10 lessons from 10 years in social enterprise

When we found out that Human Lending Library alumni Lee Healey had achieved a decade as a social entrepreneur, we had to ask: how did you do it?

10 lessons from 10 years in social enterprise

Ten years! If you’d said to me back in 2009 that in ten years I’d have 25 staff, a turnover of £1 million pounds and would be celebrating finding £20 million of unclaimed income for our customers… well I probably would have agreed with you! 

I’m half joking of course but I think I always knew IncomeMax had the potential to become an impactful social enterprise. But the fact I had absolute belief in the idea for my social enterprise and our mission didn’t necessarily mean it would be easy.  

Here’s 10 things I’ve learned along the way… 

  1. You can’t do this alone

I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been helped by some incredible people. From my co-founder and wife Steph, ops manager Paula (who also has a second job as my Mum), my Deputy Ops manager Leigh T, my senior team and my employees who give everything, you’ll need brilliant people if you want your social enterprise to succeed and grow. Recruit them, train them, trust them.

  1. Learn how to handle stress

Trying to balance achieving your social impact and running your business well with your own individual needs can be stressful, especially if you are living and breathing your social enterprise 24 hours, as many social entrepreneurs do. 
Learning to recognise and handle stress is so important. I’ve learned to meditate, to take regular holidays where I can recharge and to exercise regularly, eat well and spend time with my family.

  1. Build relationships

Building great relationships with others outside of your organisation is all important. Be kind, remember everyone has their pressures and stay humble. I really value my relationships with our funding partners & external stakeholders. Be professional, do your absolute best to deliver, be honest, trustworthy and respectful and you’ll be amazed at the long term relationships you can build in business.

  1. Don’t take on too much

A few years back I tried to start a completely separate business in a completely different sector. I thought I could be like a ‘Dragon’ and run multiple businesses. Be careful if this is you! It’s hard to spread yourself thin, especially because social enterprise is all consuming. I learnt a lot from trying it, but the experience stressed me beyond belief. I realised I couldn’t give my all to two social enterprises; one is enough.

  1. Be grateful

I’m extremely grateful to have had some amazing advice & support from individuals, mentors and organisations to help us grow and flourish. It’s a big list! My good friend Jim has been my mentor from the beginning.

We have won several awards from organisations such as the Shackleton Foundation and UnLtd which have helped accelerated our growth. Expert Impact connected me with the legendary John Frieda for expert mentoring and advice.

I also wouldn’t be celebrating 10 years without the valued support of our partners. Most businesses in the world right now are thinking about their social purpose, and social enterprise is often something that aligns with new thinking on company values. So: a big thank you to EDF Energy, SSE, Nationwide Building Society, British Gas Energy Trust, Vanquis Bank, Agility Eco and every partner for supporting us.

  1. Don’t stop learning

If you want to continue to grow, you must keep learning. I’ve completed a course at Staffordshire University in the last few years and I make it my mission to keep up to date with all the latest knowledge & thinking, both in my profession as a money adviser but also as a business leader and advocate for the social enterprise sector.

I love to read books. My current favourite is the “TED Guide to Public Speaking” – highly recommended for anyone that gets asked to deliver presentations.

  1. Think and act like a business

Social enterprises are businesses which try to make a profit so that they can reinvest or donate to create positive social change. At IncomeMax we ring-fence time to plan ahead and work hard as a team to make a profit and be successful.

We also stick rigidly to our financial plan which helps us to deliver, grow and develop. If IncomeMax is to be sustainable and continue to create social change for many years to come, it is essential that we think and act like a business in every way.

  1. Share what you have learnt

If you have some success as a social entrepreneur, it’s good to give back where you can. I love meeting new social enterprise founders to listen and provide ideas or advice. I attend events, deliver presentations and take part in panel discussions to share knowledge and ideas.

10 lessons from 10 years in social enterprise

  1. Enjoy the journey

This one has been difficult for me. I’m often so focused on goals and creating social change that I forget to enjoy the journey. I’m working on this!

As polar explorer and TED speaker Ben Saunders says… “If we can’t feel content here, today, now, on our journeys, amidst the mess and the striving… then we might never feel it.” So enjoy the journey, because this is living life.

  1. Work on yourself

Over the last few years I’ve learnt to embrace my feelings and recognise I don’t find everything easy. I’ve had to learn to look after my mental health better, learn to be calm, and let go of selfishness and fear. It’s important to work on yourself and your relationships.

It’s no good being a successful social entrepreneur but not seeing your family much or being a grouch!

So be prepared to work on yourself. Learn to relax, spend time with loved ones and work on issues as they arise. It’s helped me to become more confident and to talk about the things I really care about, including creating a more empathetic, kinder and compassionate world.

Lee Healey is the founder of Income Max

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash