Start Creative is a social enterprise formed in 2004 as a trading arm of the charity ‘Start Inspiring Minds’. In 2012 it became an independent company limited by guarantee. Start Creative offers positive commercial experiences and training opportunities for community members through the design, manufacture and retailing of hand-crafted kitchen and gift ware and the design and installation of handmade buildings and outdoor structures.
One of the key unique selling points of our products and services is our ethical supply chain. We ensure that all materials used in buildings, products and services are local, ethical and leaving as little environmental impact as possible. We use timber from a Greater Manchester based cooperative specialising in ethical woodland management, tree surgery and timber conversion. All buildings are designed as low impact using natural materials and green alternatives to industry standard construction methods and materials.
Although we trade nationally with our range of products, most of our construction contracts are based in Greater Manchester. This allows all manufacture and build elements of a project to happen locally, providing us the platform to work with our community members. Our workshops are based in Pendleton, offering access for community members from all over the city. The varied, vibrant and sometimes challenging diversity that is our city provides us with a plethora of people from many walks of life. Keeping true to our charity’s roots, our volunteers are often experiencing, or at risk of experiencing, mental ill health. However, people join us for a whole host of reasons. Whatever the reason, what we offer to everyone is the same; a chance to work on creative projects that have a positive social and environmental impact thus improving wellbeing, building confidence and raising aspirations.
In the past six years of independent trading, there have been two major projects that have challenged the company. These have impacted on the way in which we operate and focused our commitment on our social impact. Our chopping board line has always been the back bone of what we do. The demand and range have grown since our first sales in 2006. Although designs have altered over the years, the fundamental process hasn’t. Taking locally grown British hard wood, we manufacture single piece curved boards. The manufacture is part of the recovery program for members of the charity Start Inspiring minds. In 2010 we contacted high street retailer John Lewis and were invited to do a presentation to the kitchenware buying team in London. As John Lewis is a cooperative and social enterprise, this fitted with our strategic business aims to ensure a complete ethical chain from raw material to retailer. In the four years we supplied their high street stores, we manufactured over 1200 boards.
The overall impact on the business and, more importantly the volunteers, was positive. The margins were manageable, and the regular sales were good for cash flow. The impact on our reputation and the commercial significance of this achievement are still being felt today. The confidence and sense of achievement felt by our volunteers was immense. There was a buzz and excitement in the workshop every time an order went out. Our production teams could physically be seen holding their heads higher and you would catch snippets of conversation, ‘oh yes I make chopping boards for John Lewis’. The downside to this was that the wave crested and the customer demand for our boards dipped. Sadly, this was reflected in the overall wellbeing of the team and new projects, products and markets have had to be continually sought. Although everyone involved in this contract at Start Creative got behind the completion of orders, and without the teams of volunteers making, finishing and packaging boards it wouldn’t have happened, there was immense pressure on key members of staff to deliver. In this were the lessons; the responsibility placed on volunteer shoulders must be limited and the balance between challenging people to move from their comfort zones while maintaining positive wellbeing is a fine line.
The second project that also highlighted the delicate balance between commercial development and social impact began in 2016. We were commissioned by Ground Work Trust MSSTT to design a new space for their ecology park in Trafford. This quickly developed into a major building project for us. We designed and constructed a 15 metre by 7 metre round wood timber frame building. This construction contract was very much out of everyone’s comfort zone and fell within a new field of expertise. A construction design management report was needed, all designs had to be approved by structural engineers and everything we did had to fall within building regulations. The whole project was under the scrutiny of the HSE, an independent quantity surveyor and, of course, our client.
This type of work suited some of our volunteers but not all. The focused nature of the project meant that the company was all encompassed by it and other areas of the business were affected. The positive impact has been huge; the volunteers directly involved with the build have developed skills and confidences that far exceeded our expectations. The building itself is a legacy to social enterprise and what can be achieved by working together. This project required the company to acquire new skills and build capacity meaning we have evolved far beyond where we were before. We are continually receiving tenders for work that have come directly from new customers seeing this building.
And yet, it is important to be truthful and critical of any negative impacts. The one that stands out for us is how major change and evolution in an organisation can have an effect on the wellbeing of its people. There is again that fine balance between good commerce and social value.
It is essential to have both parts ‘Social’ and ‘Enterprise’, and one doesn’t have to necessarily outweigh the other. Maybe social enterprise should always be about the two balancing each other and each fuelling the other.