Recently, we spoke to Community Catalysts, who are a social enterprise and community interest company that help to nurture small community enterprises, groups and initiatives that care for or support people in their local areas. They also support Local Authorities to help them create the right conditions for a diverse local marketplace to flourish. In this interview, Jill Wighton and Chris Clarke from Community Catalysts share with us why nurturing community micro-enterprises is so important.
Using smaller enterprises in the care and health marketplace has been given a real push by central Government in the last few years, and the target is to try and ensure that 33% of spending should reach SMEs by 2020.
Can you just start off by telling us what you think are the main challenges for small enterprises and ventures operating in the marketplace?
Jill: Providers of very small services like the ones we support need to really understand how money flows locally. In the past much of the money for care services or community supports came directly from councils in the form of contracts or grants. Times have changed quite dramatically, and gone are the days when people are going to hand work on a plate to a small provider. How providers market their services and find customers is a big challenge. There also isn’t the business and other specialist support out there that there used to be. Organisations that offer free advice and support are dwindling. If you have an idea but can’t get the support to bring it to life, it’s really difficult to make a go of it.
Chris: I think with austerity and the huge reduction in local government funding, many people who need support are directed to low cost or free options in the first instance. It’s only when those options aren’t appropriate or available that anybody starts to look at funded care services. This makes it difficult for people who are doing some really good stuff but need to get some small income for doing it. One of the ventures we work with was approached by the council and asked to put on some local events. They have put the events on, but they’re either doing them for free or very low-cost – in effect they’re doing it as volunteers. I think for the small enterprises who need to make money from their services, it’s a big challenge.
Part of the challenge is in supporting SMEs to start out and develop their business ideas. How do you reach people to let them know what the micro-enterprise development project can offer them?
Chris: It can be lots of different ways. For Worcestershire, we put information on the County Council website. The first thing I did when the project started was to go out to the local social work teams to explain to them about the project and the aims of the project. I also asked them about the gaps in the market and what kind of services they knew people were desperately looking for. The other thing we have done is hold events at local schools, etc. They’re often a place to engage disabled young people who might be interested in setting up their own enterprise or venture. At one such event I met a mother and her disabled daughter who together wanted to start a business where they were making jewellery. They’ve actually now started a business that enables disabled people to make jewellery and cards; they then sell the produce at events. However, they’re donating money from the sales to charity, so it changes the perception of disabled people as recipients of those fundraising for charity.
Jill: We do a lot of leaflet dropping to start with, in libraries, etc. We also contact pre-existing micro-enterprises to see how they’re doing and to see if they want to be involved in the project. Some of them are looking to change, so that’s our starting point, really.
A lot of people have never set up an enterprise or venture in their lives and it’s the passion that’s driving them, not particularly that they have big business ambitions
As part of the micro-enterprise development project, you sometimes place a Micro-market Co-ordinator* in the locality. What role do you think they play in local SME development?
*Micro-market Co-Ordinators are local to the area they are working in and help to develop micro-enterprises and ventures by enabling them to network, signposting them to specialist advice and providing tailored support in that locality.
Jill: I think it’s a real mix. A lot of people have never set up an enterprise or venture in their lives and it’s the passion that’s driving them, not particularly that they have big business ambitions. It’s the fact they want services or supports for their sister, mother, aunt, etc., and there’s nothing available or they feel they could offer something better or different to what is already available in their area. For us, it’s about taking the person, at whatever stage they are on that journey, and looking at them all as individuals. We provide people with someone to talk through their ideas. We give them opportunities to network with others on a similar journey or to get specialist advice on business or other topics. So it’s taking all those aspects and helping them through.
Chris: Sometimes you meet new people and they say, ‘I’ve got this good idea and it’s going to do this, this and this’. We can talk to them about how they’re going to set up their enterprise or venture and whether they need a wage from it. Often their idea doesn’t actually bring in any money, so it’s about helping them think it through; is there a way around it or is there a different service they could offer that people locally are saying they need? It is that reality check at the start – don’t go off down that road or you’re going to end up in a dead-end.
Jill: Before we start a project in a new locality we try to scope the area and what people are doing and identify any gaps in the market; that’s a big part of our role. It’s very difficult, as it’s sometimes hard to identify what people are looking for and where. But we try to see if there’s a market in the local area for a particular service.
Smaller enterprises are, of course, usually focused on their local communities. How important do you think it is to have someone – like a Micro-market Co-ordinator – involved in the project, who knows the area?
Chris: It works much better because we have some connections already. It’s easier to go and build those relationships and arrange meetings and go to events where they may be. Being local, we can get to know them and talk to them about what they’re trying to do – ask them what do they offer and what have they got to contribute. We did try long-distance support for a few people to see how it went, but it ended up coming back to the local person to check the information.
You mentioned earlier that organisations offering advice to businesses on how to grow and develop are dwindling. What ongoing support do Community Catalysts offer to the ventures and small enterprises that you’ve helped?
Chris: They all want something different as part of their ongoing support. For example, one of the small enterprises wants quite intensive support because it’s growing. And then you may have someone who asks you two or three questions, has a chat on the phone or sends you an email and that’s all they needed because they’ve got other contacts or they’ve got good skills already. For instance, one of the small enterprises I work with wanted to know where to advertise for a new worker. There’s been maybe two or three emails – little bits – and I distribute her newsletter to all the other enterprises so they know when her group’s on. That’s as much as she needs and has asked for. It really does vary based on what they need.
Join us for the second half of the article next week, where we discuss how Councils can support micro-enterprise development in their local areas.