Sunday, 30 May 2010

Human Nature, Social Enterprise & Business Models..

Last week, from the comfort of lying prone in the grass on the sun baked Highbury Fields, I Tweeted a few ethereal thoughts on social enterprise business models. These were widely ignored ;) but a few people commented and so I decided it was worth expanding on, if only to clarify my original musings...

The original Tweets, responses, and my narrative clarification:

Recent human meddlings aside, Nature is the perfect system.. But how does everything "get done"? Does Mother Nature have a to do list? ;)
.. or .. 1) when whatever happens is good.. nothing truly needs to 'get done'.. 2) or when things do what they do because of what they are..
..then whatever happens is a direct result of the actual nature of things. It's an honest system in the sense that there's no should/ought..
Pondering how #socent can build on the real nature of people .. (assuming we think humans are basically good well meaning creatures).. create biz models that are more natural, less 'work' .. if we're basically good, the systems allowing us to act on this and *do* good..
..should be simpler? Or have we overworked our nature??
// Today's ramble brought to you by #zenhabits #socent & sunny day in the park.. ;)

@Ghww: Re @RedButtonDesign multitweet: I warn against seeking 'natural' solutions. Capitalists have always done this. & nature has no should/ought.
@RedButtonDesign: RT @ghww: "nature has no should/ought" that's my point, a system that relies on discipline of it's agents to uphold the system will fail things will inevitably act according to their nature, therefore you have to adapt systems to human nature, not human nature to systems. Problem is we've forgotten what our real nature is, so we need to get that back ..
@curtistim: @RedButtonDesign so, a truly 'social' enterprise that treats humans as persons rather than functional, fictional commodities?
@Adilabrar: @RedButtonDesign come again?

So, some confusion...
Let me clarify.

- Nature is a self organising, self perpetuating system
- Humans are basically good.
- Social Enterprise endeavours to be a self organising, self perpetuating system which allows Humans to act upon their natural instinct to be good.

Current Social Enterprise business models do not appeal to our natural desire to do good, they appeal variously to our sense of obligation, guilt, commerce or vanity. All of which are strong enough drivers to promote action, but none of which are sustainable as they lack a certain authenticity of motive.

Nature works as a system because the system is simply the sum of the given behaviours of the elements within it. As soon as you try to force nature to act against these impulses.. (want seasonal fruits all year round, want forests here but not here, more of these creatures and less of those..) you disrupt the system and it acts out, or fails.

Humans vainly like to think of themselves outside this system, But the fact is, we have a set of characteristics which are inbuilt and though we may very successfully train ourselves to repress and control these characteristics, we aren't doing anything more than that. They're not going away.. we're just learning how to displace them.

Interestingly, one of the things that many societies have done, is suppress the desire for equality by suggesting (falsely) that achieving a higher status is actually beneficial. Capitalism and clever advertising have systematically manipulated our natural instincts until we have a situation where hierarchies, not communities, appeal to our evolutionary instincts to protect ourselves and our families. It's not as simple as desire. We create safety (or an illusion of) by having more .. more money, more food, more power, more weapons.."more". Where as traditionally it was understood that the best thing for an individual and their offspring was to be within a community of equals.

Only now are we beginning to gain perspective and see more clearly that this is fallacious. Brilliant works like The Spirit Level clearly demonstrate that inequality doesn't just cause more suffering to those at the bottom of the scale, but verses an equal society, inequality actually causes suffering to those at the upper end of the scale to.

So, my thoughts were that rather than create a system of business models and structures for social enterprise which are then implemented based upon the inequality we have mistakenly promoted: to create models based on the natural sense of equality and species protection that we diverged from, prior to this. To build the new system upwards from the last healthy point of development.

If you do that, and look at the way we naturally wish to express goodwill and philanthropy - it isn't from a distance. It isn't by signing a direct debit to a high-brand charity in return for receiving their end of year report. It is by having a human interaction, a human, emotive response to the act of helping another. Doing good makes us feel good, current models of Social Enterprise disconnect the act from the primary benefit of the act. Much in the way that Milgram's famous study allowed people to act more cruelly than anyone imagined when they were divorced from the effects of that cruelty, bringing people together to face the effects of their kindness will, undoubtedly, promote them to act with a generosity beyond that which we currently account for.

Social Enterprise needs to be a force which enables the reconnection of our naturally good nature with the pleasure of doing good. The only way for this to happen is for the "models" to build upwards from true human impulses, not to build backwards or sideways from the capitalist mess we have created.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Shine 2010 Fink Club: What I meant to say was....

May 13-15th saw the great and the good of social enterprise (and a few people I think must've snuck in the back door) gather for Shine 2010.
The original unconference upped the anti for it's 3rd year. One of the bolder ideas in a fantastically crafted, inspiration packed event, was the Friday night, not Fight Club but "Fink Club"..

"A boxing ring, 4 opposing positions, 4 pugnacious and opinionated social entrepreneurs refereed by the legendary Liam Black of Wavelength. The gloves are off. You decide who wins"

Oh yes...
Rod Schwartz, investor, serial entrepreneur and founder of Clearly So.
David Barrie, regeneration consultant, film-maker and founder of The People's Supermarket.
Saeeda Ahmed, Social Enterprise Ambassador, SSE Fellow, founder of community regeneration company Trescom

and .. Me. Literally, they couldn't get anyone better ;-)

My rallying cry in the face of calls to man up, become more commercial and attract more equity finance was, surprisingly, for social enterprise to "stay young, stay hungry & stay innovative" ..
Well, there was definitely hesitation, and repetition, as well as language Russell Brand and Wossy would have blushed at (sorry mum) but here's what I planned to say, the PG version..

"What is the most important contribution that social entrepreneurs can make to our society now?"

The most important contribution we can make to society, is to recognize that whilst the sector we have created is good – it is not the holy grail and it cannot and should not attempt to “do it all”.

Social Entrepreneurs are not like other entrepreneurs. We aren’t here in the ruthless pursuit for money, power and influence, we are here because we have organisations addressing the fundaments of human nature. Problems which are not new to society but, thanks to us, are now being approached with a new hunger and a fresh creative spirit.

This is a sector that is still dominated by early stage new start organisations. It’s fantastic! Young organisations are special. They’re cash strapped, they’re resource limited, they’re geographically and sector focused; they have to be responsive and single-mindedly motivated to create impact, they've a childlike desire to prove themselves in the wider world.

And as soon as you begin to shepherd them along the well trodden path towards traditional commerce, towards the status quo, you lose these characteristics.
The stability afforded by bountiful capital and regular contracts tempers the hunger, it introduces a fear that hinders innovation, what was once youthful and unafraid to make mistakes becomes risk adverse and unresponsive..

We must resist. We should not be swayed down a path of complacency by political buzz words and the all too common belief that if we throw enough money at it, it’ll somehow get better.

It *is* tempting to think that we can change the way investors think. But investors have a mandate to maximize profit. Do you??

I’m not anti-commercialising socent per se, for goodness sake, if we create anything of any real value the commercially minded will come right in and “monetize” it anyway whether we like it or not! I’m simply suggesting we don’t do their job for them.
It’s not the place of social entrepreneurs to fit our round sector into their square boxes

No. The SINGLE greatest contribution we can make right now is to harness the sectors majority; the youthful, hungry and innovative majority and focus our efforts for impact, continuing to innovate where innovation is needed most.

Stay Youthful.
Stay Hungry.
Keep Innovating.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Lets skip some of the narrative and get right to the good news..

Yeah yeah, I hear ya: "It's all well and good telling us what you did 12 months ago but where are you now? Are you still going? ..Does it work? ..Can I buy one?"

Well, the short answer is yes, yes, no, not yet. Let me expand, but skip some of the narrative... 'eh? (buy me a drink in the pub if you want the rest of the "Dragon's Den" story, the "Law suit against a major business support agency" story, or the "3 minutes away from losing our patent" story .. buy me the whole damn bottle if you want the "So, you're in London.. and James is living in Sierra Leone??!" story..) ..and get right to the good news.

We're funded.
We've re-designed, re-branded, we've got manufacturers, suppliers, and we're beginning production.

There, that's better isn't it?

I won't say too much while we're still pushing paper on the investment, but suffice to confirm the deed is done (was settled on my 26th Birthday none-the-less). And incidentally, for those who knew us way back when, this means that the, long in exile, 3rd director is no longer with the company in any facet; shares, power or intellectual property
(if you don't know this story .. add it to the 'buy me a drink' list above!)

Unbelievably this also means we are now a team of 12. James heading up product design and cultural implementation, myself on business model development and sales/marketing, we have a primary investor, a non exec director, 4 vocal and hugely talented 'value-adds' and 4 (mostly) silent loyal supporters!! It sounds more hectic than it is, though, as the reality remains I'm the only full timer and most days I work from home.

I should expand on my mention that James is living in Sierra Leone. He left (the country not the company!) about 6 weeks ago to apply his engineering skills to developing an appropriate and accessible way to dig water wells in developing countries. Not only is this a natural expansion for Red Button Design and extremely valuable in terms of the data being gathered, but we also hope that the team he is forming can become our first worker owned manufacturing co-operative. You can follow his work via his Blog, his updates on Twitter: @RBDAfrica and see some of his pictures on Flickr

Product-wise, thanks to a concentrated effort by James, our design support team at Quadro, and our international sourcing contacts at Tiger Global, we have finalised what would have been "ROSS 3.0" but is now simply known under our new name 'Midomo'.

Midomo is about to undergo its first production run with our new manufacturers and suppliers. We expect this to go ahead within the next 8 weeks, meaning we should have something for you to put your grubby paws all over come Autumn! And yes, expect a London-based launch party in which I force lovely influential humanitarians, entrepreneurs & willing volunteers to publicly drink Midomo-purified water and hope they're still talking to me a week later.. In more ways than one!!

Which brings me on to that very obvious question.. "When can I buy one?"..
Now, my team don't like me making promises about when we will be ready to make commercial sales, so I absolutely cannot say that I expect to close the first orders in November. But as soon as everyone is comfortable announcing November as our expected sales date, I promise I'll let you know... ;-)

Just one last thing, this post actually has a slightly ranty but honest and well meaning Addendum, which you can read, if you so wish, by following the link below...

Addendum: An Optional Explanation Of Time & Rescouces..

Addendum: An Optional Explanation Of Time & Resouces..

Appreciably, there are always a lot of questions surrounding the length of time this has been under development. Some genuinely interested .. some pushing on accusatory .. (some worse..) And I would be lying if I didn't say that, on occasion, I find this a rather irritating and difficult issue to address. I can't help but wonder what one imagines the capability could be, for two broke students to run and fund an R&D project on a new technology which needs certification from the World Health Organisation itself? Just how anyone, at 25, goes about getting meetings at the United Nations, raising half a million quid.. let alone the hum drum question of how to afford your mobile phone bill when you're refusing to take a 'real' job..

Don't get me wrong, though this sounds aggressive it really is nothing of the sort. I completely understand that given my pitch often includes the statistic "lack of access to safe drinking water results in 10,00 deaths every day" people gain a sense of urgency! The same sense of urgency perhaps that we all have, at RBD, and keeps us working on the project despite some unimaginably taxing and harrowing personal sacrifices.

I often use the analogy of a vaccine or a new drug to make my point known. because even once the development and internal trials are finished, the sheer beurocracy of creating something which essentially takes another human beings life, and puts it in your hands ...

That isn't a process I am willing to rush.

But I do get it, and I genuinely apologise to those of you who feel this has been a long time coming. I feel your boredom, eagerness and frustration more acutely than you know. I invite you to get in touch and find out how we've been progressing - you never know, there might be something you can do to help speed the process along..