For nine months or so now, as part of an Awards for All funded project, we have been documenting the changing face of social enterprise by covering the stories of newer, younger social enterprises that are new on the scene.
What’s it like to start a new social enterprise in the current harsh economic climate? What qualities does it take? Who does it — and why?
On Monday evening (23rd April), as part of our contribution to City Drive 2018, we invited people to join us and hear first-hand new-start stores from three recently established social enterprises. We called this event New Start Stories — The Unvarnished Truth, and we held it at Evolve @ The Adam & Eve — itself a new-start social enterprise bringing new purpose to an old Victorian corner pub.
25 people joined us — which was a terrific turn-out — and we heard marvellous, real-life stories from three of the new-start social enterprises we have covered here.
Summerfield Community Gardening Project
Chris Vaughan, Hannah Wright and Ernie Holmes from the Summerfield Community Gardening Project, a community-based social enterprise that promotes wellbeing through gardening, recycling and environmental action, explained the ups and downs of the past couple of years and the key lessons they have learnt. Being able to adapt and be flexible is vital, Chris Vaughan says. The enterprise has already entered into a partnership with another third sector organisation to extend the land available to the project. Ernie Homes says division of labour and people skills are crucial. ‘We’re investigating ways to ensure that our volunteers and service-users get more from the experience and are recognised — by themselves and by us — as central to what we do,’ he says.
But perhaps the key message was about marketing. Hannah Wright, the enterprise’s gardening guru, explained that the project produces plants, compost, planter baskets, home-grown garden wormeries and a range of garden produce, in addition to offering training workshops. ‘Sales of these goods and services are key to our long-term sustainability,’ she says. ‘People love the quality of what we produce and the whole experience of being at the community garden, but put simply, not enough people know about us. We need to focus far more on marketing and promotion and do more to create sales opportunities.’
A few years ago, Kemi Folarin, a youth, community and play worker with over twenty-five years’ experience was facing redundancy. She took the bold step of setting up her own community interest company, ashebo CIC and of using part of her redundancy money to purchase over three acres of pristine ancient woodland, classified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), just twenty minutes from the centre of Birmingham. This — along, of course, with Kemi’s expertise and experience as a trainer and facilitator — is one of the key assets that ashebo has to trade with. We have covered her story in detail here.
Financial management (payroll, sessional payments, accounting) has been outsourced to BVSC, Kemi explained. ‘I learnt very early on that you have to play to your strengths and recognise your weaknesses. So I made sure that all aspects of financial management were dealt with by professionals. It isn’t expensive and it frees me up to focus on the things I’m good at and what needs to be done to keep ashebo going — and growing.’
The woodlands are central to ashebo’s offer but Kemi has had to learn the hard way about the special provisions and restrictions that go along with being an owner of a site of special scientific interest. One unexpected benefit of the evening was that one audience member, whose father had been a farmer, knew a great deal about SSSIs and was able to make some excellent suggestions about what could be done and how. It looked as if a keen new volunteer was emerging before our eyes!
Kemi said that while at times it is scary — ‘This isn’t just fun: I’ve got a mortgage that has to be paid every month and that focuses the mind, believe me’ — her life is now altogether improved. ‘Three years ago I was staring redundancy in the face. A job I had loved doing for twenty-five years was about to disappear. Now, I’ve got a social enterprise that brings together all the things I care about most — benefitting families and children, protecting the environment and enabling those who typically feel themselves excluded from the countryside to enjoy the peace and sense of improved wellbeing it offers.’
Founded only in early-2017 by long-time recruitment professional Kate Evans, Warwick-based Graduate Planet CIC is the first social enterprise recruitment agency in the UK with a clear environmental and social mission. We have told her story in detail here. Kate’s aim is to to match value-driven people with the most socially innovative employers — while also making an environmental return every year by pledging 100% of its annual trading profits to initiatives that help combat climate change and promote environmental awareness.
Kate said, ‘At first it was terrifying and very lonely. But one of the things I have been amazed by is how generous people in the social enterprise sector are with their time and their expertise. I’ve had some truly marvellous help.’
Having her new CIC covered by BSSEC was a big morale-booster for her, she says, as was the grant she received from UnLtd to help with marketing and promotion. She has also found SEUK membership great for networking opportunities and welcomes SEUK’s new free membership offer for social enterprises whose turnover is below £100K a year. ‘I’ve gained a lot by targeting corporates that are part of SEUK’s ‘Buy Social’ corporate challenge,’ she says, ‘and within minutes of attending a Birmingham Business Charter for Social Responsibility ‘meet the buyer’ event I gained an important new client. You have to use what’s on offer and understand the opportunities these services may help create.’
She learnt very quickly that she needed to be decisive, adapt quickly and stay flexible. ‘In the very early stages, after talking to some really well-informed people I realised that my main marketing messages were completely wrong. I changed my website overnight and made some important changes in how the business would work. I think you have to see things quickly, analyse the situation and take action.’
Kate says that in the early stages she was lucky to scrape together two or three days’ work a week. ‘Now,’ she says, ‘I typically work seven days a week. Of course, I need to sort out a better work-life balance than that, but even so, when you reach that point where new clients come looking for you rather than the other way round — well, there’s nothing quite like it.’
Identifying a few other points of key learning, Kate added: ‘always get customer testimonials — they’re worth their weight in gold’; ‘don’t try and do everything — for example, outsource your social media to a young person or a student who needs a bit of money and will almost certainly be more social media savvy than you are’; and most importantly, ‘don’t be afraid to ask: the sector is full of generous people’.
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We had an excellent evening — relaxed, enjoyable, informal — and would like to thank everyone who helped make the event such a success: Sarah Crawley, who raced back from a Social Enterprise Place meeting in Manchester to facilitate the event for us; Elizabeth Forrester from iSE who handled all the bookings; Simon Veasey from iSE who provided support and photographs; and especially Chris Vaughan, Hannah Wright and Ernie Homes from Summerfield Community Gardening Project; Kemi Folarin from ashebo CIC; and Kate Evans from Graduate Planet CIC, all of whom kindly agreed to share their personal experiences. Thank you.