How do you build a brilliant social business?

Ahead of speaking at the NatWest SE100 Social Business Club Insight event in Bristol next week, we talked to Kelly Davies of Vi-Ability to find out what it takes to make your social enterprise a success.

There are many examples of successful social enterpreneurs but in terms of poster boys and girls for the sector Kelly Davies (pictured above, left) has a solid claim for being near the top of the pile.

Davies is the founder of Vi-Ability, a social enterprise which performs the very neat trick of killing two birds with one stone: providing people of all ages with training or education that should lead them to employment whilst at the same time working to ensure that sports clubs make the most of commercial opportunities to thrive.

Formerly a successful footballer herself, Davies first saw the impact football could have on social issues such as knife crime and community health in South Africa when she was with Charlton Athletic. She went on to start Vi-Ability when she was working at a sports tour company, post completing an MBA at Liverpool University

Davies saw a way for clubs to attract income by offering training and qualifications that would enable employment opportunities. It was a win-win; the clubs were getting much needed income from contracts awarded to supply such services and people were getting off benefits and into jobs.

Six years later, Vi-Ability now has 16 members of staff and has expanded from Wales into London in the last 12 months. Here, Davies offers some top tips for ensuring your social business prospers:

The social entrepreneur

“It does takes a certain sort of person. An entrepreneur will take risks without even thinking about it. When they achieve success they don’t really rest because there’s always another problem that needs solving.

"They’ll need a lot of attributes that people associate with sports people too, such as teamwork, facing adversity, the ability to cope with knockbacks because you’ll have to deal with that all the time. If you’re starting something innovative, people often won’t get it. Determination is important – a lot of people like that won’t quit until a situation is resolved."

There is always a solution to every problem

“Worrying about whether or not I had the business skills never came into it, at least it didn’t with me. I just naturally assumed that if I didn’t have the kind of skill sets I would be able to find the people that would help me."

Get good at building personal relationships and make everybody feel really valued

“We identify where our weaknesses are; we are very good at asking people for support and then making them feel that has really made a difference. We don’t ask just for the sake of it – we ask if we want to get jobs done.”

Think about being sustainable from day one

“When I started Vi-Ability I knew that if we were going to do this properly we weren’t going to rely on grants, we were going to have an income stream. Part of our business is to make other businesses viable so if we weren’t viable ourselves… we’re doing what it says on the tin."

Be prepared to work hard

“Put it this way. I got a train from Cardiff to London this morning at 8am, I did a day’s work and got back to my hotel at 8pm that night and then I started looking at the cashflow. It’s not an easy life. Particularly at the start – it has got to be your whole life really. In the first five years I was very much seven days a week. I had this drive to keep pushing but I appreciate not everyone is like that."

Make sure people are clear about what you do

“There’s got to be key messages around what makes you different and that has got to be consistent across the organisation.”

Recruit carefully, trying to replicate the magic stuff

“One of the key challenges to being successful, and this shouldn’t be underestimated, is to replicate the magic stuff that the founding entrepreneur has with all staff members. I don’t have the answer to that myself currently. 

“The founding social entrepreneur probably doesn’t realise how special they are. I assumed that everyone would be as passionate as me. When I say we’re going to take on the world I think they should be taking on the world as well but the reality is that people are very different. For some people it’s just a job.”


Don't miss the next NatWest SE100 Social Business Club Insight event in Bristol on June 30th. The 'Building a Brilliant Social Business' event will cover core questions that social enterprises are asking themselves at all stages of their development – whether that's how to tell your story or what makes a good board of trustees.

There are limited places for this FREE event so make sure you sign up as soon as possible. Click here to register.