‘We should not settle for a just-about-okay quality of life in care’The founders of InCommon talk about the journey that led them to help tackle loneliness and improve the wellbeing of care home residents with programmes that also help school children.
If you cannot play the podcast above, you can listen to or download it from Iono or Soundcloud. Read on for the transcript, recorded in September 2018 straight after Charlotte and Laura’s pitch to join Investec’s social enterprise incubator, Beyond Business. Main picture: Benoît Grogan-Avignon/ InCommon.
Starting a business is never easy. It takes a lot of time, it can take a lot of money, and often, you don’t know what you don’t know.
Today you’ll hear from Charlotte and Laura from InCommon. They are a fantastic social enterprise which bring older and younger people together, bridging that generational gap in the care sector.
We talked to Charlotte and Laura straight after their pitch to join Investec’s social enterprise incubator, Beyond Business. They shared their story, their mission, their partnership and their passion.
Ana Jenkins (AJ) – Good Morning, Laura. Good Morning, Charlotte. How are you today?
Charlotte Whittaker (CW) and Laura Macartney (LM) – Good morning! Well, thank you.
AJ – So, you just pitched to the Beyond Business Panel. How did it go?
LM – It went well, I think, it’s still sinking in a little bit now. I think we were both a little bit nervous at the start, understandably so. I could feel that I was talking but not in as quite a relaxed way as when we got into the questions and I think that’s really where we both came to life and it was good.
CW – I think we’re both still buzzing a little bit from the adrenaline of the question and answer session, but it was a really good experience actually. And having the questions from the dragons really helped us think through some things in our business. So a good experience!
Happy children, happy grown-ups
AJ – Tell us about InCommon. What do you do?
LM – So, InCommon as you said, is a social enterprise tackling loneliness and boosting wellbeing among older people by taking groups of primary school children into retirement homes.
We have a programme called Helping Hands, which is a project-based PSHE Program for primary schools. It involves matching up a group of older people from a retirement home, for six weeks, with a primary school class nearby. And, they go and visit to learn about the life cycle, dealing with changes and how we all get old.
AJ – And how is the feedback been so far?
CW – It’s been good, I think we’ve done a couple of pilot programmes so far. The children have really loved it, and the teachers have said that it’s been a really good way of engaging some of their children, particularly perhaps people for whom classroom learning doesn’t always work quite so well.
‘At the moment it’s just the two of us, but we want a strong team culture for when we hopefully work with more people in the future’
They’ve found that it’s a really interesting way of learning about the wider world and people in their community. And then, so far, the residents of the retirement homes we’ve been in have really enjoyed it. So, that’s really important to us.
Turning the idea into a business plan
AJ – I saw your business plan and it’s very robust, it talks about all of the different partners and the different areas that you’re working with. How was the process of putting it together - I suppose you didn’t do that overnight?
LM – No! [laughs]
CW – It was a really helpful process, actually. I think the questions that Beyond Business and Kim [Hayman] and Alan [Woolston, from the Bromley by Bow Centre] have put together, in that they give a draft outline template. So we didn’t start from nothing, which was really, really helpful.
I think they’ve really carefully thought about what you need to be considering at this stage of starting a business. Some of the things around our competitor analysis we hadn’t done before, and it really helped us to get that on paper.
But because we had been running InCommon for a little while – we’re coming into our thirteenth month – some of the things we had already been thinking about and had in different places from different things in the past. So it wasn’t as much of a hard thing to write.
LM – We definitely were pulling some things together and I think it was just such a useful process. Since then, we’ve been applying for other things and using it internally as well, just to refer to. It’s a really nice document to have and if we’re in doubt, say “look at the business plan we’ve just pulled together”. It’s just very comprehensive and has everything there.
A mission-driven culture, from early on
AJ – You two have great chemistry, I must say. You seem to complement each other really well.
LM – I think we do. We’re very different.
CW – When we started InCommon, I think we thought we were quite similar. But as we’ve run it, we’ve realised we’re quite different, but we do love running it together. It’s good fun.
AJ –How does the partnership work, where does one complement the other?
LM – When we first started, we had broad areas of work that we both covered. But to be honest, I think it was just kind of both rolling up our sleeves and doing everything that came our way. And now, I think we’ve moved into something that feels a bit clearer. So, I am in charge of programmes, comms and partnerships. And Charlotte leads on…
CW – Finance and operations, and fundraising, and impact - so impact measurement and social impact. And then we co-lead on our long-term strategy and developing a team and culture. At the moment it’s just the two of us, but we want a strong team culture for when we hopefully work with more people in the future.
Launching InCommon: post-its, walks and G&Ts
AJ – Can you tell us a bit about your journey? Where did the idea come from?
LM – Of course! So, Charlotte and I met at the beginning of... almost two years ago now. At the start of a fellowship programme in social innovation and entrepreneurship called Year Here.
And we did that for a year. As part of that programme, you’re given the opportunity to start a social enterprise. And Charlotte and I had worked together a little bit, but not that much before. But we both knew we wanted to work in older peoples’ social care, in that space. I have worked before as a carer, and Charlotte’s worked in a care home before...
‘We both had experiences supporting older people in different capacities. We loved working in that environment but were quite aware of the lack of aspiration for older people’s quality of life.’
CW – I’ve worked in a care home. I think we both just had experiences supporting older people in different capacities, and knew that we loved working in that environment, but also we’re quite aware of the lack of aspiration for older people’s quality of life.
Generally, the kind of frustration that we both felt about the willingness to settle for “just about okay” rather than actually looking for something that is much better than “just about okay”.
It came together from that kind of background. A little bit of educational experience, [Laura] had spent some time in school.
So the starting points of InCommon were probably there, but actually, it took us ages to find the idea that we’re working on now. We started with a problem that we were really passionate about solving, and for the first few months of the business we were trying out lots of different things, redesigning our programmes, not working with children at that stage.
So, it did take us a little while to arrive at something that we thought was sustainable and had the social impact that we wanted to have. It was definitely worth it.
LM – Definitely was! We got to that point about February of this year. So we went on a work retreat, where we went away for a week together because we thought, “Okay, we’ve learned a lot over the last few months. When we’re in the office every day, we don’t quite have the time to consolidate and let it sink in the way we want it to. So, we went away to Torquay, Devon […] is
‘We started with a problem that we were really passionate about solving, but it took us a while to
arrive at something that we thought was sustainable and had the social impact that we wanted to have.’
CW – That’s right! One of my family members has their house in Devon, so we went to stay there for a week and spent some time walking on the cliffs and having some gin and tonics […] am I allowed to say that?
LM – Yes, that helped.
CW – Lots of post-it notes and came back from that with a really clear sense of, “This is the idea we want to work on. We want to give it as much of ourselves over the next, at least twelve months, as we can. How far can we get with it?”
LM – Then we piloted that in May of this year. A mini-pilot to test it out. And now, with the new […] so we took a break from delivery over summer, because of the school holidays, and now in September we’re back delivering a programme with six primary schools and six sheltered schemes, in southeast London.
AJ – That’s impressive! You were doing all that and finding the time to prepare the pitch and come for this as well.
CW – I think it’s really helped actually that we’re in delivery, in terms of preparing for the pitch. The fact that we’re doing it every day, just makes a huge difference to being able to answer questions…
LM – Absolutely! It’s just very fresh.
CW – It’s all we think about. Not quite.
A little help from corporate friends
AJ – What do you think businesses like Investec, big businesses, could help you? We talked a bit about the Beyond Business college that’s coming up in January. But in what areas could we help you the most?
CW – There are some big areas of expertise that I think we feel quite under-resourced in. So, finance, particularly, which is absolutely something that Investec has, clearly, a wealth of experience in. Also sales, probably. They’re both things that we haven’t had much experience of, prior to running InCommon. And where there’s a lot of best practice and tools and support that had been really valuable.
So even during the process actually, of setting up… of getting to this stage in the application. We had session with some people from Investec, looking at business modelling, which was so, so valuable just to have a chance to see how they would approach a challenge of modelling a business like InCommon and all of the different resources that they would pull in to do that.
‘It was so valuable just to have a chance to see how [Investec mentors] would approach the challenge of modelling a business like InCommon and all the different resources they would pull in to do that.’
LM – I agree. One of the reasons I think that was so useful is that we had a really good chunk of time with people, in a one-to-one capacity, to really go into the details of the business. And they’d also been sent the business plan before, so we could hit the ground running.
I think, sometimes we find when we have meetings with people, if it’s for the first time, you can spend so much time just explaining what it is and what we do. That then, when we actually get into the point of going through some of the areas that we need help with, that time is almost up.
So, the Investec one, I remember going away thinking, “Wow, that was really great.” We kind of started on the same page. They knew our stuff and we could really spend that time working through some problems together.
AJ – So they had looked at the business model…
LM – They had, exactly. So they’d been sent that before and they were very well briefed, probably knew it better than I did when we turned up at the meeting. It was really good, it was very helpful.
Advice for other social start-ups
AJ – What advice would you give to other people like you, who have a fantastic idea, such as this, which has a great social impact as well as being a profitable business opportunity – where to start?
CW – I think my piece of advice would be to surround yourselves with great people who you trust and get on with and can support one another. And then other relationships that we’ve had with other entrepreneurs, through the Year Hear programme, those have just been transformational for feeling confident, feeling able to do something like this in the first place. And also feeling supported when there are the bad days, that you get through them.
‘Surround yourselves with great people who you trust and get on with and can support one another.’
LM – Absolutely. I agree. I think that we’ve been very lucky to be part of that network of people who have done a lot of this kind of thing before and were able to talk us through. And actually, I think to be in the physical space with them as well.
We’re on an accelerator programme right now, just by London Fields in Hackney, and we have office space there with lots of other ventures as well. And that’s great for just, I think, the kind of very quick sharing of opportunities and ideas, but also just makes us feel like we’re part of something bigger than just the two of us.
Sometimes it can be quite isolating and those first days when it’s just maybe you, like one person or two people, just sitting with an idea and really not sure of how it’s going to land with the rest of the world. But having people around us, who we can just really quickly ask for feedback or advice, has been so useful.
AJ – I don’t think you quite understand how inspiring you are. Thank you so much for your time.
CW and LM – Thank you very much, it’s lovely to chat with you.
After the interview
InCommon is one of the six social enterprises that joined Beyond Business in 2018. They received up to £17,000 in funding and were invited to the Beyond Business College, where they will receive one-to-one specialist advice and inspiration from experts from all around Investec. They will also receive continuous support to help their business grow.
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