The importance of having strong commercial acumen, determination to succeed, and a good product were the focus of a special discussion highlighting the good work done by social enterprises in Aberdeen.
Duncan Skinner and Collette Norval of social enterprise Social Stuff shared their experiences to date with an audience of budding entrepreneurs. The event also touched upon Mr Skinner’s involvement in the management buyout, and subsequent sale of PSN, as well as his role in rescuing local mattress manufacturer Glencraft, which provides work for the disabled, from the threat of liquidation.
The event, organised by The TechForce and held at Barclays, Union Plaza, forms part of a regular series of ‘meet the entrepreneur’ events across Aberdeen, Dundee and Inverness in which successful business leaders share their experiences.
Here are six tips Duncan and Collette provided to any budding entrepreneur or social enterprise enthusiast:
1) Go with your gut
In summer 2008, Mr Skinner found himself enjoying his favourite pastime of climbing in the Western Isles with a few friends. On the way up, the conversation turned to Duncan’s future plans: “I really wanted to get involved in a social enterprise, but wanted to find the right opportunity to do so” he explained.
Fast-forward to November, and while watching the news that Glencraft was facing liquidation with 52 people set to lose their jobs, Duncan’s phone vibrated and a text from his climbing friend appears. The text read “Glencraft?”
Two minutes into the pitch to take control of the ailing organisation, one senior council member halted the high-level meeting and exclaimed in exhausted disbelief: “Why are we doing this?” At this point, then First Minister Alex Salmond retorted that with the commercial experience possessed by Duncan and his colleagues, if anyone could save the venture it was them.
2) Don’t let others pigeon-hole you too early
Collette describes herself as an ‘all-rounder’. She believes this attribute has helped her succeed in her previous role at Glencraft, and now in her current endeavour at Social Stuff.
She recalls failing her Higher Maths prelim and her teacher saying at a parents’ evening that the best ‘we can get her’ is a C. At the time, she was stronger in language-related subjects and felt this led to her being pigeon-holed too early in life. After redoubling her efforts, she received an A in Maths – proving her teacher’s assumptions wrong.
3) Knowing the right person isn’t always the most senior
Making Social Stuff a success hasn’t been straightforward. Collette and the rest of the team have had to fight every day in order to get the product on shelves nationwide. She recalls one client who was particularly reluctant – but her persistence eventually paid off, leading to multiple orders.
“We’ve found out quite quickly that knowing the right person is crucial. It’s all well and good having the CEOs on board, but the person who really matters is the guy who buys the stock in for the shop.
“There was one guy who didn’t ‘get’ it and I kept phoning and phoning; trying to persuade him. He just couldn’t understand the idea of the product. I kept asking him to just try one or two in the shop, and if it didn’t sell then fair enough. This went on for months and months until, finally, the client allowed a couple in store. They flew off the shelves! These days it’s the other way around, and he keeps phoning me for more.”
4) Figure out what you and your business stand for, and never forget it
During the early years of PSN, the founders sat down and decided what the principles of the business should be. What started off as 51 were whittled down to 7 core values, which guided the actions of every employee and were central to the business’ success. Sticking to these values meant that hard decisions sometimes had to be made, however.
Duncan explained: “We had to try and sell contracts to the big players in the industry, and it wasn’t the idea that did it; it was the belief we had throughout the company. One of these firms wanted to work with us in what would have been a lucrative contract, but when we looked at that company we realised quite quickly that they didn’t fit in with our core values, particularly on safety.
“I remember the meeting where we basically told them: ‘We don’t want to work with you because you’re unsafe’. That was a moment where the hairs stood up on the back of your neck. They ended up coming back to us and asking if we could help them improve their safety record. Today, they remain one of our best clients.”
5) Know exactly what your customer needs
“If you don’t know what your customer needs, then you’re doomed” says Duncan.
The pair agreed that what you think your customer needs isn’t always necessarily the reality – and, if not, then you must learn very quickly.
“One example I found was when going into meetings I noticed the aspects we were leading our sales pitch on weren’t getting the reaction we had expected” explains Collette.
“But then we started talking about the fact that we have no minimum order quantities, and they would soon perk up. Now, every meeting we go into begins by saying we don’t have minimum order quantities.”
6) If you want to be taken seriously, then be seen to run as a business
Although social enterprises are often thought of as charitable institutions, Collette believes that this should be an afterthought in people’s minds.
“A social enterprise needs to be a brand. We don’t lead our pitches with what we call a ‘sympathy sale’ where people just buy from us because they think it’s a good cause and then never come back. First and foremost, you need to be respected as a business.”
Both Collette and Duncan agree that the key to running a successful social enterprise is treating it like any other commercial business; rather than making ‘just enough’ profit, it’s able to go head-to-head with the very best in the industry.
– Written by Sean Monaghan