Strong Start for Socially-conscious Lego Enterprise
Wednesday, 7th May 2014 at 10:20 am
In this week’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise, journalist Nadia Boyce explores the nuts and bolts of the Lego social enterprise that has been on everyone’s lips, as its creator grapples with the prospect of ‘Founder’s Syndrome’ and managing newfound attention.
A Melbourne devotee of Lego has extended his fandom – for good.
Inside the Brick is a new social enterprise using the popular children’s toy as a platform for constructive play sessions intended to provide a social outlet for autistic children.
Founder Rob Deakin has an interest in helping autistic children that stems from his own experiences with autistic children in Lego circles – as a die-hard fan himself.
“I’d see these mums. They were emotional. They had tears in their eyes,” he says. “Their kids didn’t always have many friends or a place to play.”
Opened in February, Inside the Brick runs children’s lego parties to generate revenue, with the eventual aim of donating 50 per cent of profits to assist children with the condition.
It’s an idea brilliant for its simplicity and the profound impact it can deliver- garnering the attention of the national media and a bevy of investors since its recent launch.
Now Deakin is looking ahead, not only at how to achieve his mission, but also how to manage what has proven to be an outstanding success.
Action for Autism
Deakin’s play sessions have had an incredible response from the community, with the organisation going from running one session a month to seven sessions a week.
It is not surprising.
“Autism is an area that’s often problematic – there’s not a lot of services,” Deakin explains. “30 per cent of kids who come to the centre have been diagnosed.”
“The whole idea of play is quite different for autistic kids…even just to be in the room with other kids can be difficult.”
“We don’t do it in a way like a school teacher or therapist. We’re just like, dudes into lego, as well!”
“I made a lot of mistakes. I had no idea of ways to work with kids. I can confidently say now that I had a talent for this without knowing it.
“Ï worked in very technical IT. A lot of people I worked with had a similar type of personality, where they liked you to be quite prescriptive and literal.
“I’ve always been into machines, engines, robots.”
Deakin received a Churchill Fellowship to travel around the world meeting with experts in the intricacies of the behaviour of autistic children and the effects of construction play.
“I had my sense of what was needed…meeting with world experts in the field – you see the same issues appear.
“The surprise for me was – I just couldn’t understand why with construction play…there’s an absence of social activities around that interest.
“It turns out adults into that type of thing sometimes aren't as social.”
With the ambitious mission of growing the club network, Deakin says ‘Founders Syndrome’, – where social enterprises collapse after the departure of key figureheads – has been on his mind from the organisation’s inception. He now focuses on sharing his knowledge and experience as much as he can.
“It [founders syndrome] has been an issue for me from day one. I don’t have an ego in this – it’s a mission.
“I’ve had people helping me run the clubs from day one, and now people are taking more of an active lead.
“The thing is, I need someone else there to help me getting it [knowledge] out. I instinctively know what’s going to happen.
“I also want to capture my knowledge and put it into a manual or book.”
Inside the Brick will soon be launching a website to help bring people together to create brick clubs, and hope to both mentor and support others to set up clubs and donate money to other existing organisations to create them.
Deakin says eventually he would be open to developing a certification system for club leaders.
“It’s not a skill like driving a car. You have to have the right type of person. Anyone can have a club. It’s whether it will be there in 20 years.
“When you’ve got an organisation like Scouts, you’ve got the template. Our mission now is to find the right combination of people.”
Building a Business
“Ideally I’d love to just run clubs…but I had to think about how I can generate revenue to get things done.”
“We’re right at the edge of what a social enterprise is. Most tend to be closer to Not for Profits. We’re closer to a traditional business.
“I looked at doing it as a Not for Profit. There’s too many bleeding hearts and the expectation that other people will care. Things happen too slowly. I’m from a corporate background and you just get things done. It wouldn’t suit my personality type.”
The Crunch incubator program and business modelling software allowed Deakin to develop a comprehensive business case, which proved the key to accessing capital and getting investors on board.
“It allowed me to build scenarios around changes and assumptions,” Deakin says.
“When it came to pitching to Social Ventures, I knew the right language, I had the numbers and I clearly knew about the risks.
“When we opened the door, it worked. We had 90 party bookings within a month.”
Earlier this year, Inside the Brick also managed to do something few social enterprises have – crack the mainstream media.
Yet Deakin says that after an article on the organisation appeared in The Age newspaper in February, the result was more centred on social purpose, and less on generating sales.
“I got lots of calls from people and institutions interested in the long term social purpose,” he says. “They weren’t calls from people wanting to book parties.”
“We have much more local promotion. The parties are a utility. It’s like dolphin-free tuna – they are still buying tuna.”
Inside the Brick continues to flourish, and is expecting to reach a point of profitability in the next year or two. Parties are booked out until August.
For Deakin, there are two outstanding issues the organisation must work through:
- Managing staff costs
“At the moment we’re tweaking processes to get the most out of our premises.It’s about getting the most efficiency out of what you’ve got. We need to make sure staffing costs are not exorbitant.”
- Managing interest
“So many people want to talk to me. You get these mums and dads who see someone who wants to help. They want to have a one or two hour conversation while I’m trying to run a party. I could fill my day with appointments if I had time.”
He emphasises the personal toll of a process that has evidently been exhausting but fulfilling at the same time.
“I left my IT career for this journey. I had to take that leap of faith. I’m still waiting to get paid.
“It’s a life consuming decision to jump out of the mainstream, people have got to understand. I’ve spent the past 665 days working.”
Yet Deakin’s patience is unwavering.
“Your worst enemy and your best friend is yourself. Stay positive. You’ve got to keep that energy for your mission.”
Read more about Inside the Brick here.