From Pirates to Profit for Purpose
24 July 2013 at 11:41 am
In this week’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise, journalist Nadia Boyce takes a look at a swashbuckling Melbourne startup.
A pirate supplies store on the other side of the world has inspired a Melbourne-based social enterprise to look at improving literacy among underprivileged children.
The enterprise, 100 Story Building, will reach a milestone in September when it opens its own premises in Footscray, in Melbourne’s west.
With the lease freshly signed, work on the new space will start this week. Co-founder Lachlann Carter is a hard man to catch; always on the go organising fit-outs and labour.
“I’m very nervous about it all at the moment!” Carter says.
“It’s a massive milestone.”
Books, birds and buccaneers
In 2007, Carter was studying to be a teacher and partner Jenna Williams was working in publishing. They had hopes only of doing something that drew on the things they loved about what they did.
A speech by Dave Eggers at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival about his San Francisco-based literacy Not for Profit 826 Valencia proved to be the tipping point.
Retail zoning required the organisation to run their literacy programs in conjunction with a shopfront selling, of all things, pirate goods! It was a business model that piqued the interest of the Carter and Williams.
“We said, ‘we need to go over there’,” Carter recounts.
An intense internship at 826 Valencia followed.
Upon their return to Australia, Carter and Williams were hatching plans of their own.
A letter-writing ritual between Williams and her grandfather sparked the idea of connecting children and authors via snail mail.
Not for Profit Pigeons was the result, and Carter set about building networks with schools in the inner western suburbs. The startup was based on a classic charity model, relying on philanthropic contributions.
“To begin with we were nothing.” Carter says.
“We held a small fundraiser and raised $1000 to start us off.”
Crunching the Numbers
Success raised the possibility of expansion and word of mouth led Carter and his team to seriously consider a social enterprise as a way of diversifying their income and building a sustainable business model.
“To begin with we didn’t really know what social enterprise was. We were going to use a Not for Profit model with a shop front,” he says.
They applied for The Crunch, a Social Traders program supporting budding social entrepreneurs, and were accepted. The program saw them conduct a feasibility study, market research and an industry analysis and quickly realise the retail model they had seen in San Francisco was not for them.
“It was going to suck up more money than it made,” Carter says.
“There was also tension between the ideal location for a retail space and the ideal location to access the kids we would be helping,” he says.
“The Crunch helped us re-evaluate our strengths and understand how we could have products that contribute to our core business of helping kids.”
A new story begins
Carter and Williams launched 100 Story Building in October 2012, with long-time Pigeons volunteer Jessica Tran.
Free programs are supported financially, in part, by revenue raised via a consultancy service offering the services of professionals to assist similar organisations.
The enterprise supports young writers from culturally and linguistically diverse and marginalised communities. Currently, there are almost 7000 students in 56 schools across the western suburbs of Melbourne who fall into the lowest quartile of socio-educational advantage.
In the new space, programs will be offered to the children in school groups and through after school workshops. Participants will have access to assistance from authors, creative professionals and trained volunteers.
The past year has seen the team refining their plans using deskspace donated by the Wheeler Centre and a mentorship with Creative Partnerships Australia.
“The business of running the organisation presented a major challenge for us. Most of what we’ve learned has been practical, about creating a business, a real business.”
“I think they [social enterprises] are like any business. When you’re starting a business you need to know what you are doing and be prepared – know that the failure rate will be pretty high.”
“I feel that we know our business back to front.”
Financially, the goal will be for profits to outstrip contributions from philanthropy. Socially, Carter anticipates impact will be harder to measure.
He says their mission is to provide opportunities for kids to improve their literacy, through fostering a sense of belonging and confidence.
“We will ask ourselves how well we are doing in providing those opportunities,” Carter says.
While a partnership with the Westpac Foundation has trained Carter and his team for the use of a logic-based evaluation model, extended impact assessment may be reliant on assumptions derived from existing research, he says.
The sometimes fleeting nature of their contact with any one child makes it difficult to track their progress.
“Part of our difficulty is recognising that we know we can’t tell if a child’s literacy has improved down the line,”he says.
“Something as straightforward as attendance can help us. If we know a child’s there, we know they’re learning.”
Turning the page
Carter is optimistic about the future of the organisation.
“We want it to hang around because it’s supporting itself,” Carter says.
“Our dream would be to see kids who’ve gone through our programs help build new ones, staying and contributing to the community rather than leaving it.”
100 Story Building has been very successful to date in getting authors and volunteers on board, Carter says.
“Our books have been great tools for engaging supporters,” he says.
“From the kids, you’re getting those letters sharing their voice and what they’re thinking and feeling.
“I think that’s really powerful.”
With a 200 page business plan in hand and no pirates supplies in sight, come September, Carter and his team will certainly be primed to embark on the next phase of their experiment with social enterprise.
Lachlann Carter wishes to thank some additional key supporters of 100 Story Building who worked pro bono to help get the program off the ground:
- Artillery Architecture and Interior Design
- Truly Deeply Brand Agency
- Montlaur Project Services
- Aston Consulting
For more about 100 Story Building, click here.
Image L-R, Carter, Tran, Williams