NatWest SE100 Social Business Club Profile: Iridescent Ideas

We chat with Gareth Hart, founder of one of the top firms on the Natwest SE100 Growth Index, about Iridescent Ideas and its aim to create a social enterprise economy.

Plymouth is a special place for social enterprise. Geographic isolation exacerbated by weak transport links has made the South West a resilient area with a strong local community and entrepreneurial spirit.

The city is home to the UK’s largest healthcare social enterprise, Livewell Southwest, as well as the first university worldwide to be awarded the Social Enterprise Mark, Plymouth University. Around 7,000 people are employed in social enterprises in Plymouth, and the sector has a turnover of around £500m annually.

Figures like that make people sit up and listen: they’re also the reason Plymouth was chosen by Social Enterprise UK to be the country’s first social enterprise city. At the heart of the bid was Gareth Hart, founder of Iridescent Ideas and chair of the Plymouth Social Enterprise Network

Hart estimates that securing the social enterprise city badge has brought in about £8m of investment to the city. And it’s not just about the cash: the badge has also helped massively in raising awareness for the social enterprise sector in Plymouth.

Iridescent Ideas, Hart's company, is a Community Interest Company (CIC) set up in 2011 to provide management consultancy for social enterprises. One of the best performers on the Natwest SE100 Growth index, it is currently the number one business services firm and second-placed for social enterprises in the South West.


Spotting the gap in the market

Setting up a business for the first time after being made redundant as a consultant was a huge challenge. Hart had become disillusioned with his consultancy job, which he described as “meaningless, just making money for my boss without any social mission.”

After attending a few social enterprise events and doing some research, he fell in love with the sector. He also saw a gap in the market.

“I knew consultants who were working in that sector,” he says, “but they were working for themselves and that didn’t seem right. If you’re working in that sector, you should be a social enterprise yourselves.”

“So I thought, let’s set up a business advice company and just try it. We were in the middle of a recession, in a new city, with two kids, and I started in my bedroom.” 

Founding Iridescent Ideas as a CIC was a statement of intent, differentiating the company clearly from other consultants. The legal structure appealed because of its transparency and regulation, as well as its simple terms of governance.

Our vision is creating a social enterprise economy. We want to see all social enterprises down the whole high street.

Since then, Iridescent have gone from strength to strength, and are now employing four staff working out of an office in Plymouth. The company have supported over 300 individuals and social enterprises and helped their clients secure more than £3m pounds of investment. 

The company advice services for social enterprises cover four areas: “Start it”, “Fund it”, “Grow it” and “Prove it”. They assist companies and individuals just starting out with advice for setting up, as well as helping more developed companies with growth, funding and impact measurement.


The road ahead

Iridescent's aims aren't limited to simply continuing to grow and providing quality service to their clients. “Our vision,” Hart says “is creating a social enterprise economy. We want to see all social enterprises down the whole high street. All businesses should be social enterprises.”

Iridescent works directly with a variety of small and large social enterprises. Not afraid to take on large, long term projects with massive social enterprises like the Eden Project they also continue to work with individual social entrepreneurs who are just starting out. 

Now the aim is to go national, but marketing and awareness is a challenge. The solution, Hart believes, is in focusing on digital technologies. 

Programs like their free online webinar series is one way in which they’re trying to overcome the challenges of distance. Financed by crowdfunding, the pilot scheme of four webinars will allow entrepreneurs from all over the country to tune in to free business advice from their sofa. 

Hart sees digital communication, through services like Skype and the webinar series, as the key to his firms plans of national growth. Digital technology, he believes, is crucial to his broader aims of making social enterprises the backbone of the economy.

For anyone looking for advice on starting or running a social enterprise, sign-ups are open for Iridescent Idea’s series of free webinars. The first one on the 20th of July is already sold out, so if you are interested be sure to book your spot on the remaining three soon.

Photo above: The Iridescent Ideas team, from left to right: Mel Tucker, Director, Gareth Hart, Director and founder, Paul Read, Director, and Lucy Blackley, Impact Developer.