Originally written for Cabinet Office Social Investment and Finance Team, Centre for SIBs blog.

This is a guest post by Indie Shergill, an intern at the Cabinet Office, 2013 Year Here Fellow, and Co-Founder of Rootless Garden.

Seven months ago I had very little idea what “social enterprise” meant. Fast forward to today, and I have been through Year Here, a six-month social innovation accelerator programme, am working at the Cabinet Office with the Social Investment and Finance Team, and am running my own social enterprise. I now believe that involvement in the world of social innovation, enterprise, and investment is an important shift in the way we tackle some of society’s most entrenched problems.

I want to give an insight into the past six-months and how they have helped me start my own social enterprise, Rootless Garden, and hopefully share some advice for others.

Rootless Garden is a service that reconnects care home residents with nature by bringing the outdoors indoors. We create pop-up gardens to provide stimulating, and immersive experiences for those who do not have easy access to the outdoors. We are particularly interested in bringing the benefits of nature to those suffering from dementia and living in care and in promoting intergenerational exchange through meaningful community events that connect younger people and older people.

 

Richard Frost, a resident at one of the care homes where Rootless Garden has been working

This isn’t a shameless plug for my enterprise, but a view into process my team took to create our service. Unlike most, however, we had access to Year Here, a graduate fellowship that aims to create a generation of social leaders by pairing work experiences with frontline and social sector organisations with entrepreneurship training. The fellowship culminated by challenging the 12 fellows to design a social enterprise and compete for funding. I worked with Louise Ellaway and Nadia Daghistani for Care UK, who challenged us to design an innovative service for care home residents. My team were fortunate enough to win the competition, and we have secured seed funding from UnLtd, press coverage from Nesta, and business support from Emerge Venture Lab. Since August we have been working independently to get our start-up off the ground.

Identifying a need

Having a great idea is useless if there is no need or desire for your innovation. For this reason it is vital to get to know your audience, and learn about their experiences to ascertain where the latent needs lie. I say latent, because frontline organisations do an incredible job to meet the requirements of their beneficiaries, but my experience has taught me that the space for innovation is often untapped. You can only come to realise this by getting to know the environment and people you are hoping help, and the space in which you are trying to innovate.

I was extremely lucky, as Year Here provided us with the opportunity to spend four months working in frontline elderly services, with Care UK homes and Age Concern Kingston. Having incredibly supportive hosts allowed us to really get to know how elderly services are delivered and used. Most importantly it allowed us to learn from experiences of both older people and care staff by spending time with them, talking, and observing. Without this immersion in frontline care I don’t think I would ever have had the foresight and depth of knowledge to set up a service aimed at the elderly.

My business partner, Louise Ellaway put it perfectly in a blog post of her own:

“Make the migration. Don’t just make it once: jog yourself to keep making it, day in, day out. Occupy their experience, and see them as whole…. Try to know what it feels like; know what it would feel like; know that it could, and may one day, be you.”

Designing a concept

Once a need has been established, it is time to create and innovate. There is no prescribed design process for designing a social enterprise – it is a unique journey for every entrepreneur.

I think most entrepreneurs spend a considerable amount of time at the design stage, and use it as an iterative time to perfect a service. My case was different however; as Year Here set us the challenge of creating a service, ready to pitch to investors in just two months.  I think Rootless Garden would have benefitted from more time at this stage, but the time constraint made us act fast and speed through the process. This forced us to be incredibly creative, lean, and focused and adopt the principle of contrast iteration and improvement.

I am usually someone who values process and structure, but at this stage in designing a social enterprise I had to let go. This was something quite new to me, but the more freedom you give yourself, the more creative, innovative and enterprising you become.

Start big, imagine anything is possible. Starting by imposing restrictions limits creativity. It is easier to strip back a seemingly impossible idea, and then turn it into a realistic one. Working backwards by design might seem illogical, but it allowed us to tap into some of our most creative ideas. One of our biggest insights here was that there was a desire for our service to be one that travelled to different communities rather than having an initial fixed space. It is because of this feedback that we now host pop-up events. Keep an eye on our website for upcoming events after the New Year.

Editing your Design

In case you’re feeling a little bit too lost in a world of abstract thought and avant-garde mind matter, there are support organisations that can provide practical advice listed on the Big Society Capital website.

One of the most useful tools that Rootless Garden used was the Business Model Canvas. It allows you to plot your design concepts against the quantifiable aspects of your business idea, including revenue streams and costs. The most useful part of this for me was plotting our value propositions and relationships.It allows you to see if your idea makes sense as a business, and flags the areas that need more work, and those that might not fit.

 

http://www.businesmodelgeneration.com

Prototyping

Researching, understanding and planning is vital, however, there is only so much you can do on paper to test your enterprise idea. The next step is to see if it actually works by prototyping. At Year Here we were lucky enough to have some in house advice on prototyping, as well as some valuable help from Nesta’s Innovation Skills Team and Participle.

Prototyping is a concept that I automatically associate with product design – but it should not go unrecognised in service design. This does not have to be a laborious, expensive or time consuming process, nor does it have to test the entirety of your social enterprise. One of the simplest and quickest ways of prototyping is on paper. Use storyboards to plan how a service might look – you don’t need to have much of an artistic inclination to do this, stick figures usually work best.

The best way to prototype is to test elements of your service. You’re creating a service for a target group, test it on them, and get their feedback and response. Harnessing an iterative process and being receptive to feedback is the only way you’ll get it right. This shouldn’t just be for the initial design of your social enterprise, but kept at the forefront of your project – bend and flex to the needs identified by your target audience.

Actually seeing your idea come to fruition is very exciting, however this stage is also the scariest. Taking your idea from paper, to testing it is a service can throw up a variety of bumps – use these as a part of the process, don’t ignore them. Having people criticise, not understand, or simply not care about your social enterprise is disheartening. However, take all of this on board and use it to shape your improvements – this is why we prototype, to iron out the creases before rolling it out on a full scale.

The next steps

Once you’ve rigorously tested your service, it is time to launch! This is where I am right now; applying for funding, incorporating the business, and delivering my service. This stage needs a whole blog post for itself!

Rootless Garden is taking its first steps into this stage, so we are still finding our feet. Look out for my post next month to read about our progress.

If I was to leave you with one message here, it is: don’t be afraid, if you’ve got an idea for a social enterprise, go for it! There is a whole ecosystem dedicated to growing the presence and effectiveness of social enterprise in the UK, and there are structures in place to support you…all it takes is one idea!

If you’re interested in Rootless Garden, or talking about starting a social enterprise, follow us on twitter @RootlessGarden or contact me at indie@rootlessgarden.org

Are you a social entrepreneur wanting to share your experience or respond to Indie’s story? ContactCabinet Office to share your own story on this blog at sibs@cabinet-office.gsi.gov.uk