Looking back: Five lessons from five years of leading Dot Dot Dot

Outgoing CEO, Peter Brown, reflects on the importance of relationships, patience and creating positive social impact.

I never imagined close to a decade after meeting Dot Dot Dot’s founder, Katharine Hibbert, I’d be sitting down to write a blog reflecting on seven and a half years working for the social enterprise she’d created, and having enjoyed five of those years at the helm.

I’d first met Katharine whilst I was working for an east London social housing provider. At the time, I knew my organisation had a few dozen empty flats and more were on the way as a regeneration scheme picked up pace. I was interested in how to keep these flats up and running and housing people. In part, I was motivated because I thought frankly it was a waste not to do so, but also because I knew that having long-term residents living alongside empty flats in large numbers would be plain awful for everyone. I had also been doing some thinking about how to achieve wider social good through my organisation’s choices of service provider, and how volunteers might be an important (but not very clearly defined part) of the support that our residents and communities needed. The kinds of things my frontline colleagues could see were a problem but didn’t have the resources to fix – like helping vulnerable residents with gardening, general litter picking.

So when I heard of a new idea bringing together property protection with people who do great volunteering, I was keen to find out more.

I was only loosely aware of property guardians, but the only two things I knew were (1) it was a Dutch concept and (2) it wasn’t the most obviously best set-up, having once attempted to become a property guardian myself a few years earlier and having been on a badly-organised viewing of a dismal flat in Hackney which at the time had no electricity. It was dark and crowded, and those viewing the space (literally) couldn’t see what they were getting into. (I should add this was a viewing organised by a property guardian company that no longer exists).

After a few more years of working in that role, Katharine let me know she was looking for someone to help grow the social enterprise and find more clients, and after an interview I joined as an employee. We’re a different business today compared to then in lots of aspects, but importantly our mission and values haven’t changed at all.

So as I prepare to hand over my role, here are five of my reflections from five years leading Dot Dot Dot.

1. It’s true that human relationships are pretty vital to success.

The success of Dot Dot Dot is significantly down to the human relationships forged and fostered as we go about doing the thing we’re specialised in: providing housing for people who want to volunteer their time for good causes. We have a great, motivated, staff team. We choose our guardians carefully, we communicate well and we treat them as humans. We give clients a great experience, and we are a good partner for whatever it is our clients are trying to achieve with their property, for as long as they need us.

2. In any growth business, creating jobs is one of the best bits.

Building and scaling a social enterprise needs a lot of skills and activity that I had frankly never thought of. We’ve been lucky to have some great supporters and people to help us along the way and for their investment in entrepreneurialism and support around scaling a small business. PwC, Goldman Sachs and Salesforce.org deserve a special mention, though there have been many others over the years who’ve helped and supported. But hands down, the best bit about growing and scaling has been that we’ve been able to create meaningful and worthwhile employment, and hopefully jobs that most of our team can enjoy most of the working week.

3. Organising around creating social impact is a powerful thing.

The impact we create through Dot Dot Dot’s model is clear, consistent and valuable (you can read more about that here, as we reflect on the value of the impact we’ve created in our ten years of operation) and the expectations around this is another thing that hasn’t altered since we began. But also, our distinctive purpose makes our work all the more powerful and for our clients, is a key reason they choose to work with Dot Dot Dot alongside our undeniable care and competence with their property. Plus, everyone likes and remembers a good story about how good value housing has helped someone, or the volunteering that happened. One of the nice bits of my job has always been reading guardians’ accounts of their volunteering and the sheer variety of volunteering: I’ve seen everything from accountancy to zookeeping.

4. Longevity and patience are important in the property world.

There are still two would-be clients that I have been trying to do work with since I first joined Dot Dot Dot. We are close with one, the other is still elusive. Property professionals often comment on property being a long-term, big-horizon, patient game (I met a property-owning organisation last year which was founded five hundred years ago, and several of our clients are more than a century old) and I’d agree. Dot Dot Dot’s ten year history compared with these kind of trajectories means we will still look youthful for some years yet, but is another reason why Dot Dot Dot’s high standards of safety, delivery, communication service are important hallmarks of how we think and deliver, and why those continue to be valued by our clients.

5. Autonomy is undervalued.

Despite the long-term thinking of the property sector, Dot Dot Dot is a nimble operator. We are a small business when compared with most of our clients. We don’t own the property assets we work in: we are temporary occupiers doing a specific role looking after buildings, and the guardians we work with – who call those buildings home – are conscientious guests who know their role is necessarily temporary. The property sector is changing as well, and in particular an increasing focus on safety is welcome and something we’ve always had a clear focus on with a firm part of our ways of doing business. Dot Dot Dot is doing a specialised job in a carefully focused way, from our choices of who we house to how we operate for our clients. Being able to make plans that further or progress the business’ mission, and then be able to swiftly execute those plans in ways that accord with our values and ways of making decisions is a big aspect of this small business.

You can also keep up with our #10years celebration where we’re highlighting guardians from the past ten years, the voluntary organisations they volunteer for, and the partnerships we have cultivated since our inception in 2011.