Liam Black doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to his advice for entrepreneurs. He’s quick to call out jargon, has little time for Dragon's Den style TV shows and his saying at Wavelength, the company he co-founded in 2009 is, “we don’t do pointless inspiration.”

The author of The Social Entrepreneur’s A-Z draws from an incredible well of experience, having lived and breathed social enterprise for well over 20 years. And when you can line up Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus to write the forward to your book, you know you must have been doing something right along the way!

The early years: Liverpool, furniture and dangerous shoes

Liam’s social enterprise career started with the FRC Group. The Furniture Resource Centre was started in 1988 in Liverpool as a response to the city’s intense poverty. At the time he was working for Crisis, the homeless charity. Liam explains, “We had more money than we could give away, so the board asked us to go out and look for ideas we could scale. I was running the north of England and Ireland and I convened big meetings all over the north with local authorities and chambers of commerce. We had money and expertise and so we looked for partners. At end of the process we did a deal with Nick and Robbie at the Furniture Resource Centre Liverpool to transform it from a second-hand charity donation centre dependent on the kindness of strangers that could only do so much work, into a social enterprise.”

It relaunched in 1994 as a social business making and selling furniture, partnering with organisations all over the north of England to enable single homeless people to access furnished accommodation. Says Liam, “I went on board to keep an eye on the money, fell in love with it and ended up as CEO.”

The success of the core business enabled it to move from a small, local, hand-to-mouth charity to a multimillion-pound regional force of social business. It then used its profits to reinvest in new ones. The FRC set up Bulky Bob’s waste management service and the Revive retail chain, recruiting staff from the most deprived and challenging backgrounds and training them up in various skills.

But all the time, says Liam, “We didn’t talk about ‘social enterprise’, we were just tired of the very flawed model of fundraised charity as a response to poverty. We transformed our charity from a charity mindset to an enterprise mindset.” This all happened before the advent of community interest companies, and when he spoke to voluntary sector CEOs on the need to become more profit-making he would get booed. “At one big gathering in the North East,” he laughs, “someone threw a shoe at me.”

One book, Fifteen restaurants and a Blackberry epiphany

FRC set up The Cat's Pyjamas, a social business training organisation, and then in 2004 he wrote his first book, There's No Business Like Social Business: How to be Socially Enterprising. At an event he was speaking at he bumped into Jamie Oliver who was keen to tap into Liam's experience at FRC. From there he left Liverpool to take over the reins of Fifteen, the Foundation and restaurant chain Oliver famously fronted to train disadvantaged young people to work in the hospitality industry.

Liam arrived into the organisation a year or so after the first restaurant had been opened. “It was the subject of a TV show and we had a lot of people through the front door, but it wasn’t doing well,” Liam explains, “As with a lot of startups, there wasn’t enough focus on the dull basics of how to run a business." There was a naivety around how to integrate young people from prison and homelessness into high-end kitchen and the balance between profit, purpose and professionals was all out of kilter.

Liam inherited a half-plan for the opening of Fifteen in Amsterdam, and later launched restaurants in Cornwall and Melbourne. In Amsterdam the restaurant partnered with two fantastic telecoms and marketing entrepreneurs, who, says Liam, “brought with them a spectacularly successful entrepreneurial background” and in Cornwall they connected with Henry and Will Ashworth, owners of the internationally acclaimed Watergate Bay Hotel. It was these connections that really helped to catapult the business forward.

“The model is strong now,” says Liam, “but the best iteration was in Cornwall. Here, I learned how to create a top-end enterprise which really engaged young people. Public transport is so terrible that even going three miles is impossible." Even though many of us would consider Cornwall an idyllic place to grow up, if you're young and unemployed it's an incredibly tough place to be. Of all the places Fifteen operates it's Cornwall, and the opportunities it provides there, that give Liam the most pleasure.

But the relentless travel and public scrutiny that came with running such a high profile organisation was starting to take its toll. A couple of incidents stood out as signposts that it was time to move on...

"I was giving a talk to some social entrepreneurs in the East End of London. One of the young lads asked for my top tip. I said, ‘Only do what you love. Life is too short.’ He said to me, ‘Are you doing what you love?’ and I said, ‘Hmm.’ The truth is I wasn’t doing enough of what I loved.”

Then there was the time he flew to Melbourne and back for a three-hour board meeting and in the process completely forgot about his daughter’s parents’ evening. Chastened, he arrived home knowing that he had to leave at 6am the next morning for a flight to Amsterdam. As he tried desperately to salvage the situation with his wife and daughter he made the terrible mistake of glancing down at his Blackberry. His wife's response? "Liam you know what the problem is don’t you? You’re never here. And when you are here, you’re never here."

Life's too short, it was time for a change.



A portfolio career

Liam has since created an impressive portfolio career for himself. He is co-founder of Wavelength, which unites leaders in different sectors, industries and countries who share a common mindset. Wavelength works with leaders from big businesses such as Dyson, Rolls Royce and Sainsbury’s to create “a generation of leaders who understand that businesses can be a force for good in the world.” Wavelength runs a year-long programme in the UK called Connect, taking 120 people from business and social enterprise. The 2015 programme sold out and, says Liam, should generate a whole new wave of what he calls “energy makers.”

He also acts as an investment adviser to two funds, Impact Ventures UK (IVUK) and the Ignite Fund. As an investor Liam is a firm believer in the adage that 'a brilliant team with a mediocre idea will always beat a mediocre team with a brilliant idea'.

Luckily for the business world, Liam also does a lot of mentoring. “I am 55 and blundered around in my twenties not knowing what I was doing,” he says, “Don’t tell anyone. But there is no reason people should make mistakes I made. They will make their own. It’s great for people to learn from grizzled old guys like me.” He also writes a (very blunt) Dear Jude column in Pioneers Post, named after St Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. In the Dear Jude columns Liam give advice to a fictional young entrepreneur, and it was these columns that formed the inspiration for The Social Entrepreneur's A to Z.

Whatever he does, Liam is at the forefront of changing how business works. The next frontier is how capital can be mobilised effectively for entrepreneurs who have a strong social and environmental ethic at the heart of their business. One of the mistakes that’s been made in the UK, he says, was back when the social enterprise strategy was launched was to make distribution of profit the be-all and end-all: “In any new business profit is going to be small anyway. Make it about the impact.”

It seems these days Liam is finally doing what makes him happy. “I saw my mum over Christmas. She’s never quite understood what it is I do,” he laughs, “I always told her I worked in a restaurant. And over a bottle of Baileys she said, ‘Are you ever going to get a proper job?’ and I said, ‘I hope not’. I am very blessed to have the interesting life I have.”


Links (as mentioned in the podcast):

The Social Entrepreneur's A to Z (link to book)

Furniture Resource Centre
Bulky Bobs
Fifteen (Jamie Oliver Food Foundation)
Friends of Grameen
Big White Wall
St Barnabas Club
Homes for Good
Dear Jude
IV UK Investment Fund
Ignite Fund

Favourite business book:

“I’ve not read a lot of them, to be honest. I have been alienated by the b%&llsh*t that was in them. But of all the books I have read recently the one I have found most useful is a book by Dr Zella King, called Who is in your Personal Boardroom?: How to choose people, assign roles and have conversations with purpose.

Motivational quote:

A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book, Irish Proverb.

"I am a big fan of people looking after themselves. Social entrepreneurs often get so burned out thinking that changing the world is about working 24/7 and ignoring their own wellbeing. But what use to the world are you if you’re fractious, tired and haven’t had sex for a year?”

Productivity tool:

“I have always been a late tech adopter. But I love Twitter. I use it to find out what’s going on in the world and I have made some fabulous connections. My colleague Adrian is much more into LinkedIn. I have lots of connections but I don’t know what to do with them. My life is kept on track by my virtual PA, Caroline, who uses these technologies.”

I really hope you enjoyed Liam's story, whether you just read it here or listened to the podcast. We covered a huge amount in the podcast, with some invaluable insights from Liam. If you're on the social entrepreneur journey, you must listen!

If you have any thoughts or comments about this episode, please do share them on Twitter or Facebook – I’d love to hear from you! I've just finished the Social Entrepreneur's A to Z. I thought it was brilliant, and this week I'll be tweeting my favourite quotes from the book at @thecareerfarm.

And finally, if you did listen to the show I would be hugely grateful if you could leave an honest review for The Mission Driven Entrepreneurs Podcast on iTunes. Ratings and reviews are extremely helpful and greatly appreciated! They do matter in the rankings of the show and I read every one.

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Thanks again to Liam for sharing his story with us.

Next Time...

I'm talking to Claire Young, founder of Speakers For Schools and co-founder of Girls Out Loud. Claire is a rarity indeed, a graduate of Lord Sugar's boardroom (she was the runner up in Series 4 of The Apprentice) who emerged with her dignity intact and her reputation enhanced. Even more rare, she chose to channel her new found status into two incredible enterprises which are having a tremendous, positive impact on young people in the UK and now internationally. Fun, insightful, and definitely "on a mission" Claire's story is a must-listen next week.