The Indian Adventure: Purushwadi and Grassroutes

2014-03-04 07.29.03I had now been in India for 8 days, and all of the consultancy work in Mumbai was complete. As part of the trip, I had been fortunate enough to be invited to spend a few nights in Purushwadi, which is a village in central India. It was a 5 hour coach ride, during which time I witnessed some ‘interesting’ motorway driving and some breath-taking scenery. What made Purushwadi so special was that it was a self-sustaining village which had no electricity of running water. This was facilitated by an organisation called Grassroutes, who do a lot of work abroad to help educate people on the way in which other cultures live.

Because of Grassroutes direct link with Purushwadi, portable toilets with occasional running water had been installed for visitors; as had concrete block tents. As you can imagine sleeping on a concrete block mattress wasn’t the most comfortable, but after a long day, where I slept was irrelevant.

The village itself was incredible; stray animals were common – we seemed to adopt a dog – and the villagers were very resourceful. I quickly discovered that dung was used to insulate houses, which, if applied correctly, created a smooth floor, kept houses cool and in fact had no fragrance at all. The amount of work which everyone undertook on a daily basis, sowing and picking crops was astounding. Something which will live long in my memory is playing cricket with the local kids, who, of course, were far better than any of us.

The views were amazing; given that there was no electricity and that we were on the equator, you wake up when the sun comes up – around 6am – and you go to bed when the sun goes down; by 8pm it was pitch black. Without artificial lights which curse our skies, the sky was lit up by hundreds of stars, something I had never witnessed.

From a business point of view, it was a huge personal learning experience. In the west we are focused on material possessions and working for money, because that’s the culture in which we live. In Purushwadi, they have no need for money; everyone eats from the land and works hard to ensure that food is available for themselves and their community. People seemed incredibly content and probably happier given that they didn’t have the constant worry of how they were going to afford to pay bills. Of course there are obvious drawbacks, most importantly the lack of healthcare, however, this had been countered by their link with Grassroutes, who made a Doctor available to them regularly.

I left Purushwadi after 3 days having had an unforgettable experience which opened my eyes and changed my opinions on so many things. Upon returning to Mumbai, I had 9 hours until making my way to Mumbai International Airport to begin my epic 14 hour return journey. Without a shadow of a doubt, my view on ‘international development’ had been hugely altered (no doubt a topic I will discuss in the future), and I had learnt a great deal about business abroad and been proud to have had a part in 3 such ambitious and successful growing social ventures.

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The Indian Adventure: Mirakle Couriers

Before working with the third and final social enterprise, I had the opportunity to meet some of Senior Management Team from RBS India, who had worked with RBS in the UK to recruit and deliver individuals to work with these high potential social enterprises on this consultancy project. I also had the chance to meet the Directorate of India’s UKTI, again providing a valuable insight into how business is done in India and how quickly the economy is emerging and growing in line with the UK.

The third venture was Mirakle Couriers. Mirakle Couriers is a delivery company which only employs deaf people. In India, there is still a view, which would be considered dated in the UK, that people with a disability are socially inferior. For obvious reasons this can mean that people who are born deaf never have the opportunity to get employment and the opportunity to develop real life skills and live normal lives in this sense. By basing their service on this group of people, they buck the trend and have already seen some fantastic results, both from the employees and from those using the courier service.

Through the use of writing boards, employees can deliver packages in the same way as any other courier service, but with the added benefit of breaking down this social perception, enhancing the employability of their staff and removing the social isolation which can occur with this group. In fact, the service has been so successful that many clients believe that the personal service offered by Mirakle Couriers outweighs that of the major players in the sector.

There were certainly synergies between the challenges faced by Mirakle Couriers and the other social enterprises I had worked with in India – in fact, many UK social enterprises encounter the same issue; namely, that of branding. There is often a difficult trade-off between promoting an organisation’s social values and the underlying theory of change which provides the foundations for the enterprise and the quality of product or service. Often the additional social element can create a competitive advantage from other competitors in that sector, although similarly it can be a deterrent. In Mirakle Courier’s case, given the social perceptions of people with disabilities in India, many potential clients wouldn’t use the service for this reason. However, all those who used the service felt that it was an efficient, personable and reliable service.

In general terms, given how strongly the Founders can feel about their social mission, promoting the enterprise purely based on the quality of the product or service delivered rather than the social aims can be challenging. But in this case, as in many others, this would increase the demand for the service, which in turn contributes towards the social objectives; the more people who use the service, the more deaf people they can employ and the further this group can enhance their skills. Ultimately this is what was suggested, and then worked on with Mirakle Couriers.

This topic has created much debate in the social enterprise arena, but what Company Directors must ask themselves is: do they want to deliver as much of their social good as possible, even if it means not fully promoting their cause, or do they want to fully advertise their social objectives and attempt to increase awareness for the issue, even if it means lower sales?

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New year, new resolutions?

Historically a New Year creates a new opportunity for people to reinvent themselves through resolutions, be that losing a few pounds, trying something new or focusing on a certain aspect of life more.

I’ve always been slightly reserved about the idea of creating a raft of resolutions; why wait for the excuse of a new year to make changes? In Eric Ries’ book, The Lean Startup, there is a big focus on ‘pivoting’ if something doesn’t work. Granted, this theory applies to business, i.e. your business model doesn’t allow for you to significantly scale, so you pivot in an attempt to alter this with the hope that this will be achieved in a new iteration of your model. But why can’t this be replicated in all aspects of life?

I recently read an article in Entrepreneur.com on 10 Resolutions from Young Entrepreneurs. They focused on better delegation, celebrate achievements and find a better work-life balance, all of which are good goals to set yourself, however, there is no requirement to wait for an occasion as big as a New Year to make these changes. There has been a lot of press around ’30 day challenges’ of late, and I have indeed jumped on the band wagon. These are challenges which you set yourself for a month, for which you do (or don’t do) a certain activity for a month. These can be giving up certain things, physically pushing yourself, or taking up something new. With the challenges I have set myself in the past, this has created self-improvement, diversity and goal setting.

I’ve often thought that one of the most difficult aspects about working for yourself is the motivation to actually do it. Waking up at 7am to go into the office, finishing very late or working weekends when no one is around to tell or motivate you to do so can be daunting. I’ve actually found that the complete opposite is the case. When you have ownership over something, you are intrinsically more passionate about it, hence you spend more time to develop it. When this is linked to finances and whether you can afford to pay rent or feed yourself for a month, there is an obvious additional incentive. But if you are passionate enough about something as to look forward to each day of work, each new challenge and you surround yourself with the right support, then more often than not, financial benefits follow.

So my message is clear, don’t wait for a significant life or time event to set yourself new challenges, that’s certainly something I’ve found when dealing with start-ups and the quest for personal development.

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When in Rome…

 

I’d been hugely enjoying my time in Arcidosso and had already learnt so much about the food and beverage industry, which I knew would put me in good stead for my return to the UK in terms of knowledge transfer.

But part of my decision to go to work in Italy was to travel and view other parts of the country. I’d already been fortunate enough to have that opportunity through work, visiting Pisa and Sienna among other places.

I very much wanted to visit Rome, and had started making plans to go for a weekend. However, my personal planning was cut short as I was asked if I wanted to attend an International beer festival called EurHop to promote Birra Amiata. We’d be going for 4 nights and I’d have the opportunity to sight-see and explore during the day, so this fell perfectly.

The premise for the festival is to have brewers from all over the world to meet and display their products in one large hall. People with an interest in beer then attend and sample the various types of beer on offer. I was very excited to be attending, but as had been the case for my stay thus far, I didn’t simply want to observe, but I wanted to get stuck in and immerse myself in the industry. I therefore asked what role I could play at the festival, and Gennaro, the owner, asked if I wanted to serve customers behind the bar. My bar tending experience is very limited; my part time job from the age of 16 had been a waiter at a Hilton Hotel, which very occasionally involved serving drinks to take to guests in the restaurant. Those who know me know that beer pouring is not a talent of mine, and that I tended to end up with a 50/50 split between beer and head. However, undeterred by these previous failings, and very keen to continue this adventure which meant getting out of my comfort zone as often as possible, I jumped at the chance. I was also heartened by the fact that in Europe, customers seem to expect a large amount of head on top of their beer.

The car journey from Arcidosso to Rome was breathtaking. The journey itself only took 2 hours and was very direct along a motorway. If you drive along a major motorway in Britain, you may get to see a few trees and service stations, but that’s about as exciting as it gets. However, on our journey south, we were surrounded by olive trees, vineyards, and then for around 50 kilometres, were adjacent to the ocean. I hadn’t realised how long it had been since I’d seen the sea, and in these surroundings, with the sun shining down on us, it looked majestic.

We arrived at the festival, and it suddenly dawned on me how large this festival was. There were around 70 international brewers who were setting up. The first night of the event kicked off at 5pm, but we didn’t see too many customers until gone 11pm. The event closed around 3am, by which time everyone was ready to collapse. But we weren’t going back to our hotel quite yet. Instead we went to a pub where all the brewers gathered and sat down to chat, drink beer and eat spaghetti carbonara. This was certainly a first; I’d never sat down for a (sober) meal at 3.30am before! The tradition continued for the subsequent 2 nights when the festival was on.

I obviously managed to explore Rome, and stumbled across an incredible park at Flaminio metro station. The weather was beautiful, the city was picturesque – the perfect combination of new and old buildings and as always, the food was incredible.

I left Rome with a heavy heart, but had felt how much my Italian had improved, given that I was constantly serving Italian customers behind the bar…a real sink or swim moment. Learning about the industry had also taken a leap forward, but I was ready to get back to Arcidosso, where life seems so laid back it’s horizontal.

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BKSK Inspire on tour

Whilst I’ve been in Italy working with a small business owner in the food and beverage industry, for the benefit of Frumtious (for which the ‘lines’ are still open to vote in the Shell LiveWIRE Award), Karolina, BKSK Inspire’sother co-founder, has been in Naples on the same scheme working with a small consultancy firm; gaining experience which she can apply to BKSK Inspire.

There are around 400km between Naples and Arcidosso, but we were keen to have a face-to-face catch up, and Karolina also wanted to see rural Tuscany. So arrangements were made, and her relatively quick train journey (3 hours) to the nearest town, Grosseto, was followed by a coach trip which took approximately an hour and a half.

The difference was clearly astounding for Karolina. Although Naples is pretty in its own way, mainly given its proximity to the sea and beautiful weather, it is also a very dirty city. So to see a very clean and well-kept village in the middle of Tuscany with only c.4,000 inhabitants was like chalk and cheese.

Of course there was a lot of sampling the local cuisine and wine, but we also took the opportunity to make some key decisions with BKSK Inspire. Having been shortlisted for The Pitch 2013 was fantastic; it was great to know that our efforts and cause had been recognised. But it did also delay our trading start date. We were in the ‘Ones to Watch’ category, and as such, we needed to remain as a non-trading, non-registered company until after the competition. Not winning the competition was of course disappointing, but it gave us some terrific links and feedback, which allowed us to pivot. Originally named BKSK Consulting, we had already decided that the word ‘consulting’ didn’t reflect the message behind the company; it was too corporate. We settled on BKSK Inspire and have since been making changes to how we describe ourselves. It is all very well knowing what you want to achieve, but you need to articulate this to others, the easiest way to get this message across is through your branding.

We’d had some fantastic feedback on our website design, but we didn’t feel that the content really described what we do or how to best engage with us. So we spent a lot of time re-wording, and we should have the website and message re-brand live very soon.

This time also gave us the opportunity to think about our next set of workshops; namely, what we wanted to present, who to, and most importantly where these would be most accessible. One of our location priorities is community centres, and it goes without saying that if anyone is interested in hosting one of our enterprise workshops for young people, to please get in touch and help inspire others.

We’ve since developed our marketing material containing the specific workshop sessions and slowly started to fill our calendar with workshops. Of course the initial ‘business development’ process is a long, and at times demoralising period, but we can’t wait to get our first workshop of the new season underway next week.

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Hanging out in Tuscany

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It’s hard to believe that I have already lived in Italy for 2 weeks; the time really has flown by. I have thus far avoided death by: stomach explosion given all the incredible food I’ve been eating, alcohol poisoning from the ‘samples’ we regularly enjoy and Italian driving. I had heard much about the Italian driver in the past, but nothing is quite like seeing it first-hand. They tend to drive with a cigarette in one hand, mobile phone in the other, yet someone still manage to navigate the tight twisty roads at double the speed limit, whilst driving in the middle of the road, with no seat belt of course. The image pictured above gives a perfect example of Italian ‘parking’ at its finest.

At Birra Amiata, we have been busy preparing for the annual chestnut festival, which is the town’s major event. Birra Amiata produce a variety of flavoured ales, one being chestnut, so this is a big event for them. What has been made clear through conversations in broken Italian/English on our way to Siena for a meeting, has been that trade in Italy is very difficult. You only need to look at the terribly low house prices to see how much the economy has been affected by the Euro Zone crisis. According to the owner, running a business in Italy is nigh impossible now, given the high levels of Corporation Tax (from what I could gather, they are as high as 70%), Income Tax (around 50%) and issues within the government. For this reason a lot of their work is carried out abroad through exporting.

Birra Amiata are not helped by their location. You can’t pass more than 5km without seeing a vineyard, and locals would much rather enjoy a glass of red than an ale. As well as the chestnut festival, this week we’ve been preparing beer for various beer festivals; major events in Belgium and Rome are a week away. Birra Amiata do all production in house, including bottling, labelling and distribution. This obviously involves extra resources in the shape of labour hours, warehouse space and travel costs. In order to offset this risk, they also produce other company’s beer in their brewery, thus spreading the risk.

Despite Frumtious not being in beer, the similarities in production, branding and logistics across the industries have given me a huge insight into the challenges and how to overcome them. This was also a good news week for Frumtious in another sense; I found out midweek that we had been shortlisted for a Shell LiveWIRE Grand Ideas Award. Only 10 applicants are shortlisted from the national competition, and four then win a £1,000 award. For Frumtious this means having the funds available to produce packaging, which would ensure that the product is on shelves even quicker. The Award is given based on judges’ votes and an online public vote. So I implore you to visit this link and spend 30 seconds voting for Frumtious please: www.shell-livewire.org/awards/grand-ideas-awards

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What defines you?

There is a common misconception among the general public that people that start their own company are doing so for money. I’ve often encountered people who ask what I do. Upon my reply, they tend to respond in a way suggesting that the reason I do this is to become a millionaire. If I happen to become rich through my enterprising exploits, I’d be delighted, but that isn’t the reason that I decided to follow this career path.

I had an insightful conversation with a fellow ‘entrepreneur’ this week, during which the subject of reasons behind start-ups was discussed. His answer was ‘freedom’. If he could earn enough to live whilst enjoying the freedom of working for himself, he would be delighted.

I remember in my very early days along this path attending a presentation in which a friend presented his business journey and asked the question ‘what defines you?’. He had started a number of profitable companies before realising that he didn’t want to simply work for money, but for social good. This may sound like a response to a question posed to a participant at a Miss World competition, but it’s a widely given reason.

I myself started with Access Regional, intent on making money, but as time went on, I realised that that wasn’t my main goal. I then came up with BKSK Consulting, a social enterprise which offers management consultancy in the form of support, mentoring and investment to inspire NEET (young people no longer in education, employment or training) individuals, particularly those from young offender and low attainment backgrounds with enterprise. My business partner and I decided that this was the ideal vessel to distribute this social good after having encountered people in our past: friends and family, who fell into this category and would have massively benefited from this option of support. By ensuring that the majority of our business support is offered by current students or recent graduates, we added another twist to the service; enhancing the employability of these students and creating a service which is easy to relate to for the young people in need. We’ve been working hard to prepare ourselves and are now on the cusp of a full scale launch.

We were delighted to have been recently recognised for this venture by being shortlisted for The Pitch, a national pitching competition…time for a quick plug…please do take 20 seconds to click on the following link and vote for us for the Social Media Award (http://www.thepitchuk.com/bksk-consulting)

As with most things in start-ups, there is no right or wrong reason to start a company; be that financial, social or freedom. But an important question to ask yourself is what defines you?

This blog is also available on the Kindle Store and you can follow me on Twitter (@benpfsmith) to find out more or get in touch