Sunday, October 31, 2010

Month 3 - What will be in store for Stepping Out?

Month one was ok but disjointed. Month two started badly but ended well. What will Month Three hold for my new business?

Well, my mood has definitely improved. On Friday we secured another significant contract, jointly with one of the big firms. That's two now. I now know we can eat well into next year. Two swallows do not however make a summer and I am chasing other leads very hard.

Of course now we are into fulfilment. This has got me thinking a lot about my vision for this company. My last one had 250 staff and operations of £7 million when I stood down. It had also moved towards the mean in terms of delivery as it grew. Or, rather, it was both pockets of excellence and averageness.

This time, I am only interested in excellence. It's all I care about now. Every job being done to an eye-wateringly good standard. Because that's what buzzes me more than winning the business. It's the call to say how well we have done for people. Sure I will grow, sure I will take on people and take the turnover to six, maybe seven figures. But it will go at a pace that takes no risks with quality. Customer ache for quality and are gratified, surprised even when they get it. So few deliver it. I want us to be known for care and quality above all else.

What will this mean in practice? Well, it means hiring well. I will only now take on people who have done something for us before either as an Associate or on a temporary contract. I want people not only with talent with the integrity to give more than they get. They are scarce in our entitlement culture. I also want to create an informal culture in which people have a stake in the company beyond their pay packet. I see so many people disappointed by the poverty of their working lives. This company I want to be a special place. Finally it means focusing on what we do best and becoming the very pinnacle of achievement in that area. Better this than the confused generalist.

As well as leading the company, November sees me speaking a bit, writing a bit, non-Execcing a lot and probably neglecting my family. A weekend in their exclusive company has been great. My friend Robert Ashton in his wonderful book 'The Entrerpreneurs Book of Checklists' says on his dedication page that however hard you want to work at your new business always to make time for your family.

He is, of course, right. Indeed I would recommend you check out Robert's site and best-selling books at

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Truth is Out on Personal Budgets

If I went on Mastermind, my first appearance would see me answering questions about the Bolton Wanderers wilderness years in the early to mid 1980s. My second would be on the the Smiths B-sides 1982-87. My third would be on personal budgets. Not exactly my specialist subject but up-there.

I spent my last three years as CEO of Speaking Up (now VoiceAbility) thinking through how civil society organisations would respond to this. Personal budgets felt like a long overdue reform of a local authority funding system which had ossified in its own defence. I came to the conclusion that this was not going to be an overnight change and that, during that period, serious investment in new services was too risky. The Local Authority turkeys were not going to vote for an early Xmas. And even those that wanted to change would find it hard in practice to do so.

Today's report ( from the Audit Commission vindicates this: progress has been pretty slow in many places. Yes there have been 'trailblazers' but they are the exception not the rule. Councils systems are not yet geared up. People with mental health problems are missing out. We need more independent brokerage services.

Beyond imploring councils to get a shift-on, the Commission's report doesn't hold out much that is new. All of its recommendations can be found in guidance from years back. The only difference now, of course, is that councils are broke. In-house services are no longer economically viable. Divestment is back on the agenda and with it the most pure form of divestment - personal budgets.

Now, cards on table time. I am a fan of personal budgets. While the evidence base is quite favourable but not glowing, I glow like a Christmas tree when I think about them. I have seen too many successes and too few failures to not be a fan. Yes there are all sorts of challenges and problems, not least the Norwich man who used his personal budget to be pleasured in an Amsterdam brothel. While part of me wishes him the very best, I realise this isn't a good use of public money.

However, the risks - and they are legion - do not make this a bad idea. State control of funding does not make anything accountable in the way that unions and left-wing politicians want us to believe. All state control does is ensure that it costs us five pounds to spend ten. Councillors, in practice, do not hold state services any more accountable than they hold a private provider or individual budget holder. In fact, I would say the reverse is true because Councillors, as employers of state employees, are conflicted between loyalty to the public and duty to be nice to our employees.

Anyway, back to personal budgets. I predict that as councils are forced to reform themselves in response to the CSR, a by-product will be lots of people moving to personal budgets. In public bodies c

hange only comes out of necessity. Events - like the CSR - play the forcing role that in other sectors is played by the market. In that sense, one can be grateful for the end of the Good Times in the public sector.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Co-ops, Mutuals and all that

Spoke yesterday at a Westminster Briefing policy event about this agenda which, while featuring prominently in the Coalition Agreement, is still percolating at local level. Yes, there's some intention, enthusiasm even. But minds are so distracted with the wider changes heralded by the CSR that one senses that only a few people have put the agendas together.

Good event. Nick Seddon of Reform was his usual lucid, on-the-money self, quoting Charlie Mayfield of John Lewis in saying that we really need to solve pensions and procurement if this agenda is to fly. Cllr Steven Reed, Leader of Lambeth was another breath of fresh air. Indeed if the whole Labour Party was like him I might never have left. Heading up the Co-operative Council in Lambeth, Reed's plan follows the lines set out the Public Services Trust's report of a diversity of community based providers backed up by a council which would still provide but whose primary role is facilitation.

Ed Miliband really should go to see this man.

Also strong was Dr Guy Turnbull of the Social Work Co-operative but also CASA, the employee owned care enterprise. Guy helped us see how it isn't Terms and Conditions which make employee-owned busineses work but the feeling people get that they are part of the story.

My bit was to report on what I am seeing as a I go round working with PCTs and Councils which are stepping out services from the public sector. Three things to say. Firstly, leadership is totally important. Secondly, these ventures are generally short on commercial know how and need a blood-infusion of this kind of capability if they are to be viable long-term. Thirdly, there is definitely locked in value in these organisations which, upon stepping out, will, with the right management, be liberated. This will raise productivity and hopefully enable these new ventures to square the circle of raised demand and lowered funding.

Like with all these events there was a lot of taxonomical discussion about co-ops, mutuals and social enterprises which is geek only territory and should normally be avoided in the presence of ordinary people. That aside, strong event.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Are Entrepreneurs like Professional Footballers?

To Wembley Stadium Royal Box last night to attend a fundraiser for Street League, which changes lives through football. SL are an Impetus Trust investee and I was there are as Trustee. And what a good night. The power of football to do good is often forgotten amid all the money and madness.

My luck was in when I found myself sat next to ex Everton, Newcastle, Sunderland and England midfielder Paul Bracewell. If you know your 80s and 90s football, `Brace' will be a familar name, winning four league titles, a Cup Winners Cup and appearing in four cup finals.

When I had overcome my inital awe, we had a good chat about the game, how it was, how its changed and so on. He was an interesting man. Like all players of his time, the earnings were much lower and now he works in coaching. He doesn't begrudge current players their money, even when, as a teenage apprentice he spent most of his days cleaning boots and sweeping terraces.

What I noticed, talking to him, was that, he had, early on decided on the life he wanted and been willing to pay the price. For him this was particularly heavy, in a career blighted by injury and 18 operations, his wobbly knees earning him the nickname `Iceman' in his latter years.

But he played to 37, knowing this might affect his body in later life. And so it has. While fit and trim, he avoids impact exercise and is limited to stuff like golf and cycling. My bet is though that he wouldn't have traded any of those late seasons for anything.

Paying the price is something you know about if you're an entrepreneur too. You put your feet to the flame. You risk getting hurt and, on one level, it isn't rational. But you're driven and you do it. There's almost no choice. You resolve to make the sacrifice and you hunker down and do it. Professional sport is similar I sense. Except, like Paul, all that many walk away with is their memories.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

More or Less What We Expected

So, its here. Much of it, however, doesn't feel like news because we've been so well primed.

My biggest disappointment is that we will have to see half a million lost jobs rather than a significantly smaller number coupled with pay reductions and reform of terms and conditions. It is clear from the budget that the civil service would rather see a cull than a drop in its pay and privileges. To me this is crazy. During the private section recession of 2007-09, jobs were saved by short-time working and pay cuts. The trauma of unemployment was spared for millions this way. What's wrong about doing this now?

Otherwise I am pleased to see the end of ring-fencing in local government so that we can become proper grown-ups rather than looking up to the centre all the time for a script - and blaming them when it all goes wrong. Local Government has suddenly got interesting.

As for the VCS and social enterprise sectors, I hear there's some funding for Big Society projects and so on. Let's see what this looks like. The message around Big Society is floundering badly and they need to put someone up to sell this properly to the people - Nick Hurd would be ideal were he more senior, Letwin would be good.
As it is, it is no-one's day job - except the new and relatively unknown Nat Wei - to get this important idea over to people on the GMTV sofa.

Overall though, this is what we all expected, I think.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Measuring the Value of Time

One of my favourite activities is networking. Or it used to be. Now that I am on my own I notice that every minute has to count. Every meeting has to be shone through prism of business-necessity. There's no room in my diary anymore to chew fat or meet for the hell of it.

While my friendships are not suffering, I am taking less of those requests to meet up to discuss a new idea or with people who want to pick my brains. Not because I don't want to - I enjoy spouting and find most people interesting - but because I could, if I chose, spend a day a week doing this. As one of my more direct friends put it to me as I was agonising, `Are you a business or a helpline?'.

I had a very enjoyable phone call last week with Liam Black who set up wavelength a couple of years ago. He went through all the shit I am having now and knows the score when it comes to dealing with requests he has no time for. People like Liam are, for me, a bit of a life-line just now, along with several others you won't know like Mark Griffiths and Rob Harris - all entrepreneurs with their nuts on the block every day - so to speak.

Of course, aren't Liam, Mark et al doing for me what I am now not so willing to do for others? Yes and no. Yes, I get a lot from each of them. No in that I hope I reciprocate and make it feel worthwhile for them, on some level.

The truth, despite my bravado, is that I am a sucker for calls for help, especially if that person is nice or attractive or both. People's ideas tend to engage me and I know that in a half-hour I can often make a big difference (or so a couple have told me). So I won't be ignoring emails or sending back demands for payment - but I will be a bit more discriminating about who I help and for how long.

For as Liam Black correctly said, "Time is my only resource".

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Paying the Price

Until today I had never got up at 4.30am before for work. But I had a meeting with a Director in the biggest local authority in England and he could only do 9am. So I took no chances and caught the 5.30am from Ely which landed me safely in Birmingham for 8am and a welcome bowl of porridge.

At the moment, I am, it feels paying the price of entrepreneurship. Doug Richard once defined the main condition of entrepreneurs as one of` anxiet’y. To that I would add frustration, loneliness and, occasionally, tears. While there are pretty reasonable days, many evaporate in IT problems, invoicing and queues at the Post Office. I have found reserves of anger that I never knew I had.

Of course none of this goes down that well at home. I have swopped the life of a busy hunter-gatherer CEO, bringing home a reliable 80-odd grand for a future of loans, no income, profound uncertainty and, for now, even longer hours than ever. Keeping it all up as a father, husband and citizen isn’t proving easy. I can’t even say anymore that I am at least keeping us all from the wolf at the door.

So why do this? I ask myself, some days, believe me. There is another living for me – bit more speaking, writing and bit of consulting. A decent wad. But isn’t this a bit of a cop-out at 41 I ask myself? I have always felt its important to do what I preach. If I want to change the public sector, then I bloody well need to do something about it myself. Yes, I will chatter with the chattering class, but I will also get stuck in too. This has always been my way.

The challenge is not to break myself proving it.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Let's grab more vote for the Social Enterprise Party

Hard days these. On one side the long-distance running of setting up a new venture. Lonely, pressurised, anxious. On the other, the raft of things that suck up my time but also keep me sane - Councillor, School Governor, Trustee.

Like a lot of people, I am actually well-suited to portfolio-living. But try as I might it doesn't pay the bills. And new busineses require, really 90% plus of your time. This one is getting about 75% - and I am now bursting at the seams.

However, I am ignoring the textbook and carrying on plural. Part of my reason for setting up in business is becoming free. Chucking in my community commitments is kind of defeating the objective. This is why although Stepping Out is not a social business in the technical sense, it feels like it is because I am clearly foregoing work and profit to do other stuff that is essentially, given-time.

Stepping Out's area of work - helping social enterprises emerge from the public sector - is at last being talked about. My good friend Peter Holbrook of SEC isn't convinced that these emergent enterprises should all qualify as social enterprises. I see his point - they are often legally still quite tied into the state, particularly Foundation Trusts. But my argument has always been that there's a big, ambiguous space emerging between straight profit-driven FTSE100, City capitalism and simple charities. This large praire contains thousands of organisations rom socially minded businesses through to public sector spin-outs. A new and growing `centre-ground' between pure white of charity and red claw of turbo-capitalism.

Being a politician I see this new space as up-for-grabs by the Social Enterprise Party. Much rather us go in and co-opt these people than leave untended a huge flock of similar-minded organisations which could widen our movement. This debate will rumble on in its friendly fashion. Although I disagree with Peter on some things, he is one of the best things that has happened in the social enterprise sector for many years. I just hope he is able to expand SEC to absorb this burgeoning and unchallenged middle-ground.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Hutton Delivers

For policy-geeks like me, these are great times. Things which I have been obsessed with for years - like public sector pensions, are finally being dealt with. Shame it has taken the near-bankrupcy of the country to get us there, but here we are.

Yesterday, former Labour Minister John Hutton nailed this issue for what it is - one of fairness, not only between public sector staff and the rest of us - but also, less conspicuously, across generations. The Baby Boomer generation is about to retire - en masse. Many of them will live into their 90s and beyond, ensuring their retired-life is nearly equal in years to their time in paid work. Paying for this will be those left working - a much smaller cohort of people which has had to pay for its own education and paid over the odds for property owned, on the whole, by this older generation.

Yesteday's report, then, was calling time on this generation of privilege. No final salary deal - just a lifetime average. No retirement at 60 - go to 65 like the rest of us. And pay more in if you want if you want more out. Just to give you an example, my own pension to which I have paid 5% of my salary for 15 year is worth considerably less than my brother's, who also pay in 5% - who has been working for a local authority for less than three years. His pension is, in effect, worth an extra 30% on his salary, were he to enjoy comparable benefits through a scheme like mine.

Isn't this all about levelling down? Should we not be talking about levelling up? Well we should. But the only way to do this to encourage the majority of private sector staff without pensions to take one up so that 85% of people across ALL sectors - not just one - provide for retirement. And the only way to do this is to
untie the Government's hands from its massive obligations to former state employees. At the moment, the unfunded pensions `black hole' is 790 billion. It doesn't leave much spare for encouraging everyone else through tax-breaks etc to kick off a private pension, does it?

So I was delighted with Hutton yesterday. Seeing Dave Prentis and Co trying to defend the indefensible make me queasier that usual, particularly as all that lot are, themselves, on up to 200k (Derek Simpson being the best paid), living for free in union property etc. Not exactly in tune with the lives of ordinary people, I would suggest.

Monday, October 4, 2010

On Losing Our Child Benefit

So busy today I only caught the planned cut in CB on the BBC News at 9pm. Every family with a higher rate taxpayer to lose it. That included us and many of the people we know. We'll lose about a grand and a half - over two grand if a third kid ever arrives. Feels quite tough on people just into higher tax, not so bad for proper high earners.

My wife's reaction was that fair's fair, we all have to take the hit and at least this isn't regressive. I tend to agree. Middle class welfare - or univeralism as it is euphamistically called - is supposed to be what keeps us all signed up to the welfare state. Personally I think this is out-dated and today is a step in the right direction.

The other stuff from Osborne today. A 500 pound cap on benefits is ok until you look at Housing Benefit in the capital and high-rent cities like Brighton. People will be forced to move on - or become homeless. While it will eliminate the lunacy of people being given property that is clearly far, far nicer than their working equivalents, at the other end it will hurt a lot of people, which does concern me.

Overall, I am with Frank Field, IDS and others in taking a long, hard look at the welfare system. The postwar settlement has long left too many people to languish and we have, in effect, made work the exception rather than the rule for too many people in too many parts of the UK. This furthers inequalities because people who don't work lose their health, self-respect and future earning capacity faster than anyone else.

Indeed I don't think that my last organisation, Speaking Up, would have had nearly as many people on its books not for the mass welfare that many of our clients had an entitlement to, which meant, for nearly everyone, getting work meant a world of pain and complexity with your benefits.

Welfare is just one staging post in reform of the Beveridge settlement of the late 1940s which is long overdue. The best thing I have read setting out a positive future for the public realm - neither statism or economic consumerism - is the vision of the `social citizen' set out in the 2020 Public Services Trust's final report. Well worth a read.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Why this, wny now?

People often ask me if I am planning a political career, especially since I got elected as a Councillor. A good few people seem to think I might be good at it, whatever that means. As well as being in the wrong party in the wrong area of the country, I think the answer is no, certainly for my 40s. I am wedded to Suffolk, to fatherhood and to trying to stay married. None of these things seem very easy if you're in full-time politics.

But it's not just that. Most of you reading this will, at some level, be following a cause or calling. I have done that for most of my adult life, at first with Speaking Up and now with my new business, Stepping Out.

For although Stepping Out is my venture, and I hope it makes me money (it is losing me enough at the moment!) it is also an expression of my political purpose. Not for a `smaller state' but of public services provided by vibrant, business-like social enterprises which are are part of our civil society and meshed into our social fabric rather than run by the City, Whitehall or the local state.

Although the left think they have the field to themselves, idealists come in all shapes and I have always been one of them. And Stepping Out is as much about my mission and values as Speaking Up ever was.

Now if, like us, you have a drive to change something there are three possible options. The first is that you join an organisation already on the case. The second is that you enter politics and take it up that way. The third is that you take action and move a very small part of the mountain, hoping it will encourage others to join in.

The truth about politics and politicians is that most of them fail. They achieve very little, nearly always. Even Blair, when you remember he had 13 years. By going into politics, assuming I could ever get elected, I would, in effect be trading a strong for a weak chance of making an impact.

And joining an organisation? I don't see many orgs currently competing this space, not at a serious level yet - though I can see troops massing in the distance. I am, by temperament, a starter not a joiner and, if I am honest, not the even the best CEO in my village, never mind the sector as a whole. While I have my talents, being a big-time CEO isn't one of them.

Is this it then - council forever? No and who knows what will happen later, but I think I know now why I am setting up this new venture rather than throwing in my lot with politics - or joining an organisation.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Glories of Sabbing

Believe it or not, I used to be Hunt Saboteur. Well, not a proper one, a fellow-traveller in the back of a diesel-stinking Land Rover to be precise. It was winter 1988, I was in my first year of Uni and still wondering who I really was. I had hooked up with a vegan bloke called Marcus (still a great friend, still a vegan) who was a proper Sab - out every weekend, the odd face-off, fearless and, of course, very posh (they all were). I had a sort of late-adolescent crush on Marcus, mainly because he was so much more confident, articulate and taller than I was. Not Maurice, exactly, but certainly he was certainly the bloke I most admired, by a long shot, those many years ago.

What got me onto this was a bike ride I had this morning with my dog - when out shot a fox across the road and into a bush. For one of the things I never saw when sabbing was a fox. My abiding memory is of being as cold as I have ever been, sat on a hard bench next to a bunch of teeth-chattering students.

My position on fox hunting has changed and it hasn't. I was never passionate, if I am honest, about the issue. I wouldn't do it myself but, particularly now I live in the country I can see it is part of the warp and weft of life in rural areas. I can understand now why the ban caused such a rucus.

So we change and we don't change. Thankfully, I am no longer the lonely, confused 19 year old searching for a cause. And, unless Nick Clegg is subliminally my new Marcus, my attraction to confident, passionate public schoolboys is also, like fox-hunting itself, now part of the past.