On what I’ve learned from conferences

As part of both my interests and my job, I spend a lot of my time going to social enterprise conferences. As a result, I thought it would be a good time to share a handful of the more common lessons I hear again and again. And what better way than in a listicle?

Anyway. To business:

This is the most fertile/opportunistic time to start an enterprise

This is something that comes up all the time, but I heard it in spades at a panel talk I went to at the British Library during Global Entrepreneurship week. Amongst the panel were Anya Hindmarch and Sir Charles Dunstone, who both stressed this independently of each other. The numbers don’t lie either. A study by Barclays showed that in the first half of 2014 small businesses grew by 4%. This might not seem like much, but firstly consider that UK growth in 2014 hovering at just over 2.5%, and secondly that small businesses are traditionally in a sector of the market that doesn’t actually grow.

Your venture needs to address a need

This one, I’ll flatter myself, I knew already. But my background is in social enterprise so that’s not particularly surprising. What I did find interesting was that this was a recurring theme in the more ‘enterprise’ talks. This should form a core part of the business plan – answer the question of what you are doing. Why do you exist as an organisation? To put it in business spiel, what is your value proposition?

This goes further than just knowing that your business/product/service has to exist for a reason – that much should at least be clear to everyone. The important thing here is that whatever you do doesn’t just have to satisfy an idle want, it has to firstly and foremostly address a need.

Hire smarter than you

This one’s said so much now it basically a cliche; but for that reason its also a good point to make. In fact, Sir Tim Smit (of Eden Project fame) gave a closing keynote at the RISE conference in Bristol and was very scathing of people who are too afraid to do so.

It is so very tempting as the leader of an organisation to worry about hiring better than you. But if you think about it logically, why would you do anything else? The focus here shouldn’t be about battling insecurities, but rather looking at the skill set you have, and trying to fill in the gaps. Think of ‘smarter’ in this context as people who know different things to you – people who’s skills are different (and complimentary) to your own.

Entrepreneurship should be about creating an environment, not about being in the limelight

Anya Hindmarch put this very eloquently: “There is too much talk about the celebrity, not about the craftsmanship”. And on a panel that included the founder of the Carphone Warehouse, the CEO of the MOBOs, and an Apprentice winner, this was strong.

Being a good entrepreneur – and a good leader (the two are similar, though not the same) is as much about taking people on the journey with you as it is about being a trailblazer. No matter how good you are at what you do, nobody can make it big on their own.

So that’s just a snapshot of the common themes I’ve taken away from a number of conferences and panels. One thing I would say though is that you can’t learn any better than by actually being there – in fact, I would go so far as to say that if you are interested in being a part of the social enterprise sector – a good conference is the best place to start. So next time you see a conference, or a panel show, or anything that looks vaguely interesting – give it a go!

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