Three cheers for the bureaucrats!

June 25, 2021

Our culture celebrates those who come up with ideas far more than those who translate them into reality. Yet, says our founder, Katharine Hibbert, it’s the diligent administrators putting ideas into practice that make for a successful, sustainable business.

As we celebrate a decade of Dot Dot Dot, there’s one thing that would astonish ten-years-younger me.  You might think it’s the fact we’re still in business – but I had a hunch that property owners and guardians would choose a better quality and more impactful option if it existed.  You might think it’s our scale – but although we’re now one of the biggest 10% of social enterprises in the country, I made spreadsheets in the early days modelling what growth would look like.  Although at the beginning I wasn’t sure I could make my plans a reality, I drew up the vision of what success would look like, then I put aside my doubts and acted as if it was possible.  It turns out that what I imagined wasn’t too far off the mark.    

But the one thing I never imagined and didn’t predict was just how much I would come to love excellent administrators, thoughtful bureaucrats and reliable middle managers.  Like most entrepreneurs, I’ve always been fairly comfortable with chaos and uncertainty.  You wouldn’t pursue a dream of building an organisation from scratch offering something that doesn’t exist yet, let alone doing it with zero start-up capital and minimal business experience, if you didn’t secretly quite enjoy being well outside your comfort zone.  My personality had always led me into roles which lacked structure and where no one really managed me.  In my previous career, as a journalist at the Sunday Times and as an author, I was more or less given free rein as long as I produced decent writing on time.  If I’m honest, I found all forms of administration a terrible bore, and I avoided it as much as I possibly could.

However, almost as soon as I started working on Dot Dot Dot, I realised that it didn’t matter how good my ideas were if I couldn’t overcome the practical hurdles to realising them.  That meant things like making sure that our properties met the relevant health and safety standards, that staff had the right employment contracts, that the books were balanced and that we had enough insurance cover.  And all of that meant bureaucracy and administration.

I found that there was lots of fantastic support available to would-be social entrepreneurs to help them develop their vision and imagine their business model.  There was rather less advice available focused on the nuts and bolts of actually making things happen.  I repeatedly came up against hurdles like the difficulty of finding an insurance broker who would construct a bespoke policy for a new business model, and that of identifying a reliable accountant without having an accounting background myself.

Some of it I managed to do myself.  But a great deal of it got done through the efforts of my colleagues.  Dot Dot Dot’s very first employee, Sam Norwood, joined as a paid intern and stayed on for more than a year afterwards.  He helped me to figure out how much support to give guardians in finding volunteering opportunities that suited them, and wrote our first volunteering handbook – he has since gone on to become a teacher and launch his own charity, Write Back.  Our second employee, Saffron Clackson, took a two-year career break from her job in the Civil Service to work on Dot Dot Dot from 2012 to 2014, and built us proper HR, book-keeping and property-management systems.  And Ben Richardson – now Managing Director of Caring in Bristol, a homelessness charity – put a huge amount of effort into working through tricky issues in guardian management during his time with us as a Relationship Manager from 2013 to 2016.   It’s the same story today – Dot Dot Dot’s success is thanks in large part to our excellent team who methodically work through problems and solve them step by step.

Before working on Dot Dot Dot, I would probably have seen that kind of work as an unglamorous distraction – something that ties you down and takes you away from the big ideas.  Now, I see that building a business involves constant triangulation between the ideal vision and the practical constraints you’re dealing with.  Doing that successfully requires system-builders who pick up new ideas and translate them into practicalities, not just a room full of charismatic generalists who love to solve problems on the fly but who also don’t mind creating new ones along the way.  Crucially I also had to get my chaos-loving tendencies in check and learn to cooperate with people who like to create order. 

I also learned – the hard way – that it’s administrative details that are most likely to trip up businesses like Dot Dot Dot.  Our worst crisis, when we came the closest to failing as a business, was caused by a string of book-keeping errors when we outsourced the work to an inadequate provider and didn’t check it thoroughly enough.  It led us to underestimate the costs we were accruing, which could have made us insolvent – we were lucky to catch it in time.  It wasn’t ideas and vision that saved us in that case, it was colleagues diligently combing through the data and putting the mistakes right.

Our culture celebrates those who come up with ideas far more than those who translate them into reality.  Ten years ago, I felt the same way.  Today, though, I am full of appreciation for thorough, careful people who quietly get the job done right day in and day out.  It isn’t a toast that you hear very often but, on our birthday, here’s to the quiet, diligent people who get things done.  Cheers!

Dot Dot Dot…10 years and counting

June 23, 2021

Dot Dot Dot chief executive, Peter Brown, reflects on what he’s learnt after moving from a housing association to work for a social enterprise.

So Dot Dot Dot is 10 years old…and I’ve been part of it for seven of those years. The first time I heard about Dot Dot Dot was in about 2012 when someone in my network mentioned that someone he knew had started a property guardianship social enterprise. That turned out to be Katharine, who had recently started her social enterprise and was looking for properties to house people who did great volunteering. The concept has been proven with some early successes, but more properties were needed. 

At that time, I was working for the local authority housing organisation, Tower Hamlets Homes. Like most housing providers of that size, we had a small number of properties that couldn’t be used for longterm local authority tenants. I was looking for a solution that was better than just leaving the properties empty and hoping for the best, which had been the strategy up to that point. Having people who also volunteered whilst looking after the properties met a business need, because it cut risk and costs, and gave long-term tenants great neighbours. It made my housing management colleagues feel good that properties were being put to a good use by working with an organisation that was innovative as well as trustworthy. 

Because I worked for a client before I came to work at Dot Dot Dot, I got to experience the full value of what happens when you partner with an organisation that is purposeful, exists for all the right reasons and has a clear, socially responsible approach to doing business. Perhaps it’s unusual to switch from a housing provider to supplier, but many of the values that housing organisations hold true are shared by Dot Dot Dot, The way that work is carried out has changed over the years, but the Dot Dot Dot business model, our desire for impact and the commitment we have to good results for everyone hasn’t altered.

I have always been a fan of the social enterprise model. To my mind, they occupy that space somewhere between purely commercial organisations and fully mission-driven charities, and try to take the best bits of each, aiming to create something powerful, purposeful and, crucially, sustainable. It’s been a pleasure to be part of Dot Dot Dot’s journey this far and to get to work with so many great clients, colleagues and guardians over the years.

Most of my career before I joined Dot Dot Dot was in the public sector, and for organisations much larger than Dot Dot Dot. When I contrast what it’s like to lead Dot Dot Dot with those earlier professional experiences, there’s something quite freeing about organisations like ours that are smaller and able to be nimble. At Dot Dot Dot, we are very focused on doing the right things for our clients and those we house, and increasingly we will be focusing our efforts partnering with clients who we think will enable us to do our best work. At Dot Dot Dot we are trying to do one thing – provide housing that makes it easier for people to do good – and everyone in the team wants to do this and to find ways to do it well. 

It’s also good to be able to stay connected with people working in all kinds of housing organisations – the big, the small, the specialised, as well as the more general. Through our careful choice of guardians who want to volunteer, and our diligent management approach, we have always made sure that we can add value to our clients’ work and projects. We know that we get our strongest feedback when we are working in situations where choices about what guardians are on site and how they are managed matter the most. These situations commonly are the more complicated regeneration and development programmes, and bigger buildings in the areas where property owners have a long term stake and ongoing interest. They are often settings where clients have sensitive projects and often with longer-term residents closeby.

Another reflection is that I’m more certain than ever about how vital a brilliant team is. Dot Dot Dot has a great team of people working for it – with its Board supporting the exec – and the collective value of the team’s commitment, energy and skills is immense. We couldn’t achieve what we have over the last 10 years without our people.

Over the years, the way we have done our work has of course changed – we have more staff, we have evolved and improved how we work and, as we have become bigger, we have become more professionalised and created more specialised roles. When I began at Dot Dot Dot, we could travel to all of the properties in our portfolio by bike (or bus if it was raining!), since they were all in East London. We aren’t so local anymore – we have properties throughout London and the south east, as well as the south coast, Oxford and Cambridge and Manchester – but the commitment we have to our work, our desire to create a positive impact and our sense of values has not changed at all…and hopefully won’t do in the next 10 years.

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