Delivering a sustainable economy – the small way
Isn’t it sensible, when delivering a sustainable economy, to first look at what drives the current economy? Why not hone the strengths already there and channel them into opportunities for a sustainable economy? Thankfully the UK’s potential is in great shape thanks to the more open approaches of our big businesses and the proliferation of the small ones.
In praise of small
I’ve worked in and with every size of business. In all my roles with civil service organisations, precious metals businesses, entrepreneurs and even the automotive sector, I make it my mission to unlock their innovation potential by adopting more open principles. Now all of these businesses prosper thanks to their support for a community of smaller, more agile businesses. It’s no coincidence that I now run two of these, SplashMaps and dbyhundred Ltd.
The backbone of the economy
According to the FSB (Federation of Small Business) there are 5.7 million private sector businesses in the UK, 99.7% of which are small to medium sized (SMEs). The strongest performers among them are growing faster than 20% pa. With turnovers of between £1M and £20M they are known as the ‘high growth small businesses’. Though they represent just 1% of the businesses in this country, they contributed to 22% of the UK’s increase in ‘Gross Value Added’ in 2016-17, according to the Octopus group. And when the government, at last, started courting small businesses this year, (initial small steps include simplifying procurement rules), it was under the Minister for Implementation’s mantra “Small businesses are the backbone of our economy”.
Much of my time in big business and the civil service is devoted to breaking down barriers, creating environments where ideas can flourish and systems which progress ideas through the business. You can think of this as a funnel advancing ideas towards finished products. Importantly, the biggest barrier is the ‘protectionist barrier’. A toughie in bigger business, but it’s an area in which I’ve seen some success.
With Ordnance Survey I introduced their own Dragon’s Den process. It allowed new ideas to emerge from outside the dedicated research function. Over time, initiatives brought in technology from an ever-expanding community, reaching out beyond the business. Gradually the ‘not invented here’ resistance began to fade.
I then introduced the free content idea with a project called ‘Open Space’ which, though it got through all the internal processes, was soon shut down at board level, being seen as inconsistent with the profit motives of the business. This was the biggest barrier which, thanks to the outreach programme I ran, ‘Terra Future’, was overcome with the help of Gordon Brown. He decided to “open-up” their data to support a “smarter state” on the recommendation of Tim Berners Lee, the wizard of the web and the information tsar of the time
This little project ultimately set the business on a trajectory towards offering support to developers and small businesses, instantly broadening the appeal of quality on-line mapping and growing the engagement of a much broader developer community. Now Ordnance Survey operates a Geovation Hub in London, attracting those rapidly growing small businesses that hold the big ideas of tomorrow. Gradually the boundary of the business was permeated.
Why bother with all that? – The case for Brexit
Brexit is just another unknown. Or rather a lot of unknowns arriving at once! Guessing what hand we as businesses will be dealt is a pointless exercise. Import-reliant businesses of all sizes are already feeling the strain as goods now cost them 15% more than before the 2016 referendum, due to the weak pound.
See the challenge…
Both big and small companies can see the challenge, and possibly the bigger budgeted companies see it first. But the overwhelming advantage that smaller companies have is that they can move more quickly to a solution. The decisions are often made by a single person or a smaller board, which can make for swifter adaptation to the new state of things.
Bigger businesses take time to respond. From the blue-chip conglomerate to the publicly owned agency, if they haven’t already embraced the small business as part of their sustainability planning, then adapting to disruptive change is like trying to handbrake-turn a super-tanker. Companies like Kodak and IBM are famed for missing these big changes in their markets due to internal resistance and inertia.
…And wear it!
Small companies, by their nature, are able to adapt their existing operations. They’re also hungry to follow their passions (and the money!). Often the challenge set by a big customer or prospect inspires whole new lines of business that can support the wider economy. When a small company sees a challenge you’re more likely to get a single “Hell yeah!”response. When a big business sees a challenge it’s often with a sense of foreboding as collective decisions tend to focus too easily on how this disrupts their status quo.
A millionaire in a 2nd class carriage
One day, by chance, I sat next to a millionaire in a 2nd class carriage of a London-bound train. I would never have known it but since sharing that journey with Mark Constantine my business has made his business, Lush, over £250 000 worth of product which now sells in 3 continents.
Within 6 weeks they had their first batch
Lush’s business is ethical through and through. So it was no surprise that when we started with them, they wanted assurances that no slave labour was being practiced, no materials came from businesses which had conducted animal experiments and that our materials were all from a sustainable source. When we started making maps for them our regular virgin polyester (hitherto the main stay of our weatherproof map range) was out of the question and instead they introduced us to their own supplier of Chinese recycled fabric. Within 6 weeks they had their first batch of 1200 maps.
Lush could see the challenge…
It wasn’t long before the widespread concern about plastics in the oceans stirred up an ethical challenge. Lush could see the challenge posed by the wasteful distances involved in the supply chain and by the fact that most bottles shipped to China for recycling end up floating down the Yangtze River. They wanted to change their supply base.
Their customers wear it
At the end of a successful design meeting in December 2016 at which, together, we defined their own unique map style, their buyer shared the above dilemma with me. I shared this with my supply chain and by August 2017 SplashTex became the only fine-print-ready fabric entirely sourced from bottles within the EU, recycled into yarn in the EU, woven and printed all right here in the EU.
As a consequence this fabric is the most ethical polyester money can buy and is no longer exclusive to the maps we produce, but is now also available for the full range of knot-wrap scarves for all their European stores. Better still, increasing numbers of ethically orientated merchandisers and retailers in the country are benefitting. We’ve already prevented near to 100 000 bottles entering the ground or sea, so could merchandise printed on this fabric say something positive about your own company?
The virtuous circle expands
With Lush we’ve become part of their design ecosystem. Beyond our initial project of defining their exclusive maps on ethical fabrics to sell as knot-wraps, we’re now helping them on projects to do with in-store lighting boxes as well as maps for Mark Constantine’s biography. For our part, we at SplashMaps apply their ethical and sustainable practices throughout our supply chain. So from one relationship with a small supplier Lush have in fact impacted 5 companies, each adopting their ethical practice, and boosting their own earnings at the same time. Ethical and sustainable enough?
How do you start?
Challenge is a daily feature of life
Remember, challenges are never insurmountable. The Armed Forces Para Snowsports Team are an inspiration. For those with life-changing injuries to overcome from armed conflict, challenge is a daily feature of life. The AFPST is a charity that builds upon this, setting the bar ever higher for the military and veterans alike. They are an inspiration to work with and have led us to expand our capability in making speciality Toob neckwarmers. You can donate here.
Right under your nose
There’s no shortage of small businesses, but how do you find the right one for a partnership? Chances are they’re right under your nose! My recommendation is that you try to discuss the issues of your business with your existing suppliers. Seek those who exhibit the uniqueness and flexibility you’re after. Open up to them and venture a bit beyond your normal comfort zone. Everything starts with a conversation. If you’d rather discuss in a broader forum then why not try the Chamber of Commerce or the Federation of Small Business (FSB) regular meet-ups to air your challenges.
Your local Innovation Hub
Beyond that, the more proactive of the small businesses will have an association with one of the growing number of innovation hubs. Locally we have Incuhive across Hampshire and the Tec-Hub in Wessex House, Eastleigh (where SplashMaps can be found). There are science parks associated with Universities, such as the Chilworth Science Parks for Southampton University. Most of these science parks have a diverse membership of companies with a range of skills and expertise to offer. Some, like Tech Hub, will provide desk space for big business remote workers too. This could be a great way to share skills.
A domain specific hub
To hone things down, you could try a more domain-specific hub. Those with which I’ve developed outreach programmes include Productiv, who are specialists at connecting start-up automotive businesses with OEMs. They provide a unique programme of direct assistance in scaling up British born automotive technologies. The Catapults, like the Satellite Application Catapult are terrific resource centres that attract a lot of SMEs to work in a creative environment. In my work with its members and their centralised project management group I’ve secured £3 million in EU funding for projects across Africa and SE Asia.
For fun, for business and the beer!
SplashMaps is proud to co-sponsor Geomob. With its regular, relaxed presentations, competitions and all-important #geobeers, it is a crucial meeting point for those in the fast-moving world of maps and data. It regularly attracts a mix of Blue chips (Shell, Yahoo and Google for example are regulars), students, start-ups and app developers.
Don’t have a sustainability challenge, but would like to address one?
If you don’t have your own, immediate sustainability challenge, but want to get into the habit of addressing some of the big ones, check out the Geovation challenges, where the Ordnance Survey’s London-based business incubator is regularly setting sustainability challenges.
See the Challenge? Wear it!
Uncertainties abound thicker and faster than most people could account for in a simple SWOT analysis. Brexit brings a whole raft of these in one go. Big business may be able to see the challenge, but the small businesses have the passion, drive and freedom to really wear that challenge. They’re eager to grow and particularly eager to impress when terms of the deal resemble more of an alliance than a simple transaction.
To the big businesses I suggest:
- share your ideas and dreams with your suppliers. There’s a good chance you might influence them to adopt more sustainable processes. Embrace more open business practices like these and your business will sustain. We’ll see you here in 10 years’ time.
To small businesses I propose;
- you are the backbone of the economy. Don’t settle for the customer-supplier paradigm. Get integrated and understand your worth. The whole economy is reliant upon you to become fully sustainable.