Why it pays to be a social enterprise

The co-founder of social start-up Fluency shares the benefits of running a business with a social ethos at its core…

This week I was invited to speak on a panel with fellow entrepreneurs at the launch of Global Entrepreneurship Week at the gorgeous Escalator space in London’s East End.

The panel was about bringing your idea to reality, featuring Ben Atkinson-Willes from Active Minds, Duncan O’Brien from The Dalston Cola Company, Will Crosthwait from Auditionist, and myself.

One of the audience members was Cliff Prior, CEO of UnLtd, an organisation that helps social entrepreneurs get their ideas up and running. As two members of the panel ran ‘social businesses’ and two ran purely commercial ones, Cliff asked the question if it was better from a commercial perspective to start a social business (one that exists to create social impact as well as profit) rather than just a business to make money. Of course, Ben and I agreed that it made complete sense to us but interestingly both Duncan and Will said that if they were to start over, they would probably go the social route.

I have been a long time champion of social business. Having worked in the charity sector for a long time, I love the idea of using market and business strategies to solve social problems. This is why when my co-founder Ian and I set up Fluency – our digital skills start-up getting young people into jobs – we deliberately set up as a company limited by shares, but one that has social impact baked into everything we do.

In my experience, social businesses have many advantages in terms of the support they can access compared to a purely commercial start-up, I’ve listed the key benefits below:

Support for social entrepreneurs

My story as a social entrepreneur started when I was accepted into the School for Social Entrepreneurs back in 2010. This life-changing year long programme was the catalyst that kick-started my journey towards creating Fluency and from that one programme came other offers of support. My involvement with SSE led to my membership in the PwC Social Entrepreneurs Club, a members club for UK-based social enterprises or social entrepreneurs. Being part of this network has been invaluable and I have been lucky enough to be invited onto the Old Vic stage for a day’s training in pitching and presenting.

Over the years, I have been offered so much more free support as a social entrepreneur running a social business. Other highlights include the best media training I have ever received (from Media Trust as part of a package from Nominet Trust), a free two days consultancy from Ernst and Young, and an introduction to two amazing Non-Executive Directors via the Big Venture Challenge.

Access to social grants and funds

Being a social business means that you can also access funds that commercial companies cannot, while still being able to access the same angel investment. Over the years, we have received funding from Bethnal Green Ventures, UnLtd, the Nominet Trust, the RSA and Forward Foundation, as well as, raising a seed round from impact investors, Clearly Social Angels. At the moment, we are halfway through our year of support from the Big Venture Challenge – a programme for ambitious social businesses – which gives us an opportunity to pitch for co-investment.

Increased media attention

Getting attention from the media is easier too. When you are running a business that changes people’s lives and makes a difference, the story sells itself. Journalists and blogs find you. Over the last two years we have been featured in a host of blogs and in the national press. We have been shortlisted for, and won awards in both the start-up space and the social space.

With so many social problems like poverty, climate change and education endemic in societies around the world, and so much support for social businesses, it’s never been a better time to change the world with your business.

Sinead Mac Manus is the CEO and co-founder of Fluency.io – a digital skills start-up getting young people into jobs.

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