It’s one of the things I’m most proud of – setting up a social enterprise and making it sustainable within a two-year period. But this isn’t a blog about how wonderful I am or how easy it was to generate £150k/year income – it really wasn’t.
This is a blog about the lessons we learnt and three things you can do to generate sales as a social entrepreneur.
It all started back in 2012 when my best friend (Jen Baughan) and I were given an incredible opportunity to take over an education programme (being run at the time as a not for profit, which was struggling to secure grants and sponsorship) and transform it in to a viable social enterprise, with a trading income.
We jumped at the chance to bring life back in to this inspiring and unique programme, which brought 11-14 year olds and employees of big businesses together to create entrepreneurial solutions for sustainability challenges.
At the time we knew very little about business or social entrepreneurship, but we knew we wanted to make it work, so we dived right in.
I want to set the scene a bit further:
We were 26 and 27 years old respectively when we took on this opportunity
We had good early careers working in the third sector, excelling in what we we’re doing but were ready for a leadership challenge
We both worked part-time for the first year to cover our living costs
We started with just £14k income from two corporate clients which was just enough to deliver the programme for a year (whilst we were working part time)
We knew nothing about sales but knew we couldn’t survive on just £14k so had to learn quickly and generate new income
In that first year we set up sales calls and go to do pitches but never got beyond “…that’s all very ice but it doesn’t connect with our business.”
There were three things that when done consistently increased our sales and income, helping us reach £150k in 18 months.
At S4TP we were selling our service to big corporate clients, but the strategies I share here also work if you:
Sell to consumers
Work with the public sector and are trying to win contracts
Are looking for investors, or
Are applying for grant funding
The three secrets to generating income in your social enterprise:
1. In order to attract customers’ you need to know exactly who you want to sell to and speak directly to them, their needs and desires
This includes learning about where they are and exactly what they want. It means consistently reaching out to them, even when you get knock-backs.
When we got serious about sales in S4TP we got super-focused on who we were trying to sell to. For us this was companies in the energy, utility and construction sectors. But this was still too broad, we had to get super-focused on what types of businesses in these sectors we were targeting, and who in the businesses we needed to speak to.
(It took us a while but after lots and lots of pitches, follow emails and calls and delays in decisions, we realised we needed to prioritise pitching the CEO’s and the Boards of these companies – they were the ones with the purse strings and authority to make things happen).
Because this sector was completely knew to us and we didn’t have existing contacts or know what these businesses really needed we started to listen! That key skill I’d learnt as a facilitator in my early career become my super-power. In business meetings, sales calls and pitches we listened more than we talked.
When we listened to what people wanted we were able to clarify who we needed to speak to in a business; we discovered what types of businesses were likely to need / want our services; and we were able to direct our communications specifically to them.
Now maybe you’re thinking, I know who my target customers are but they’re just not buying. So, the question is are you really offering them something they want or need?
Have you listened to their desires, wants and needs? Have you heard their challenges or problems and the things they need solving?
Sometimes we get so absorbed in the things we want to sell and the benefits we see for our business, we forget to communicate to the things our customers want, need or desire.
You don’t necessarily have to change your product or service but you may need to change the way you’re selling it to them.
2. You need to go to where your customers are and not expect them to find you
Just because you’ve set up a wonderful website and are doing a great job, doesn’t mean your customers know you exist or that they’ll be able to find you.
What are you doing about getting in front of your customers and speaking to them?
Do you know where to find them or the best way to connect with them?
And once you’ve made initial contact, how do you plan to keep them engaged and continue the conversation?
We realised pretty quickly we weren’t getting in front of enough of our target customers enough of the time. So, this became a priority. We made a list of all the ways we could speak to our target customers and started doing it all.
For us this included attending trade shows and conferences where our audience would be; making direct contact with businesses via email, telephone and LinkedIn; getting articles about our programme in sector specific press and publications; asked our existing customers to recommend us and set up introductions; asked to be invited along to our existing customers’ meetings where our prospective customers would be.
And how did we make this approach work? We asked a lot of questions.
We weren’t afraid to show how little we knew. And we weren’t afraid to ask for help, such as introductions, possible connections and suggestions from others about who we should potentially speak to.
We also talked to everyone about why we did what we did and who we were looking to speak to, we didn’t just talk about our business in formal sales settings. We were proud to share our story. Jen even managed to make three sales from just having conversations with the people she sat next to on train journeys.
And what was key to our success? We built genuine connections; we listened to everything that was said and we took our time to get to know our potential customers. We didn’t just pitch and sell, sell, sell we built relationships with people we thought we could genuinely provide a solution to and gave them time to get to know us before pitching our offer.
3. Share your story and communicate your social impact to generate those sales
So, we had more opportunities to pitch to our ideal clients when we went to where they were and built connections but it wasn’t until we got really good at sharing our story and communicating our social impact - in a way that made sense to them - that we started to make consistent sales.
How often do you actually share your story with your customers and tell them why you set up your social enterprise?
How often do you communicate your vision?
And, do you really know what your social impact is (with evidence to back it up), and what parts of this will most resonate with your target audience?
In my experience, most social enterprises communicate what and how but struggle to communicate their why. As Simon Sinek explains in his book Start with Why (I highly recommend you read it), your why is a much more powerful way to connect with your customers.
As social entrepreneurs our why is often much more easily defined aswell. We already have a bigger purpose or vision in mind. We just have to be brave enough to share it.
Take a look at your website’s about and home page. When you introduce who you are as an organisation, do you describe what you do and how, or do you share your story about why you exist? Not only does it have more impact, it differentiates you more from your competition. (Read Simon’s book it really will transform the way you think about introducing your business).
Trust me your why makes all the difference and it’s what people really want to know so try telling this more, rather than the what or how.
In addition to this we found both sharing our intention to deliver social impact and then evidencing it (or at least explaining how we would evidence it) made a huge difference.
As a social enterprise your why will be inextricably linked to creating some social or environmental impact (or value). So, you have to be able to communicate this (with evidence) in a way that makes sense and connects to your target audience.
But what if we haven’t delivered any impact yet? I hear you ask.
Even in the early days when we hadn’t really delivered any impact to talk about, we shared our story and why we were doing what we were doing. We told prospective customers about our vision and the impact we wanted to create with their support and predicted the impact we would deliver by a particular date (with estimated figures). This showed our intention and focus on our impact and demonstrated we were already thinking about how we would measure and demonstrate this as it was delivered.
When people see it’s not just a pipe-dream you’re actually serious about making this happen, and have a plan for how, they take you seriously.
It was this shift in strategy that made all the difference from “…oh, that’s very nice” to “…we want to go on this journey with you, how do we get involved?”
So, there’s my three secrets to how we created £150k / year in 18 months:
We took time to discover exactly who our customers were (and weren’t) and developed a clear understanding of how we met their needs (Note, this didn’t happen overnight it took trial and error AND lots of questions and listening).
We went to where they were, were consistent and did our follow up
We shared our story and communicated our social impact in a way that was meaningful to them