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!