How to scale a social enterprise: get organised, focus on culture, and make yourself redundant

The Dot Dot Dot team photo

From Dot Dot Dot Founder, Katharine Hibbert

When I started working on Dot Dot Dot 13 years ago, I didn’t do it because I particularly wanted to run a business. I did it to solve twin problems – the severe lack of inexpensive housing in many parts of the UK, alongside the existence of thousands of empty buildings.  Today, using buildings that would otherwise be empty to create good value homes for people who volunteer is still my daily motivation.

But alongside that, I have learned to love the business of running a business.  This shift from seeing a business purely as a means to an end, to seeing it also as something interesting to work on in its own right, is one of the things I talk about to would-be social entrepreneurs – and it is probably essential to sustainable organisational success.

In the early days of running Dot Dot Dot, I was very hands-on.  At the very beginning, when I was the only member of staff, I had to do everything – from booking repairs, to interviewing would-be guardians, to giving talks at conferences.  I enjoyed it – it gave me a tangible sense of the effect I was having.  But as the team has grown, I’ve had fewer and fewer opportunities to do frontline work.  Instead, my job has shifted from working in the organisation to working on the organisation, a distinction Michael Gerber draws in The E-Myth, an opinionated but interesting business book.   As Gerber says, if you like making cakes, don’t start a bakery, because if you’re successful then very soon you’ll find you’re spending your time looking at the cost of flour, untangling knotty HR issues and considering different marketing options rather than doing any baking.  Similarly with Dot Dot Dot, I rarely get to show our properties to potential guardians or to help them find volunteering options.  Instead, I spend my time thinking about risk management, or debiasing our recruitment processes.

Making this shift, from working on the detail of delivery to thinking about how the organisation as a whole works, may be even more difficult for social entrepreneurs than for other sorts of business founders.  Most of us are extremely invested in the problems we’re trying to solve, as they are so pressing and often very emotive.  However, if we want to make a difference to the issues we tackle at greater scale, we need to work on our organisations so that they run smoothly as impact-generating machines, rather than simply rolling up our own sleeves to tackle the problems directly.

So here are three themes to bear in mind when scaling a social enterprise, learned from the last 12 years at Dot Dot Dot.

1)     You can’t stay in startup mode forever

The early days of starting a business can be very exciting.  You get to work on a wide range of thorny problems, you experiment and solve problems as you go along, and there are few routine tasks.  This type of work suits my personality, and I loved the early days of working on Dot Dot Dot, when I was bringing together experts to help me get things off the ground, while winning support for my idea from organisations like the Bromley by Bow Centre, the Evening Standard, Nesta and Investec.   In addition, systematising tasks and writing policies and handbooks can be very time-consuming, so even though having these in place will save time in the long run, from day to day it can be quicker to improvise.

However, a preference for keeping things flexible was tempered by the levels of risk that Dot Dot Dot has been managing since we looked after our first building in Barnet in 2011.  Because we are looking after very valuable assets for property owners, and because we are responsible for the safety of guardians in their homes, we have always been very careful to do things by the book.  From a very early stage, we built checklists and workflows to keep things on track.

In addition to this, one person’s stimulating, creative startup culture is another person’s chaos.  I wanted to employ people who would carefully deliver high-quality work for our stakeholders, and they – perfectly reasonably – wanted order and predictability in their work.  In order to recruit a high-quality team and to allow them to perform, we had to systematise our rules and policies.  I wrote about some of the individuals who helped me to do this in a previous blog, and I remain extremely grateful to my diligent and systematic colleagues who make sure that we’re getting the detail of our work right.

This type of focus may not come naturally to the kind of person who decides to start something from scratch, but I would encourage every entrepreneur to cultivate a love for the useful sort of bureaucracy.

2)     Culture is essential

Growing a business involves relinquishing control and accepting that much of the work will have to be done without your supervision.  For the first few years of Dot Dot Dot, I was copied into a huge volume of emails, because I wanted to be confident that our tone was right and our decisions were appropriate.  As we grew, this became a practical impossibility – there were simply too many emails for me to keep an eye on, and I was beginning to tread on my colleague’s toes by intervening in minor issues.

Since then, I’ve come to appreciate that entrepreneurs need to focus on cultivating an appropriate culture rather than scrutinising individual choices, and to the extent that they get into the detail of other people’s work, it should be to check that the right values and decision-making processes are in place, rather than to weigh in on individual topics.  If the culture is right, bad choices will be fewer, and will be down to oversight or bad luck rather than laziness or ill-intent.  And if leaders focus on the abstract themes rather than the specific detail, staff can feel a greater sense of control over their own work, and more confidence that they know what they’re trying to achieve and why.

Culture is an area where social entrepreneurs may have an edge over founders with a purely commercial focus.

People who are interested in working at Dot Dot Dot are usually those who are bothered by the housing crisis and who would like to support volunteering and community-mindedness.  This shared purpose makes it easier to be confident that colleagues will make good judgements and act in accordance with our shared values.
A profile photo of a team member

Katharine Hibbert

Dot Dot Dot Founder

But in any kind of business, building culture is an active process.  At Dot Dot Dot, our approach to this starts with recruitment, where we try hard to make sure that our roles are a good mutual fit with those we appoint.  It’s not enough for us to test the applicants to find the one who is the best qualitied – they also need to be able to find out enough about us to make sure we’re a good fit for them.  For example, as a team we try to be thoughtful and polite – which makes for a pleasant and encouraging working environment, but also means that those who prefer to speak extremely frankly rather than using tact, those who have a hot temper or those who like to make jokes that are close to the knuckle may thrive more somewhere else.  There’s nothing wrong with those qualities – they’re just not how we get things done here.

On top of this, we make sure that our approach to meetings, staff performance appraisals and team events builds the culture we want.  Consideration of how staff have supported our values is prominent in annual reviews, and we work with external consultants to use the ‘insights discovery’ model with all team members to illustrate to them which types of energy they prefer to bring to work (characterised as red, yellow, blue or green), and how this may help or hinder them from working with colleagues who use different styles.  We’ve found that this has helped us work more harmoniously as a team, making the most of our different preferences for how we get things done.

Finally, as a founder looking to scale and sustain a business, it means making sure that the culture you’re trying to build is one that you can live yourself.  You need to be seen to make the decisions you’re asking your colleagues to make, such as, in Dot Dot Dot’s case, admitting when you’re wrong or pointing out errors even when ignoring them would work in your favour.  The business you build needs to be one you can comfortably operate within, otherwise you’ll undermine it yourself when making decisions under pressure.

3)     Know when to make yourself redundant

The right person to get an idea off the ground might not be the right person to oversee an organisation when it’s up and running.  This was the case for me – while I enjoyed being Dot Dot Dot’s Chief Executive from 2011 to 2016, I’m glad I made the decision to appoint someone else into that role then.  I’ve continued in a fairly hands-on role as Executive Chair, and I’ve put the Chief Executive hat back on occasionally to cover for periods of parental leave, holidays and team transition, but I’ve largely stepped away from day-to-day operational management.

This has three main benefits.  The first is simply that I was no longer the best person for the job.  After the first five years, Dot Dot Dot’s model and approaches were clear and well established – so they needed to be overseen by a leader who prefers to work systematically with close attention to detail, rather than someone like me who enjoys uncertainty and the bigger picture.

The second is that it increases organisational resilience.  If founders fail to share out control, a business’s ‘bus factor’ – the number of team members who would have to disappear suddenly (i.e. get hit by a bus) before the whole project stalls – remains very low.  This was brought vividly to life at Dot Dot Dot when I was hit by a car myself and was too injured to work for about six months.  This happened in 2017, at a point when Dot Dot Dot’s leadership team was well established and able to keep going in my absence.  At another point in our trajectory, the outcome for the organisation could have been very different.

Finally, one of the best things about setting up a business is that you get to create jobs – stepping aside makes way for someone else to pick up the baton, and potentially for founders to use their skills to create even more impact elsewhere.