An interview with The Big Issue’s John Bird

The Big Issue founder on social enterprise, second chances and why we need more risk-takers

If there’s one thing John Bird can’t stand, it’s bullshit. Funders are saying all the right things about the need to back social entrepreneurs, but he believes that only a handful of them will actually take a punt. As someone whose business has helped thousands of people out of homelessness, and one who has put his money where his mouth is when it comes to supporting social enterprise, he has every right to bemoan others’ hypocrisy. The editor-in-chief of street paper The Big Issue feels that far too much lip service is being paid to investing in these businesses.

“Too many people talk about supporting social entrepreneurs, but when you get down to the writing they want so many things that an entrepreneur can’t give,” he says. “They almost want a guaranteed return. There’s too much of that bullshit.”

Bird believes in less talk and more action. After all, this is the guy who abandoned his London Mayoral campaign because he thought he stood more chance of dismantling the capital’s poverty – the tale of two cities, as he calls it – by getting on with work on the ground rather than via the echelons of City Hall.

True to form, he’s now taken the matter of social enterprise support into his own hands with The Big Issue Invest. Set up in partnership with original backer Gordon Roddick, of The Body Shop fame, and run by his chairman Nigel Kershaw, the multimillion-pound fund is effectively a bank for social entrepreneurs. The inspiration, and the cause of his frustration towards the banks’ and other funders’ apathy, stems from his unshakable belief in the power of business to initiate social change. Indeed, as someone who began his own life on “the slippery slope to Shitsville”, spending many of his formative years in and out of prison, he is a living and breathing example of this.

A Colourful past

Many of Bird’s early activities, legal or otherwise, demonstrated entrepreneurial tendencies. At just three or four, he was going to Portobello Market with his brothers, picking up discarded orange boxes, breaking them up and selling them as kindling. “I’ve always been interested in trade,” he says, although not always in the conventional sense of the word.

Later, phoney charity collections and newspaper ads encouraging people to send him money for books that they would never receive were just some of the scams he pulled. A penchant for shoplifting and housebreaking led to several stints in various boys’ institutions. “I was a naughty boy, and I kept getting nicked,” he admits. However, he feels these years were a valuable grounding for his later business career.

Bird eventually abandoned his criminal activities in favour of a life on the straight and narrow. Determined to avoid another stint at her Majesty’s pleasure, he resolved to become a printer. Knowing nothing about the industry when he began, he got sacked from job after job, but learnt a little in each, until eventually he had armed himself with sufficient knowledge to set up his own printworks. He took to being an entrepreneur like the proverbial duck to water, working around 100 hours a week in his garage to make a go of the venture.

“I didn’t realise I was an entrepreneur until about five years ago. I just thought I was mad,” says Bird. “I was always coming up with new ideas, always inventing things, always doing this and doing that. And then people started talking about entrepreneurialism, maybe in 2000, and it was a bit like finding out you actually belong in a club.”

A new challenge

Bird’s big break came from Gordon Roddick. The two of them were old friends and, having seen a similar street paper in New York, Roddick tasked Bird with carrying out a feasibility study to see if could work in London. With firsthand experience of homelessness, running a business and printing magazines, he was unquestionably the best man for the job. Once they concluded that the magazine would operate as a business – whereby both the sellers and the company would profit – Bird was sold.

However, six months later The Big Issue was haemorrhaging £25,000 a month. Faced with being cut off financially, he had to get the publication to start making money. It was the first true test of his entrepreneurialism. “I looked upon it as a challenge,” he says. “I got rid of about 10 people, I put the wages up of a few others and made them work harder.” He also made it a fortnightly magazine, instead of a monthly, and keeping the cost of the publication at 50p, doubled the price to the vendors from 10p to 20p. “I worked it out on the premise that when it was a monthly they had two good weeks and two bad weeks, and as a fortnightly they’d have two good weeks followed by another two good weeks, so they’d earn more money.” It paid off. By the first anniversary in 1992, the mag had turned a £1,000 profit.

But breaking even wasn’t the only challenge in the early days. Sellers physically attacked Bird and his staff when they learned they would have to pay for the magazine. A tough stance was needed to overcome this. “We employed the biggest among them and created our own police force who then protected us,” recalls Bird. “The British Empire’s always done that, buy off the troublemakers. So we did that and we imposed order.”

Leading by example 

Today The Big Issue is one of the UK’s flagship social enterprises – a textbook example of business being used to tackle a social issue and bring about change. The magazine employs around 150 people, and its high profile and 200,000-strong weekly circulation means it’s now a very profitable business.

After achieving this while helping to solve a major social crisis, he has now ploughed much of the magazine’s profits into helping other businesses to do the same through The Big Issue Invest, which lends money to other fledgling social enterprises. The inspiration came from a trip to America in 1999, where Bird noticed a plethora of organisations, such as rehab clinics, which were profitable and had a social agenda.

Teaming up with Gordon Roddick once more, the duo set up Social Brokers in 2001, which later evolved into The Big Issue Invest. Bird stumped up £150,000, while Roddick used his prowess in the City, as co-chairman of The Body Shop, to find banks and investors with deep pockets to contribute to a £30m fund. So far, beneficiaries have included TV chef Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurants, detox programmes and dentists who visit prison inmates and the homeless. At the moment it provides debt, rather than equity finance, although he admits that he’s still learning and the model may evolve.

In a recent report published by the government’s Make Your Mark campaign, Bird called on big businesses to do more to support social entrepreneurs. Promoting social change is something Bird feels truly passionately about. This summer, The Big Issue presented a painting of James Oyebola, a boxer who was murdered by young thugs in the capital last year, to the City of London. And, true to his ‘less talk, more action’ form, he followed this by chairing a heated and impromptu discussion among the friends, family, press and youth workers present on how to tackle London’s war-torn streets.

One way of doing this, he believes, is to get more people from disadvantaged groups of society into business. He believes that those who turn to crime are often entrepreneurial, and could be putting their energy to far better use given the right opportunity. “Look at me – I’m probably one of the most unreliable people you could ever imagine,” he says. “I’ve done time, I must have had 150 jobs in my life, I’ve stolen from my employer, but I got out in the end, and that’s because people believed in me. Somebody made a leap in the dark, and that somebody was Gordon Roddick. Take some risks on humanity before you die.”

Make Your Mark is the campaign to unleash the UK’s enterprise potential www.makeyourmark.org and each November runs Enterprise Week http://www.enterpriseweek.org.uk/

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