and drop Vanilla Ice on you. In the early days when we were scratching around for every penny (not that we are swimming in cash these days mind), I was close to cancelling a lot of the premium social subscriptions, collaboration platforms and networking/partnership seminar type stuff we had going on to save some cash. They are easy things to target in the P&L account and it’s hard to see the direct benefit until they are gone. However, I decided not to, and in fact we doubled down on this stuff even though it’s time consuming, expensive and sometimes hit and miss. But we have noticed that the phone is ringing a lot more these days and when it does it’s usually because someone somewhere told someone who had a conversation with their team mate (you get the picture) who said they had seen, or talked to someone, about BrightSparks. Our biggest income generators have almost always come through this type of collaboration.
So there it is my top five reflective, observational thingies about how we go about running our business. Now thats quite enough reflecting - time to run at the 50 things on my to do list.
Andy Simpson - BrightSparks MD and Chief Do Gooder