Sunday, 5 December 2010

Back to the future

The viral campaign on Facebook this weekend has been very, very successful. Although not started by the NSPCC it has their endorsement and is boosting public awareness of their cause.

People have been encouraged, by peer pressure, to change their Facebook profile picture to a cartoon character from their childhood. This wonderfully nostalgic exercise forces you to remember your own happy, innocent days when life was simple and for most people safe.

The campaign reminds those fortunate enough to have a happy childhood that for some kids, life is far from pleasant. By encouraging us all to reflect on our own early years, we are reminded of the importance of investing in an organisation that helps those for whom childhood memories will not be so happy.

I have a foot in both camps on this one. My very early years were happy I seem to remember, but as my childhood progressed things changed. Years of psychotherapy have helped me see that the deterioration of my father's mental health, together with my mother's inability to cope or courage to seek help, created the stultifying family environment from which I eventually emerged.

By coincidence, I saw the film 'Good Will Hunting' last night. It tells the story of a bright kid who chooses not to do well, to get even with his abusive foster parents long gone. Turning point in the film is the moment where his therapist keeps repeating the phrase; 'it's not your fault.' This repeated approbation does the trick and the film moves on to a happy ending.

Which brings me to Muffin the mule. My earliest TV memory, from those happy days of blissful innocence when life was easy and my story had only recently begun.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Never ask a man in a flat cap for a cappuccino

I was taken out for lunch on Friday. The pub we went to was what some would call traditional and others would call retro. The place mats, paper napkins and lack of an open fire reminded me of the 'moderrnised' pubs I'd frequent 35 years ago.

Here you'd eat beef pie, treacle tart and drink beer, beer or perhaps just for a change, more beer. Soft drinks were for girls and coffee something you drank at home - and then only the instant variety.

The landlord wore a flat cap. Nothing wrong with that either I guess, perhaps he's sensitive about his baldness or simply making some kind of fashion statement. The food was hot and filling and a coffee seemed like a good idea. Asking for a cappuccino however prompted the kind of look you'd expect to get if you asked where the First Class compartment was on a Blackpool tram.

The man in a cap clearly knew what cappuccino was, but could not think why I'd be asking for it in his pub. We had 'nice' cups of filter coffee instead. He had a point I suppose and his pub was packed with people munching pies and enjoying jam rolypoly with custard.

Of course the problem is mine not his. I prefer not to be reminded of the 1970s and in particular the pubs I visited in that era. One thing is certain though; I'm going to avoid any place where the guy behind the bar is wearing a flat cap!

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Be careful what you wish for

I've always liked being busy, but right now opportunities seem to be leaping out at me from every corner. It's good to be recognised for the work I do. Better to be in demand by those willing to pay for what my expertise can deliver them. But being busy can have its down sides too. Not enough quality time for me, to re-charge, refresh and re-connect.

This week for example, my planned 'quiet day' with two meetings and time to enjoy the moment has been sacrificed to accept an invitation to a London event. No ordinary event, it's a Big Society workshop for senior civil servants and I'm told one or two Ministers of State. It's a unique opportunity to share my views with people able to shape policy and I hope, be swayed slightly in their thinking by the experiences I'll be sharing within them from my work at the 'Big Society' coalface. And yes, I'll learn from them too.

But the fact remains that my week now feels as if it's accelerating out of control. Much of this is of course perception and panic, whilst the reality means time to think and write on trains and for a couple of hours on Thursday morning in my favourite London hotel.

Being busy forces you to prioritise, to make time for the projects you're committed to completing. It also forces you to tread that fine line between saying yes to everything and sacrificing your sense of self and sanity, and being selective to protect what matters to the inner self.

It's a difficult path to tread and mot one foreseen when setting ambitious career goals.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Teddy Bear's Picnic

I got talking with Jill last night at the Waffle House in Norwich. She's a fascinating old lady who has been a scientific researcher and College lecturer in her time. Now she's retired and gets involved in things - mental health is a shared interest.

Sunday evenings she usually visits the Waffle House, a long established and rather good place to prepare yourself for the week ahead. We too go there on Sunday's after a visit to the cinema.

Jill usually has a large teddy with her when she goes out for dinner. She lives alone and the teddy is her companion. Last night she was alone. It seems the owner of the place at suggested tactfully that she leave the teddy at home. 'It creates the wrong image' he'd gently told her. Reluctantly she'd complied and now eats alone.

It seems though that I'm the ninth customer to ask her where her teddy bear is. So that's one restaurant owner worrying that it's not giving the right impression and nine customers asking what's happened to the bear. I think they should invite her to bring her bear next time and give her a free meal as well. There's nothing wrong with eccentricity - it should be celebrated, not suppressed.

Monday, 27 September 2010

A happy coincidence - or was it?

We visited HMV yesterday as we'd been given some vouchers and thought we'd check out the sale CDs and DVDs. I secretly hoped to find a copy of 'Of Time and the City', a wonderful film about Liverpool by Terence Davies. When we saw the film at the cinema, I was as moved as my wife was bored. It's really strange how films get to different people in different ways. My search for the DVD was therefore rather covert. I didn't want it discovered until we reached the till.

Alas, no DVD in HMV but guess what? It was broadcast on BBC4 last night and so I was able to record it. I'm not sure by what coincidence I thought about the film in HMV and decided to search for it. I did not then know it was being broadcast later the same day. Is it coincidence or premonition? Who knows . . . 

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Is this what reputation is all about?

I met very modest but inspirational entrepreneur Paul Conrathe yesterday. He was one of the UK's leading lawyers representing children with special educational needs and then he opened a school. Now he has a very successful group of schools, one of which I visited as part of a current consultancy project.

When we met he told me how when he decided to open his first school, he bought a really good book. Six years later it's still on the shelf above his desk. He told me how nice it was to finally meet the author; yes that book was one I had written!

It is so easy to underestimate one's own reputation. Here for me then was a real illustration that for many people starting and growing successful enterprises, my books really do make a difference.I like hearing from people I have helped to succeed without even meeting them!

Find out more about Paul's work here.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Spending a penny and finding a conundrum

You walk into the toilets in a posh restaurant and spot a coin on the floor, close to a toilet. Clearly it fell out of someone's trousers when they pulled them down (or up). The floor is dry and there's no one else around to see what you do.

You can choose to pocket the coin or leave it where it is. We all have our price and for me, faced with this conundrum last night thought long and hard before deciding what to do. In fact I decided that for me to pick up a coin in a toilet it had to be either a one or two pound coin. 50p or below and I'd leave it where it was.

It was a one pound coin and right now it is in my pocket.

What's your price? What's a coin got to be worth for you to pick it up and once in your pocket, what would you do with it?

Thursday, 26 August 2010

The paradox of amibtion

I was 55 at the weekend and inevitably spent time reflecting on my life thus far.

When I was 30 I'd been selling for five years and had already started to climb the career ladder. I thought I was invincible and for me success was easily measured by where my company Sierra sat in the range. At 33 I got a bright red two litre GLS - I'd reached the top of the company list and changed companies to get more.

The new firm indulged me with an identical GLS and a slightly higher salary. I thought I was worth more and lacked the wisdom to understand why the talent so obvious to me wasn't universally recognised by my bosses.

Now I'm 55, I have gained much of the wisdom I then lacked. I probably also have the commercial skills to command the high salary I then saw as my right. The trouble is, that I'm no longer ambitious in a material way. I'm more interested in the positive impact I can have than the money I can earn.

I suspect the world today remains full of young men with more ambition than ability. It's up to us who have long since grown up to help them reconcile what they can do with what that might give them. Then they might mature faster than we did and actually achieve more!

Friday, 13 August 2010

Past, present, future

I visited the excellent Belsey Bridge Conference Centre today. Brilliant people, wonderful setting and facilities and prices that make it the perfect setting for the social enterprise residentials I'd like to run next year.

However I've always known the place by another name - All Hallows School. It's where my kid sister was sent by from the age of seven for reasons I'd rather not discuss. Actually Boarding School was good for her I think but it meant that she and I never really knew each other (I'm 9yrs older). Sadly we've not met or spoken for around 25yrs.

The school was very St Trinians in architecture and I'm sure in many other ways too. Last time I was there was in October 1980 when in a state of shock, I drove my distraught father there to break the news of our mother's sudden death. All that for me is now ancient history, but the conference centre, despite it's high tech gear, new decor and furniture is still essentially the school I last visited on that emotionally turbulent day.

The school library still contains old school books and one room had a display cabinet of old school trophies and cups. Both caused me to gulp, as did the whole visit. In fact I parked on the verge for ten minutes when the place came into view, to stop my heart racing before turning into the drive.

How amazing that after 30 years, a place can have such an effect on me. I now know I have to run a programme there if only to deal with the strong feelings visiting the place has evoked. I cannot wait 30yrs before I return . . no way

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Big Society - Big Opportunity

I've just written the text below for the organiser of an event I'm speaking at in September. He said it 'sounds fabulous' which set me thinking. There's so much bullsh*t and hot air being spouted about Big Society yet so few actually getting off their backsides to be amongst the first to rise to the challenge?
Am I unusual? Surely not:
The words
How to create your own reality behind the rhetoric
Robert Ashton believes that social enterprise is about attitude and action. He says you need attitude to make a difference in a financially sustainable
way. He also believes in action, describing Big Society as 'an open door through which the brave must step to create the world they want to see.'
Right now he's working with three communities seeking to do just that. A village seeking to regenerate their community, creating jobs and improving local services; a community determined to create a new community hospital that can never be taken away and a school not willing to sit back and accept hat the end of BSF means the end of their hopes for a new school in 2012
Robert is also an author, his 12th book, 'How to be a Social Entrepreneur' is published in October and can be pre-ordered at this event.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Why do we so readily miss the obvious?

I ran a social enterprise 'netwalk' yesterday and made the mistake of leading the group last a village pub. Or at least I tried to lead the group past a pub. They unanimously decided it was time for a beer break and went in.

We asked the landlord what made his rural business successful? We were hoping for some useful tips we could take away and apply to our own businesses. He did not let us down. After much thought he smiled and said just one word: 'customers'.

He knew that pleasing customers was what made them keep coming back for more. Nothing complicated in that. Nothing challenging, just good old plain common sense.

Why then, do we worry about Business Link being disbanded. The answer perhaps is to stop complicating business and return to the basics. Satisfy your customers and you stay in business. Ignore them or fail to listen and adapt and no amount of clever consultancy will save you.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Fast or slow - which is best?

Tomorrow is the copy deadline for my next book. I have 15,000 words left to write and am covering 3,000 words a day. I have a sneaky feeling that this pace delivers a better book than the Utopian 'chapter a week' rate we set out to do but never start soon enough.

I book written slowly, intertwined with everyday life and work is a book where you can't quite remember what was in Chapter 3 by the time to start writing Chapter 6. That can be very embarrassing as case studies you'd like to use and decide to use, are in your mind because you've used them already. Points get made twice and favourite phrases pop up with startling regularity.

Right now though, I'm doing it my preferred way. The book is my entire life, dominating every waking moment and every section builds on those it follows in a logical and structured way. I feel that only by achieving this level of intimacy and total focus as I write the book, can I even aspire to a close connection with my readers who will be buying the book in November.

All authors run over their deadline - maybe it's for a good reason. I'll argue that books are better for being written this way. Do you agree?

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Village SOS - Save our Sanity

Well, six months of hard work as village champion for West Norfolk village Hilgay did not result in a £400k grant for the village, a £30k fee for me and a 50min BBC One documentary for us all early next year.

It has however been a learning experience I'd not have missed for anything. To work with a great bunch of individuals from a small community, all determined to see things get better was been a humbling experience. It has also been incredibly frustrating. My June column in 'New Start' magazine will offer my top five tips for dealing with difficult people who simply cannot see that funders have their own agendas, rules and expectations. Self belief is not enough; you have to convince others.

Throughout the process I was in touch with several other village champions. It was clear all along that we were going to have to be different to stand out from a very well organised crowd. The strength of our project was its simplicity and scalability. It did not regrettably offer a nice building on which could be fixed a shiny Big Lottery plaque.

Setting aside me innate mercenary focus on income and a desire to appear on mainstream TV - the project is I think destined to be funded in other ways. From the village's point of view, this means regeneration at a more realistic pace. For me, it means less income but actually a more scalable, achievable process I might help other communities through. Not everyone can attract big funding from the Big Lottery. For most I suspect a more modest gradual series of changes are going to be better suited.

As ever I am looking for the opportunity. Now the Lottery hopes have vanished, the real opportunity is actually becoming clearer.

Friday, 2 April 2010

would you pay to hear it like it really is?

A month without a blog. Has anyone missed me? Perhaps not, but should I take the risk of silence? It's good to talk and speak your mind, even if in my case my mind sees the world differently to others.

 I'm told I'm outspoken yet whenever I speak to a group or write an article or book, I carefully self censor. Why, well I have to consider that the more prudish people sometimes have big budgets to spend and will read my public utterances by way of research.

So I have an idea. Why not create a subscription only me, acessible only by those who have signed a disclaimer and paid a modest annual fee. Then I can be myself - critical, brutal and at times rather rude. Not you understand rude in a Les Dawson kind of way - more in the way your best friend describe the best way to escape from your burning house. Thats no nonsense, no euphamisms and no pussy footing around the truth.

I want to out the awful and suggest alternatives that work. I want to tell people committed to real, sustainable enterprise how I see the world of business support, business growth and business survival.

Would you pay to be kept informed, probably entertained and at times maybe even shocked? What's it worth? Tell me and then watch this space - or rather a space not far away. Something's brewing and it's going to be good.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Cheque out

I'm a Trustee of Norfolk Community Foundation and so often meet people who give money to charity. Indeed the Foundation's role is to make it easy for people to become donors, by providing a very personal, professional and focused service. Their money is well invested to create an endowment fund from which the income will be distributed as grants for ever.

However I'm rarely there when the cheque is passed across; the very moment of commitment. The other day I witnessed a donor signing and passing over a cheque for £100,000. It's massively more than I give each year and indeed, more than I usually earn in a year. Yet to this donor, it was simply part of his programme of investing in Norfolk; the place where he was born, lives and has always called home.

I had that sudden thought that by comparison, my contributions were insignificant. The reality is though, that as Tesco are alwasy quick to tell us; 'every little helps.' The success of any endowment building charity relies as much on the many who give a little as thew few fortunate enough to be able to give a lot.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Tories will bang Business Link on the head

Today's Sunday Times carries a story by Rachel Bridge that explains how an incoming Conservative government plan to zap Business Link. Instead they plan to increase funding to Enterprise Agencies and let them get on with the job. The problem with Business Link says Mark Prisk, the most likely contender for the role of Small Business minister, is that Business Link spend £190m pa pointing people towards sources of help, rather than helping people solve their problems themselves.

It's good news for the Enterprise Agency movement, who in my experience are far more passionate about enterprise than Business Link. But are Business Link really so bad they need to disappear? I think not. Instead of getting rid of the good ones as well as the bad, why not give them three years to become self funding. Give them the freedom to follow their market and the flexibility to build local partnerships that make sense.

There's nothing with the people who work for Business Link - what's wrong is the top down, one size suits all regime they have to work under.

Friday, 12 February 2010

The next BIG idea

Great to see that the Big Lottery are to put a greater focus on their 'Reaching Communities' initiative. Especially welcome is the simplified 'Light' version that makes application less daunting for people looking for up to £40k pa for up to five years to get their project off the ground.

It's good to see a big funder making things easier. Perhaps others will now follow their example!

Saturday, 6 February 2010

There's something strange about a man who buys a villa on Lanzarote

Today's local daily paper carries a story about the company that made me redundant in 1990. I came to be hugely grateful to their MD who gave me the push because without that nudge, I'd probably still be working for someone else. 

Alas his company went bust last year, no small feat when the firm's been around 40 years and has had plenty of time to stash away plenty of rainy day money. I guess there's a moral there somewhere, but that's not the point I want to make. The news story was about two of the assets of the firm yet to be bought from the receiver.

The assets were an interesting combination. A development of park homes in mid Norfolk and a villa on Lanzarote. One was an investment closely linked to the company's core business. The other perhaps less so.

The story got me thinking. I've been to Lanzarote to speak at a conference. It's a volcanic island with nothing to do or see; people go there to lay in the sun, eat drink and party. Why would a real entrepreneur buy a villa there? Aren't entrepreneurs more likely to invest in places where there's lots going on?

How will you celebrate New Year's Eve in 2099?

Alas I'm not expecting to stay alive long enough for that one, but Frank here stands a very good chance of doing just that. Frank and his dad Rob were with me on Thursday evening when I spoke to an audience of social entrepreneurs in Leeds for Business Link Yorks and Humber. Rob and I have known each other a while, both being passionate and vocal about social enterprise. We met up at Voice 10 and he let slip that he'd be bringing Frank along to meet me in Leeds later in the week. I think that mum was out as well that evening so Rob was babysitting.
I used this picture of Frank in my presentation to make the point that just because we would not be around in 2100, here's a guy who would. It's the way we behave now, in terms of enterprise and environment that will shape Frank's future. 

Furthermore he's growing up in a very different age to the one I was raised in. The 50 years that have passed since I was Frank's age have seen huge change; colossal growth in consumerism being just one of them. It strikes me that things I'd experienced at his age, central heating, a family car and 24/7 entertainment on demand are the very things hid generation might choose to do without. I'd never had them and he'll probably decide to get by without. Together, he and I bracket the consumerist age.

You can see what Rob Greenland, Frank's dad thought of all this by visiting his blog. It's well worth subscribing to.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Let's all be stick in the muds

Yesterday I attended a brilliant meeting in West Norfolk. It was all about opportunities to diversify, develop and generally improve the success of the local economy.

The notion of a water taxi captured the imagination of a quite a few people. Until that is a local farmer pointed out that on a tidal river, you'd only be able to make one trip each way per day.

Voice 10 - well worth listening to

There are two advantages to being the last person to blog about Voice 10, the Social Enterprise Coalition's annual conference. One is that you've had time to reflect on what was said and the other, is that you are spared the hassle of keying in all the best bits.

The best speaker by a mile was Phillip Blond. He's the first person I've heard publicly say what I've long thought: that tomorrow, every enterprise will be a social enterprise. Quite rightly in my view, he says that community ownership will become universal, albeit in differing forms. It's what real democracy is about! I was not surprised to spot that he's left handed.

Social Enterprise magazine have kindly captured the best quotes of the conference and placed them here. They're well worth reading!

Friday, 29 January 2010

The Right to Try

The Plunkett Foundation staged a brilliant conference earlier this week. The 'Right to Try' focused hard on the inevitable need to communities to take the initiative and improve themselves, rather than wait for our cash strapped Government to do it for them.

Particularly interesting was the way the incoming Conservative Government plan to give communities the 'right to buy' redundant community buildings. This will go a long way towards keeping and building community space. (You can't be an active community if everyone stays at home!)

The conference also explored one of the most challenging community conundrums. How is it, that when good stuff happens in one place, others don't follow and do the same. Instead we constantly see missed opportunities and struggling pioneers, reinventing wheels which, are already spinning perfectly a few miles down the road.

I have an idea brewing here, that would highlight opportunities in a dynamic and alluring way. More on this later.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Sunny delight

The Times recently reported an alarming rise in the incidence of rickets amongst British children. The condition is the result of vitamin D deficiency and is caused by staying out of the sun and not eating a balanced diet.

It seems strange that after more than 100 years of medical research and social reform people should now opt out of good health. In the Victorian slums bow legged children, deformed by rickets were all too common. Parents were poor, housing was poor and good food hard to find and harder to pay for. Now rickets is back by choice.

 It's no longer considered safe to let children play outside; the fear of skin cancer, paedophiles and traffic is too great. Equally, fast food is so much faster and tastier than anything involving vegetables.

We seem to have reached the point where a happy healthy life is deemed too risky for young people. Deformity, obesity and social isolation is considered a far less risky option. Now it's only mad dogs that go out in the midday sun

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Retail is detail

I wonder what it costs to convert a city centre pub into a pizza/pasta restaurant? Certainly a lot more than it costs to clean a few windows. So why invest in one and not the other?

We almost went to a new Norwich pizza restaurant last night. It's been reviewed in the local paper and is not part of a chain, so worth supporting.

The menu outside seemed OK but the view of the restaurant was not. The glass in the door had been half heartedly cleaned and was all smeary. So was the mirror on the wall just inside. It makes you wonder if the glasses and plates get the same treatment? We turned round and went to Pizza Express - the 'devil we know' instead.

Dirty windows suggests a lack of attention to detail. Windows are detail you can see. In a restaurant, there are plenty of places where you can't see people taking short cuts. 

As with anything new, people will only try it if it's clearly as good as what they're used to. The restaurateur saved five minutes - but it cost him a customer.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Mean and green!

We recently had a comprehensive energy use survey of our business premises here. Carried out by Brian Holder from University College Suffolk the work was funded with an EEDA grant.

The results were interesting and we're already saving money. Later this year we'll be applying for planning consent for a wind turbine and we've been exploring solar hot water heating.

But insulation was the area I found most startling. I specialist contractor took a look and suggested cavity wall insulation between the Edwardian brick skin and 17th century inner structure of our farmhouse. I'd forgotten we have a cavity to fill, That work will be done later this month.

A large sold brick wall separates our living space (a barn) and a former grain store. Here they suggested an external insulation material that costs an eye watering £4,300. I'm going to go for a greener and meaner alternative. A wall of wheat straw bales that we'll buy off the field at harvest and bring the bales home with my tractor and trailer. Estimated saving £4,000. Cool eh!

Thursday, 14 January 2010

CICs to become a better investment proposition

It's great to read today that as a result of the recent review of the CIC structure, the rules are to be changed. I'm always thought that CIC limited by share offers the greatest potential. It allows for genuine, meaningful community involvement (through share holding) and means you can attract external investors too.

From 6 April a CIC will be able to give investors up to 20% return. This is a very, very positive move. I only hope it encourages more people to see and value the merits of the CIC limited by share option. At last social enterprises can attract investment in a way that rewards the investor. We all want to do good; now we can invest in social enterprises without losing out.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Dying to meet you


We're contract publishing a magazine read by retired people and offered a couple of worthwhile charities a special ad rate as we had two pages to fill at deadline. Both chose to run legacy ads which got me thinking

Both have professional marketing teams and both clearly know their marketplace, but why seek to start your donor relationship by promoting legacies? Would they not have done better to find ways to get to know our readers and make them feel valued, before asking the legacy question?

I'm the lead Trustee on marketing with Norfolk Community Foundation. Here our policy is to introduce donors to the organisation and the work that it does long before they consider their own death. I'm pretty sure that when the Foundation gets legacies, they will be from people who have become familiar with our work and comfortable with our ways.

I'd say that the more personal the product you're selling, the more important it is to really get close to your prospect before popping the question. Dead simple really . . . . .

Saturday, 9 January 2010

2010's going to be a bouncy year

One of my current projects is to explore the opportunity for a GP Practice to set up a nursing home. The vision is for the nursing home to be community owned. By this I don't mean in a token sense, with regular open days and consultation. I mean set up as a community interest company with local people able to become shareholders.

This set me looking into how care homes are managed and that led me to Eden Alternative.  As much a philosophy as anything else, the Eden Alternative is a fresh and exciting way to care for the old and vulnerable. People are encouraged to stay active, involved and to care for others. It's simple yet clearly highly effective.

I'll be using this image in my presentation to the doctors next week. We only get new things if we challenge our perceptions and recognise that things don't always have to stay the same.