Over the last 10 or so years, where at the Real Ideas Organisation have a developed a track record of getting involved with and delivering projects with an emphasis on helping develop businesses of all sizes with values at the heart of what they do.

Our most recent foray into this arena west of the Tamar was the Engine Room; a business support start-up programme for social enterprises based in and supporting the challenges of Cornwall. ER was delivered in partnership with the School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE) and Cornwall Neighbourhoods 4 Change (CN4C) with a brief overall to help over 150 new businesses start trading and helping a variety of communities throughout Cornwall.

During the 3 years of the programme we engaged with many people who approached the notion of social enterprise from a very broad spectrum. Some came with a specific social problem to tackle, whilst others had a business idea that they wanted to apply in a community.

Overall, the most successful operations found that sweet-spot where the business and social outcomes were totally lined up. A business like Un_Rap, a zero-waste store in Falmouth…

Hannah Pearce initially came to us with a question about a lease for a new shop she wanted to open in Falmouth. At first, it seemed a routine question with a straight-forward course of action to find the answer. 10 minutes on the phone and I was back to Hannah with a reply and an expectation never to hear from her again. A week later, via an e-mail of thanks, we had agreed to discuss in more detail how we might be able to help her realise her goals. Goals which it turns out are far greater than simply opening a shop.

It is no longer a great surprise to read in the news that our oceans are littered with all manner of detritus, much of which spent time in our homes before coming to rest in an enormous, floating wasteland. But what is surprising, is that a recent teaching graduate has elected to put her career on hold, to tackle the problem in a way that until now has had a flavour of trying to fly a kite in a thunderstorm. A combination of a university town, a large address book and a plan to rid the world of single use plastic, not to mention an attitude of determination that this is something that can be achieved, have encouraged Hannah to open what she plans to be the first of many stores aiming to revolutionise the way we shop on the high street.

Needless to say, she is a whirlwind. Where we have proved our worth in supporting her business has been in talking through the comprehensive plans she has written and provided the green light that many people in business need. To be that second pair of eyes, asking the questions that just don’t always occur, offering suggestions that straighten up a direction of travel.

We remain in touch with Hannah as her plans to expand begin to take shape and further opportunities to consult with her are looming on the horizon as she grows. Discussions around wholesale, franchising and which governance structure have all occurred on an embryonic level. As we move in to 2019, these are likely to evolve into more specific support and considerable growth for the Un_Rap brand.

From a small-scale operation with a big vision for the future, to a local asset having a new lease of life thanks to some determined locals. The running track at Par in mid-Cornwall has been a part of the athletic landscape for many years. Initially Par Track was owned and operated by Cornwall Council, the future of the track was thrown into turmoil with the transfer of management of Cornwall’s leisure services to Greenwich Leisure Limited (GLL), a London-based CIC trading under the name of “Better”.

In the early days of this transition it became clear that the usual formula adopted by GLL was not going to apply to the track and alternative plans had to be made for it to exist as a local facility. Enter Jon Rolls, local resident, sports lover and Commercial Director of the Real Ideas Organisation. Under the Engine Room programme, he was able to help to provide direction to the project, shaping and supporting the ideas that were swirling around about what the structure should be and providing clear and concise guidance on the necessity for the enterprise to plan to be financially sustainable in the future. In short, he helped a group of local administrators understand the need for a commercial element to enable the track to have a life beyond the Council.

Jon was able to support the group when making decisions on the future. His unique position as local resident and expert in community assets meant that the key decision makers had a voice of experience in their corner. This remit stretched well beyond conversations. He explored the various funding streams available to the new CIC and began the process of accessing those. A sound business case was the foundation to this and a combination of experience and belief in the project yielded positive results. A grant of £200,000 was awarded to redevelop the catering provision which was deemed to be the best way to start to generate money for the site.

The Engine Room was not just about financial success stories. Some cases, such as The Real Junkfood Project, are examples of models which have been adopted at a local level to carry out important work. Jess Sneyd has taken her passion and expertise in catering to tackle two main problems; food waste from the retail sector and feeding people who cannot afford to eat properly. Support here focussed around adopting a recognised model and implementing in a local area. We were able to help make introductions and support in the creation of a standalone CIC that would support Soul Food Kitchen. On a practical level, the Engine Room even became a client of RIO, providing a high quality ethical solution for catering at many events.

In some cases, the work helped a participant to identify certain truths about themselves. Penny Hermes, a behaviour specialist employed by the local authority for many years had planned to go solo. Her plan was to create a company to sell her own consultancy services to the local authority. What she discovered was the very structures she felt held her back, were the same ones who managed a lot of the invisible work of running a business. Work that, by herself, she did not have the capacity to carry out. Rather than go back to the original grindstone however, Penny decided to start to work with a private contractor who could manage this for her. The Engine Room helped her to identify a better way to achieve her goal as a professional that maximised her impact on the lives of children in Cornwall.

So many of the people we work with have a very specific skill-set or passion that makes the day to day work they aim to carry out a matter of course. The worries experienced by several such enterprises were to do with governance and the legal side. As a result of our guidance, over 20 new CIC’s have been registered, as well as half a dozen more individuals being registered with HMRC as self-employed for the first time. The official figures, as shared with our funding partners were as follows:

Start-up’s supported – 37

New businesses supported – 58

Increases in employment – 40.76 (full time equivalent)

New to firm products – 16

But these numbers tell only part of the story. The true value of the work we have done is shared by the participants in the programme itself.

Having had limited experience previously of setting up a social enterprise, I found the help, support and advice given through Engine Room a great resource. Having someone to call with what felt like silly questions was really valuable and the confirmation that they weren’t silly questions was really reassuring.”- Fin Irwin, Director of IntoBodmin CIC.

Our advisor really supportive of Perennial Harvest Gardening Club, spending time to really come to know the project in a meaningful way in order to offer the best advice. Thank you very much, the project has definitely moved forward with the support of the Engine Room.”- Tamasin Pemberton of Perennial Harvest Gardening Club CIC.

I felt like I wasn’t alone at the start of a fairly scary journey. There was someone to talk things through with that was genuinely rooting for me and my success, knew their stuff and was able to guide and challenge really well. The support was broad and easily accessible whenever I needed it. Easily the best part of the Engine Room for me was having an advocate in my corner. I definitely wouldn’t be doing what I do without them.” – Amy Fox of the Fox Project.

If you’re reading this and would like business support for your start-up, please head to the Growth Skills Hub, where you can access help from funding to strategy, leadership and marketing.