Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Why I am in Business

Today I mark a year in business with a dinner. But not alone! I spent it with my new Head of Delivery, Rob Fountain who starts with us on 5th September.

Year One has been pretty good, though I have to say, tough as hell. It started brilliantly with a substantial contract with what is now NAViGO Community Interest Company – which we helped step out from the public sector in April.

When I look back, I am amazed at how utterly fortunate we were to win that contract. I will always be grateful not only to their CEO, Kevin Bond, for taking a a massive punt on us but also John Willis, the Associate Consultant who travelled every week up North to deliver it so brilliantly for us.

There is no doubt in business that you need not only luck but the right people willing to back you. Kevin could easily have said ‘Where’s your track record?’ or ‘Can you guarantee delivery on this?’ before committing. But he just had a feeling, believed in us and we tried to repay his faith with amazing delivery.

One of the best things about this business has been the clients we’ve worked with. All of them have left behind secure public sector management jobs to lead a new venture. All have taken on more responsibility, stress and leadership in the belief that a better public service lies on the other side of the divide. All of these guys and women are mavericks, people who don’t fit the usual public sector template.

But it isn’t just altruism guiding them. All want to breathe, all want autonomy and to declutter their lives of endless public sector routines. All want to manage and lead in the true sense, not just be a middle-management number.

A year into something you ask yourself ‘Why am I doing this?’. At a values level, I am, in my small way, helping to create the kind of public services I would like my own family to use. Entrepreneurial. Responsive. Customer-centred. Delivered with pride and care by organizations which think and act like great businesses, not vile bureaucracies.

On a personal level, I feel I have set myself free, able to operate in a company I control and which frees me to do the right things by my family and friends as well as by wider society.

This includes setting up the Stepping Out Foundation which in September will receive its first portion of profit from the business. The Foundation will be a small ‘angel’ fund to help very early, community based social entrepreneurs with the seed money to get out the blocks. The money will be small at first and grow as the businesses get nearer to the bigger blocks of funding now available for social entrepreneurs.

It is really aiming at people in the position I was as 24 year old trying to get the early Speaking Up going. Those early few hundred quid meant more than just money. No buggering about with forms, reports, a ‘Dragons’ Den’ – just a cheque and a card to say ‘Good luck’. They showed trust, belief, support and solidarity – which I needed as much as the money.

We already have a bunch of people to back and it will be mainly focused on our communities out here in Suffolk. For while Stepping Out is social in a broad sense, the Foundation is social in a very specific sense and my aim is to grow it over time into a sizeable fund.

Thankfully, this year, I have something to put into the Foundation. Next year, I aim to make enough money to put a lot more in. I hope also to make a bit more for myself. I survived in Year One on half of what I normally make and have reinvested every penny of profit – bar what’s in the Foundation – back in the business. This will hopefully support our growth – but it may also buttress us during any difficult period ahead.

It’s this willingness to put everything into your business – your time, your energy and money you could go out any buy a conservatory with – that makes entrepreneurs different to other people. I know people who would sell their houses in order to save or grow their business.

Personally, I wouldn’t go that far, but I understand from where they are coming. Businesses get under your skin in a way that jobs seldom do. They are somehow an expression of our true selves – and become totems of our independence and spirit.

Whether I will be cracking the champagne or drowning my sorrows in a year’s time I really don’t know. That’s one of the best and most motivating things about being in business. Nothing quite spurs you on like uncertainty. Having one success under my belt already has helped me shrug off the fear of failure.

While I know it would be bad, I also know that I would survive and bounce back, somehow. If failure is a dirty word, you often fail to start in the first place. Knowing you can live with it, is actually quite liberating.

Anyway, tomorrow we start year two. Myself, Rob, our two superb Non Execs, our Associates and our financial backers.

Wish us luck!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Spinning Out Together

When I set up Stepping Out, I expected it exclusively to be about groups of public managers wanting to set up free-standing businesses. What I didn't anticipate was the appetite for partnerships between groups wanting to spin out and existing social businesses and charities. About half the calls we get at the moment are about this.

Why does it have appeal? Three reasons stand out. The first is that public managers are often well aware that they don't have the full set of capabilities to go it alone. And the idea of doing everything from scratch - setting up accounts, payroll, HR etc - is deeply off-putting. A partner who can bring know-how and some slot-in back-office functions has some appeal.

The second factor is that Councils and other public bodies feel a lot less nervous when a third party is involved. Having a 'name' organisation involved assures Councillors in particular that the venture is legitimate and that if a well-known name is willing to risk their reputation on a joint-venture project, they are safe to do so too. Plus, as risk averse organisations, councils like the idea that someone who know what they are doing will be helping to deliver the new service safely and on time.

The third factor, and this is crucial, is about values. Hardly anyone I speak to in public sector wants to go in with an organisation whose ethos is a million miles from their own. While they can envisage doing business and even delivering alongside an organisation set up purely for profit, the idea of being joint partners in an organisation which is clearly identified as money-making is, rightly or wrongly, a turn-off for most public managers - and, interestingly, Councillors too who need a simple 'good-change' story to tell to the voters that isn't 'privatisation through the back-door'.

How many of these conversations with come to anything we don't know, but I am struck by how many Councils, charities and social enterprises seem to want to work together on spin-outs. It's not a direction I anticipated but one which I can see a lot of mileage in.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

What you learn when you work for yourself

It's approaching a year since I founded Stepping Out. Although it's my second time out on my own, it has felt like a debut because the foundation of Speaking Up (now VoiceAbility) was so long ago and, from fairly early on, it grew very quickly. I was not on my own for that long.

My intention this time is also to grow - but more slowly and with quality not volume as my focus. I also want to protect my life a bit and believe that good margins on a small volume are probably better than smaller ones on a larger one. Growth starts in September with our first employee. Rob came through 150 applicants and I have the blessing of having employed him before. So I know who I am getting. His quality and commitment are both incredible and I cannot wait for him to start.So I won't be a solo act for much longer!

What did I learn during my year as, in effect, a sole trader? I would point, if this is not excessive, to three things. The first is that you realise that your greatest resource is your time. I have become ultra-sensitive to how time is spent. An internal meter now tells me how well my minutes and seconds are being spent. Meetings, one finds, have to have a clear business benefit. Few go on longer than an hour. There is nearly always a focus and a decision. You know when it's over.
Ditto phone calls and emails. People in organisations often struggle to see this - indeed I did by the end of my time as a CEO. I would think little of a three hour senior meeting followed by a couple of interesting visitors - BANG - there goes another day.

The second thing I have learned is that clients crave a personal service they can trust. The experience of most people most of the time when it comes to the services they buy is mild disappointment. Whether it's dealing with BT, going for a meal on a Saturday or finding somebody to help their business, while the choice out there is dazzling, actually finding A1 service is very hard. Therefore the gaps in any market concern not what people obsess about - the uniqueness of one's offer - but the level of service offered. As a small business, you're in a strong position to offer incredible service and great value at the same time. This is what we have tried hard to do with Stepping Out, in a tough market place. And I believe this has helped us to achieve strong year one results.

The third piece of learning is that working for yourself is good for your personal development, confidence and all-round well-being. While you swim in a sea of uncertainty from month to month (I have no idea where income in October will come from), you also know that what happens in the business is nearly all it down to you. I find this reassuring, rather than worrying. Compared to, say, someone in a big firm or council, who has to wait on the decisions of others, I feel my future is in my hands. My 'job security' is a simple function of my attitude and activity, not a string controlled by a drunk puppeteer who neither know nor cares about me.

Further to this, I don't think one can underestimate the psychological benefits of having to get a grip on something, on yourself and push a business forward. Few people who do go it alone go back to a job - and i think this says something. Despite the hours and the effort, working for yourself seems to unlock a lot of human satisfaction. I am always, when I go speaking, evangelical about this, but the looks I get from my mostly-employed audience indicate that it's only something you understand once you've done it. Salaried people, however unhappy, can only see the risks involved and seem blissfully unaware of the risks of sitting inside organisations, going stale, losing confidence and waiting for the hammer to fall. Which increasingly now it does, of course.

So, what do you learn when you work for yourself. Three things: You care about time, you understand the importance of service and you grow as a human being.

So - what's stopping you?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

On Cynicism

I have always been a slight cynic. Not in a sneering, told-you-so way, but in a rather regretful, resigned fashion. My cynicism comes and goes a bit, depending on what's happening and, frankly, what frame of mind I am in. Although I have always consciously worked by 'values', I often find these lofty flowers choked by the weeds of doubt about people and their essential natures.

Of course, human nature is a many and varied thing. I suspect that is what you learn as time progresses. Huge optimism, or indeed pessimism, is misplaced. Talking about human nature in a blanket way is a bit naive. My own journey has been, I suspect, one from being ultra-positive about motives and intentions - to a place where, on a good day, I can spot the subtleties of people's character quite well and reasonably quickly.

As one becomes more acquainted with the light and shade of human character, it is important, I find, not go negative, assuming people are just self-maximisers. Some people are, in many ways, assholes, but these traits often live side-by-side with other, more attractive ones.

When I look at the folk I really like, and seek to emulate, they are not necessarily the angels, but people who accommodate a variety of traits and, in a self-aware way, stay true to their essential nature while not being a slave to it. So I now like go-getting, self-promoting types, as long as this is leavened with self-awareness and a commitment to scraping off the rougher edges. In a way, I have a lot more time for this type of person than the unthinkingly generous.

All of this, of course, comes back to one's relationship with oneself. One of the attractions of Christianity, and of religion overall, is that it encourages us to embrace what C.S. Lewis termed our 'shadow self'.

It starts with the idea that we are flawed - which we all are - but also says it is OK to be this way as long as we take conscious steps to address it. I stop at the idea that only unconditional surrender to God will successfully address this issue - my point is more about the ultimate message that although we are all, to a point 'bad', we can also, simultaniously, not be a lost cause.

Work and life in one's 40s bring one up against one's nature quite a bit, I find. There's the back-breaking financial, social and emotional obligations of parenting and marriage. One is both trying to build a future and to live for today at the same time, aware of the half-time whistle about to blow.

It is tempting, often, to just look after yourself when you're carrying so much with you. You're also, as I have been saying, more worldly wise. You don't have the same blind-faith any more. You know that beneath any surface a lot more lurks, much of it never-to-be-know. And you have to navigate the iceburgs of human nature while appreciating both their beauty and their danger.

Go negative and you sail away from them altogether and you miss the best of life. Most of my 'highs', come through communion with others. But some of my lows have come through a dawning realisation that somebody isn't all I hoped they were and why-oh-why did I believe in them?

Overall, cynicism, while tempting and psychologically comforting is, I think, the wrong way to go. For you, for others, for happiness, for productive work - whatever. Societies based on deep scepticism tend to be low-trust ones and become self-fulfilling prophesies. But blind optimism is wrong too. We cannot base our society, our institutions or our workplaces on the notion that people will always do the right thing. This too is psychologically comfortable, but naive.

Instead we have to get comfortable with the complex reality of our 'grey' natures, the blend of whatever we have been born or nurtured to be. We also need to extend this comfort to our dealings with others.

Being human is, I am still learning, about accepting my own messiness and that of others. It is also about understanding that either delight or disappointment aren't the only two ways to feel about people.

And, finally, that if the cloud of cynicism isn't to settle, it is very important to work out where on the grey scale your key people are, and how you're going to deal with that.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Concrete Issues

Just back from France. One thing you notice is just how big it is (4 x UK size) with about the same number of people in it. Which makes all sorts of things a lot easier - building high speed rail links, power stations, other 'grandes projets'. Here, you can't move for planning rules and regs, even when the economy is on its arse.

Or at least till now.

A little-noted bit of news amid the riots was a signal from the Chancellor George Osborne that planning rules are to be relaxed in favour of development. There is to be a 'default' position in favour of house-building. Rather than having to prove a need for a new development, house-builders will only have to point to 'demand'. Beyond the National Parks, the presumption will be in favour of development. No other areas are to be afforded any special protection from the bulldozers. The National Trust are up in arms and see it as the end of the world as we know it.

Are they right? What will Osborne's proposed changes mean for places we all live. I can only speak for Bury St Edmunds, where I live. And cards straight on table, I live in the countryside immediately outside. Like us all, I speak Nimby.

So in Bury, there is already a development plan in the public domain - the ' Vision 2031' which will see thousands of new homes built during the next 20 years to the west, north-west, east and south of the town, as well as certain villages.

Without doubt, Bury will become a' bigger place'. But, some perspective is needed here, not least from those loud voices in our commuity whose own homes were green fields less than 25 years ago. The scale of development this time round is no greater than in the 1960s, 70s and 80s which brought us, respectively, the Horringer Court, Nowton and Moreton Hall estates which now form our 'suburbs'.

In truth, Bury although a 'heritage town', a smaller version of York, Winchester or Cambridge, it has never been a museum piece and has successfully adapted to changing times. And, on the whole, the Councii's 2031 plan isn't a bad attempt to repeat this pattern.

However it is not perfect. The danger signs are already visible. House building has, in the 2031 document, crept into 'special landscape areas', including one a half-mile from me. Before Osborne's announcement, it was difficult to see how this was more than a worry to the people living there and those, like myself, who enjoy that particular small area of landscape.

Today, however, it is not hard to imagine emboldened developers in 2016 or 2020 pointing their bulldozers at other special landscape areas - which are plentiful immediately around Bury (and around me!), forming a Green-Belt in all but name.

But isn't controlling this what the Council is for, I hear you ask? Well, it is today but the truth is that Councils will, under Osborne's changes, be incentivised to be far more permissive than is currently the case, especially cash-strapped councils like St Edmundsbury.

You need to worry about this, wherever you are, if you're not in a town. Councils are currently kept in check by a combination of planning laws and voter-pressure. Take one of those away, and we do risk a free-for-all for the developers and little collective say in how the area is shaped.

And if you want to see what that looks like, go to Ireland, where planning is lax and builders do mostly what they like, free from popular control. Therefore, while we cannot be 'anti development' without, to some extent, being hypocrites (think about what your home once was) , we must, put pressure on our local Councillors to commit in writing to containing future development to that laid out already in agreed local plans (where they exist) - and no more.

Plus we have to ask national politicians to think again before giving carte-blanche to development anywhere. The truth is that development has always to be a balance of economic versus social / environmental concerns - while giving neither the upper hand. Councils need to be arbiters of this - by all means told to process things faster - but not tied to one agenda nor the other.

And we must, somehow differentiate between different types of landscape outside the National Parks and SSIs. Not all Green Fields are the same. Protection must be afforded to our most integral landscapes on a par to that afforded to the Parks.

And act we must. In the absence of comprehensive planning laws, democracy will be the only weapon we have left.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Riots - Viewed from France

While the UK was, to its surprise, having its shop-windows kicked i I was in Brittany. The only UK daily paper I could get my hands on was the Telegraph which I grabbed as soon as the campsite shop opened.

You get an interesting line of sight from the the country you're visiting. A few years ago, following his election, Nicolas Sarkozy, the President of France, had to deal with a load of rioting in the outer 'banlieux' of Paris, home mainly to Arab and African people. Calling the rioters 'scum', Sarkozy sent in the riot police in full-on gear to, essentially, beat the crap out of anyone stepping out of line. This is, basically, how the police operate in virtually any other country to our own, in these situations. They are, quite deliberately, scary-as-fuck.

Of course, for anyone who remembers the Miners Strike or indeed the inner city riots of the 80s, our police, for a time, were as racist and brutal as any to be found in Europe. But that has changed and these days the big idea is that the police is no longer a 'force', it is a service, reliant on consent, relationships and all of that.

Which was working out quite nicely until last week when all of the work of the last 30 years appeared to count for bugger-all. Indeed, the absence of a fear-factor for the police - which has always had an effect on me - even as a law-abider I shit myself if I get stopped by a blue-light - seemed to somehow give heart to the looters. Nobody, as they queue-ed up for trainers seemed at all worried that a six foot-six helmeted rozzer with a night-stick mightcome and club them over the head or spray CS gas all over them. Because, of course, that isn't how the police work these days. So people, well, had a laugh. As we all saw.

My biggest laughs this week came when the Telegraph were reporting all these middle-class types being caught nicking from PC World or Argus. One was a female A * student at Exeter Uni whose parents were millionaires. Others were teaching assistants, estate agents, all manner of things. For these people, as with all of them, I am not sure the motivation was actually acquisition, or that purely. I think it was excitement. Action. Being in the middle of it all. Secretly, most of us crave this. We find it, if we're lucky, in our work and, occasionally, in our relationships. But we mostly do without it. Unless it's served up to us on a plate, that is.

The remaining laughs I had were, and this sounds a bit cynical, at the latte-liberals of Clapham and places such-like, brushes-aloft wearing 'Looters are Scum' T-shirts. In my view, you can't live cheek-by-jowl with the underclass (who you spend most of your life carefully avoiding) without expecting at least some collatoral damage from time-to-time. All of these people claim to love the 'edginess' of London. Well, darlings, the edges occasionally get rough and smash a few windows. Get used to it. And if you really can't live with it, well move up here to Bury St Edmunds.