Sidelines – and a boot camp for new freelancers

Part of my time each month is dedicated to enterprise education activities that encourage people to start and grow their own businesses. I’ve partnered with numerous universities and community organisations over the years.

Greg Sandford communications - portrait cropAs a freelancer, it can be helpful to have a sideline. As well as being enjoyable, it can provide a little extra income to pay for treats and help to iron out the inevitable peaks and troughs in your day-to-day work.

Last year, enterprise education actually became a big chunk of my work. There were too many exciting projects that I couldn’t say no to. It’s important, however, to strike the right balance between your core work and your sideline, and this year I’m getting that balance back to 80:20. The 20% of my time that I have dedicated to enterprise will be focused more on helping my fellow freelancers get started.

With that in mind, I was really pleased to launch a new Freelance Boot Camp at the wonderful Discovery Centre in Winchester this week. We looked at what being freelance really means, what qualities it takes to succeed and what practical steps you can take to actually get started.

I was joined by the talented Corrie Jones and Nisha Haq, who shared their own experiences and expertise.

We’ve got several more of these in the diary over the next six months. If you’re part of a university, college or community group and your students or members would like some help exploring routes into freelancing, please do get in touch.

Three business lessons from Team GB’s Olympic success

I read this morning’s Guardian article on British Olympic success with a lot of interest. With the 2016 medal tally climbing, I was keen to understand what had changed since the disappointing performance in Atlanta exactly 20 years ago.

Reflecting on this article, I realised that there are valuable lessons here for business owners and entrepreneurs:

Marginal gains

Business lessons from Team GB - cropped portraitWhen I met with my friend and business coach Rob Wood earlier this year, we discussed the British cycling team’s meticulous pursuit of excellence, including how they break down all aspects of their work to make a series of tiny, almost imperceptible improvements, the sum of which gives them an edge over their opponents.

Whether we’re running large, established businesses or just getting started on our own, we can all continually look for even the smallest improvements to the way we work. These changes can help to save time, reduce costs and improve the experience we provide our customers.

We can also improve our own personal performance – understanding when and where we work best (what Tom Kelley calls finding your muse), who we need on our bench in order to succeed and what tools help us make better use of our time.

No compromise culture

In her book What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20 (which, incidentally, I read in one sitting yesterday), Stanford Professor Tina Seelig talks about the need to target our precious time at the products, projects and businesses that are most likely to help us achieve our goals. This includes knowing when to walk away from a failing idea.

Letting go can be hard, and sometimes we need to take an objective viewpoint. The sooner we do this, the less we invest and the easier it is to step away. In Seelig’s words: ‘Even though it is always difficult to abandon a project, it is much easier in the early stages, before there is an enormous escalation of committed time and energy.’

Regenerate talent

The Guardian article refers to Team GB replacing a reliance on ‘maverick geniuses’ with a system that delivers sustainable success.

We probably all know a maverick genius. They can be great when you’re getting started or trying to generate ideas. To ensure our businesses are successful in the long term though, we need to design practices and cultures that ensure an ongoing supply of talented, reliable and motivated people – not just staff, but partners and supporters, too.

We might think about how more experienced colleagues coach and mentor newer members of a team, and how, when staff inevitably move on, their knowledge and skills are captured and shared.

What else can we take from the team’s success this summer?

Looking back on three years as an ‘Entrepreneur-in-residence’

This summer marked the end of my three year stint as Entrepreneur-in-residence at Solent University – an occasional role that saw me supporting students and graduates who had started, or wanted to start, their own businesses.

I say ‘occasional’ because, by definition, Entrepreneurs-in-residence run their own businesses and develop new projects at the same time. I spent, on average, two days per month at the University.

I’ve been involved with enterprise education activities for more than a decade, but when I went freelance with my communications work in 2012, I realised I had the opportunity to package up my experiences, professionalise what I had to offer and set aside time for it each month.

Enterprise education workshop - portrait cropIn 2013, I was approached by Solent and asked to work alongside their enterprise team to develop and grow a network for graduate entrepreneurs. I blogged about the network – called SENSE – last year.

Initially this group revolved around monthly meetings, with a guest speaker who would either share a skill or their own story. The monthly sessions are still important, but an online network has developed, too, allowing members to share ideas and successes, and arrange their own meet-ups and events.

This definitely wasn’t easy. In fact, it was a lesson in continuous improvement. I was constantly trying to judge what makes a network like this relevant to its members and how to support very different businesses – many established, others just starting up. I trialled a number of channels to manage and communicate with the group – Facebook remained the most effective.

Working closely with the in-house enterprise team meant that I was able to identify and flag alumni that were still eligible for the University’s funding scheme, or those that would make good mentors and speakers.

I learnt a huge amount working with these smart and ambitious graduates, including:

  • When you’re running your own business, you can’t always identify or articulate what support you need. The role of the mentor or the adviser is to re-frame the question.
  • Although we encourage students and graduates to prepare a business plan for funding panels, etc., there’s no substitute for just getting started with an idea.
  • SENSE members run a range of businesses, but regardless of whether it’s an architect, a product designer, a photographer or even a chocolatier, everyone faces similar challenges.
  • Established business owners needn’t feel out of place in a room full of early stage start-ups, in fact they often enjoy sharing the benefit of their experiences.
  • Sometimes the biggest barrier to creating a really successful business is just a little bit of confidence.

I’ll be keeping in touch with my SENSE friends and can’t wait to see how their businesses develop and thrive over the years ahead.

Enterprise Education has become a growing part of my work over the last few years and I have some exciting new projects in the pipeline. I’m always interested in the enterprise programmes being run by local colleges and universities, so if I can help, do get in touch.

A business support group for graduate entrepreneurs

I run a network called SENSE as part of my enterprise role at Southampton Solent University.

Unusually, SENSE is exclusively for graduate entrepreneurs, and our members include accountants, fashion designers, architects, filmmakers and even a chocolatier. I describe the network as a ‘business support group’ – if a member has a problem, it’s likely that someone else has faced it before and can help them out. We have regular guest speakers who talk about their experiences and share particular skills, such as email marketing or writing a press release.

Collectively we’re developing and growing SENSE, and we’re learning about what makes a network like this helpful, inspiring and different to other support on offer.

Freelance journalist Karen Woods recently wrote a particular good article describing what we’re trying to build. It’s published behind a corporate intranet, but I’ve reproduced it below:

Talking SENSE about entrepreneurship

Starting your own business is exciting and challenging and the rewards could be large – but it isn’t easy. Students at Southampton Solent are encouraged to aim for the heights through a range of innovative programmes, some even offer funding to help get businesses off the ground. And graduates setting out for the first time in self-employment are not forgotten.

Key to the support on offer is the SENSE Network, a regular meeting place for graduates, staff and friends of the University. Entrepreneurs-in-residence Greg Sandford and Tom Saunders have been there themselves, know how tough it can be and that it’s good to talk. Each month, a speaker addresses an important business issue such as marketing, finance, social media or intellectual property, topics are frequently chosen by the graduates themselves and there is always plenty of time to share experiences.

Greg is a freelance communications manager, establishing his own business in 2012 after leading change and internal comms for several strategic projects at the University of Southampton; in an earlier high profile assignment, he was an early intern for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2007/8. “There is great deal of energy at Southampton Solent and tremendous interest in innovation and I’m pleased to be part of it,” he says. “Our students are driven to succeed and I enjoy supporting them at this crucial time in their careers.”

Around the table at SENSE in April were fledgling entrepreneurs in publishing, hair and beauty, clothing, graphic design and photography, all listening to Southampton Solent’s Head of Employability and Enterprise Rosy Jones talking about how to grow a business, and sharing the story of Isle of Wight brothers Rob and Mark, who started out in 2009 in a shed in Cowes with £200 and now run the flourishing ethical and sustainable clothes company Rapanui – one of Sir Richard Branson’s top 50 eco companies.

Rosy is proud that hundreds of graduates have successfully set up their own companies: “I love those little moments when the students and graduates understand the theories I’m talking about and apply them to the business.” She has worked with young entrepreneurs of all kinds in the region and was named Enterprise Society Champion in 2013 to recognise her passion, innovation and leadership.

“It’s great meeting people with the same kind of issues,” says chocolate maker and Solent graduate Jamie Oliver Kemp. “Some are just starting, others have been doing it for years, but there’s always something new to learn that can benefit your business and build your confidence. Being an entrepreneur isn’t a nine-to-five job and sometimes it can be hard to keep motivated but Greg, Tom and the former students who go along to SENSE meetings are very supportive.”

SENSE meetings are usually held on the second Tuesday of each month in the Sir James Matthew Building in Above Bar.