Brum’s Twitterati have been tying themselves in a tizzy asking the question “So what the heck is an Impact Hub and why is it so epically awesome?”. Normal people probably don’t care, but might find the answers interesting anyway.
We sent Danny Smith out to get us pictures of the Spider-Man, but he came back with this.
Before Christmas a Kickstarter began and the link got passed around with some curiosity. The copy seemed to be all buzz words and no clear explanation. The question “What is an Impact Hub?” was on everybody’s lips. Not in a good way. Fans of the English language were in varying degrees bemused and angry at its obtuseness (shut up – that’s a word). This, coupled with the truly huge goal set, its relentlessly upbeat nature, and its seemingly discounting of all the hard work that already goes on in the city popping up in people’s various social media streams generated more bad feeling culminating in a few posts where this bad feeling was thrown about.
I went down to meet Immy, the author of the Kickstarter, to have a chat and look around their new space (it’s nice). Immy is small and passionate and when she gesticulates small bells tinkle from the bangles on her wrists.
Various things were said during the interview that were ‘off the record’ but none of these were to protect her or the Impact Hub, they were in general explaining when various people and organisations had screwed over her and the project as a whole.
IMMY: It’s been a real steep learning curve for us, from the moment we did go more public and found out how unprepared we were for what was going to come. There’s a portion that have been really supportive and really great but then, psychologically you think more about the gap, about the people that are saying “what’s going on?” and I think it overtakes that. For me it’s a big learning curve because we put it out there like “wow we’ve been doing this for two years” and we were a little “wow look at the amount of talented people”.
ME: Cards on the table I was going to write a column that was a take-down of the language, which is pretty impenetrable, and also I wanted to poke fun at how excited you were at everything.
IMMY: I don’t think I realised how it appeared when it came out. I think, for us, we sort of wrote the copy ourselves. We knew that going for a big crowd-funding target would need some sort of campaign of monumental effort from us. So for us it was “how can we get across how excited we are and make it amazing?”. And yeah I think I spent too much time in America over Canada over the last few years on trips and stuff.
There is part of me, as a kid, I grew up in Stetchford and I remember when Stetchford Cascades opened, and it was the best year of my life, I can’t even tell you. On the opening day we queued outside as kids with our dad, and I remember loving Birmingham. And I got to ten or eleven and went to secondary school and my cousins started taking the micky that I was from Birmingham, and people would always be like ‘beerrrminnum’ and everywhere you went. And as soon as you hit 17/18 it was almost like even school had taught us “get out, get somewhere else”. When I came back and I first met Anneka from TEDx and we thought “Let’s see if we can put a TEDx event on”. I didn’t know about TEDx and I was a bit bored, London hadn’t been that great, and my family was here. I think at that moment, because the brand of TEDx works to bring people together and I started to get super excited that there’s something like that Stetchford Cascade feeling here. So that has, for three or four years, really resonated with me, that whenever I went abroad to places, I visited America, and was lucky enough to go to a TEDx conference and there was this energy, I thought “Oh my god, imagine if we could have that kind of energy”. On reflection that does not always resonate with everyone and also, at the same time, the language is quite pie in the sky in some ways. We have sat down since and I don’t think it is enough to say “Hey we’re really passionate”, because people don’t see it like that I guess.
ME: Yeah there is a mixture of the breathless enthusiasm and the non-cynical nature of it. Being English there is something innately cynical about us. and anyone that says “This is brilliant” our first reaction is kinda “Err, shut up”.
IMMY: And what I didn’t realise — it’s come across and has been seen as us saying “We are brilliant”, what we were trying to do was say “Birmingham is brilliant”. The entire team bar three or four of the wider volunteers — I mean we’re all volunteers but three or four of us own it, we took all the financial risk, and then there is a wider team – we’re from Birmingham, left, and come back, so from our point of view what we thought we were saying is “Birmingham is awesome, let’s stay here” and what I think it’s come across as is “We’re amazing” or “The Hub is going to be amazing”. And that’s one of my biggest, I’m not going to say regrets, because learning that lesson is really important, but I’d say that’s almost opposite of what we were trying to say.
ME: One of the criticisms is that it comes across that you don’t recognise that there is already good stuff that has gone on, when there is people already doing this sort of thing, and worked really hard at it, and the impression that you guys give is that you’re going to come along and change everything and make it ‘better’.
IMMY: That’s also one of things that I’m gutted about because that’s all I’ve been exploring and seeing for the last five years. I came back and got a job with the housing association. I was in international development, that’s what I studied, I went to work for some big charities in London and I realised my heart wasn’t there. So I moved back home, and I knew I still wanted that development focus, but I want to be local. So when I set up TEDx Brum and was working in Bromford that was exactly my focus. And that’s what we wanted to do — show off all the great things happening in Brum. I think that naivety has carried on, just as an example, that list we did the other day. I thought the Birmingham Post [list] was terrible in some senses, there was good people[…] but also just a lot of rich businessmen. So I thought “Let’s create a list of people we know, that we’ve worked with, and hopefully it’ll encourage other people to go ‘yeah I know people like that’ and do their own”, but what I think people thought is “Oh they’re just rolling out all the same people again and just their mates”. And in a sense it was just our mates, it was people we’ve worked with. So I have started see how things like this just compound and compound until people are like “Who do these guys think they are?”
ME: Buts that’s one of the good things about a list like that, it generates discussion and gets shared.
IMMY: We also knew it was a good time to do it because we are in the middle of this huge huge campaign that has killed us in many senses.
ME: So what I was hoping to do was just ask you questions, and anytime I come across anything I don’t understand, get you to explain. I’m hoping to really drill down and find out what it is you actually do. So, what is an Impact Hub?
IMMY: An Impact Hub is largely, in its physical sense, a space that is for co-working and events, that brings together a community of people that work largely in the social enterprise sector or work with social impact or social innovation.
ME: What sort of events?
IMMY: Obviously people in those fields can hire out the space to hold events, but also as curators of the space we also want to create enterprise support or curate talks and programmes about social impact, maybe attracting people that will pull the focus away from London.
ME: So what is ‘social enterprise’?
IMMY: I don’t really like the term ‘social enterprise’ if I’m really honest because generally are [it’s] businesses who are being sustainable but using good values; so good business, fair pay, re-investing their funds back into programmes, or training, or staff or things that are beneficial to the local area, rather than it being just about business for profit only.
ME: So it could be a business that does anything, as long as its social responsible? so ‘caring Capitalism’?
IMMY: Yeah. So the reason we haven’t said we’re just for social enterprise [is] because we didn’t want the people that have good businesses and have good, responsible practices to think “That isn’t for us”. There’s an amazing social enterprise movement in Birmingham, and that’s all encompassed in what we want to do but there’s social enterprise has a bit of a reputation and there are people that say that “We do good work too, but we’re not a CIC” for example.
ME: What’s a CIC?
IMMY: Community Interest Company, so they have asset locks on them so whereby they have to reinvest a portion of their profits into something that they identify from the outset. We’re a CIC, we have an asset lock on all of our profits, so apart from trying to pay some of the staff, all of our profits will go back into programmes for members, and scholarships for people to become members. All our profits go back into this engine for doing encouraging social enterprise or social innovation.
ME: What is social innovation?
IMMY: So social innovation – again it’s a bit of a crap buzzword – but it’s one of the ways that people use to group together any thinking or doing or practice around how you deal with social issues in areas, like in cities we are bogged down with certain issues. So when we are sustainable we really want to look at innovative thinking to help with that, and when I say innovative, I don’t mean just new, I mean bringing together people that are already thinking and doing things to help to tackle some of the issues. I’ll give an example; Food banks are tackling a really bad social ill and they are bootstrapped as it is, they’re trying to do the best that they can in terrible circumstances that’s just getting worse. So they don’t have a lot of time or capacity to think “How can this model evolve?”. An example that came out of one of the hubs was: Futuregov developed this thing called Casserole Club where they took the model of food banks and turned it more into food sharing in the neighbourhood, using apps on smart phones, as a way of encouraging community and decreasing food waste, using batch cooking. It’s just an example of taking a traditional model that is struggling, mixing it with tech and people to work on it and coming up with something that was an innovation. Not solving all the problems, but maybe looking at how some of these things can be addressed using people in their own fields.
ME: How do these social innovations come from a co-working space that will contain people just working on their own businesses presumably?
IMMY: One of the differences between just a simple co-working space and why we decided to join Impact Hub is that a space like this could work on the model that we hire one receptionist, we sell the desk space and the receptionist does all the jobs until the cleaner comes at the end of the day. And we could cream the profits off selling more desk space than the rates of this building’s cost. As a business that works fine. But what I think what makes this space different is that all of the co-founders — all the people that, in theory would get the profits if we were to see any — we are really committed to hosting events, helping people. So if you were a new business and you needed help with your accounts or needed help setting up new systems, or needed someone with a specific type of experience we can help you do that. The difference is that with the Hub, it’s really heavily hosted. There won’t just be one person working at the Hub even if it’s in a voluntary sense. There will be more than the standard receptionist there will be people wanting to help collaborations happen and to help you.
There are loads of really interesting stats from like London for example, of how many different connections there have been from the Hub, how many new jobs and schemes. And here we’re passionate about spending a lot of time helping to join things up and take down some of the barriers between the different sectors.
ME: So you’re expecting that from the businesses and people that work here projects will spring up that are just for social good?
IMMY: Absolutely. The normal journey of a business of this kind — and we’ve done quite a lot of research, from all the 60/70 Hubs from around the world — we have seen that for the first twelve months it’s kind of start-up; you’re getting the right people in, and people are learning how to work in different ways. And then what we found is that having different, interesting people together will have interesting projects spin out of that to do other things. We as founders, don’t just want to look after the space, we want to look to ways we can actively make that happen. Maybe offer scholarships to people doing interesting things and maybe offer them the simple things like office space that will help them and the other things they hadn’t thought of like being around successful people that could expand their thinking.
Most of the people we’re getting interested already have outward-facing projects that they are trying to expand and develop and we just want to make that journey a little bit easier for those people. So most of the people that want to get involved will be interested in making a difference, or doing a social good, but we are not putting up a barrier around who can be a member because we’ve already had loads of tech people that just want to come in and use the office and we said we don’t mind as long as your values are good and you’re not just driven by profit.
ME: Who decides if a business is for social good or social bad?
IMMY: We’re not going to be the decision-makers on that. On the application form there’ll just be a couple of questions. And they’ll just be questions for them to self-identify to see if they want to be part of a community like this. Not so we’re never saying “You’re not good enough for us”. The actual membership of the Hub will be monthy, like a mobile phone tariff, so if you’re going through a good phase and you need to take extra staff on, it’s there so you don’t have to go for a twelve-month lease, and we’re thinking that people will just sel- identify and if it’s too happy here or I don’t want to be in that space people can just not be here.
We’re thinking about putting a mechanism in place so if the other residents do feel ethically challenged by a resident they raise that concern. But I asked on the Impact Hub message boards the other day “Has anybody ever had this issue? Has anybody ever had a Shell join their Hub and a riot broken out?” and people said it’s never happened. And even though the language we used is impenetrable, when we improve that we still want to make it clear that if there is someone on the table next to you and they’re young, and need help with that, and you’re not the type of person that’s like “Hey, let me help you with that” then it’s probably not for you.
ME: I wanted to ask – and I don’t believe you have to be completely transparent with your books – but 50k seems a lot. This is a lovely space but why not get somewhere less nice and cut the price?
IMMY: Absolutely I do want to answer this. For four or five years, we’ve been going from coffee shop to empty space, begging and borrowing to get to do stuff. [We then were offered a space and that was retracted after delays and stalls when we questioned the costs]. But we were adamant that we were going to do this and at that point we’d spent too much of our own money. We got offered a free space in Brindley Place, just to see if people would come and does it work?, and people came, and it worked. But when we asked questions, businesses and people told us that they wouldn’t pay permanent prices and rates unless they could bring clients in or treat it as a nice professional space.
ME: That makes sense.
IMMY: And we really wanted to be in Digbeth, it’s the social enterprise quarter, if we don’t go there we’re dragging people away, then there’ll just be a battle. On top of that we wanted people to come on board with us but only if we were offering a space with value, they’re not just going to come to an empty warehouse with us to support our idea because they’re a business and need to run like one. Then last June, we were all a bit exhausted because we were doing this and freelance work to keep us going — we had left our jobs, but left our jobs too early because of the other space. Going with this space means that we don’t have to worry about renovating a new space.
It is expensive, it has broken us, I’m not going to lie about that, but we took a decision to get started. And we talked to landlord, who was really supportive and has done us a rent-free period.
ME: So has this money come from you guys?
IMMY: The fifty?
ME: No the setting up so far.
IMMY: Yeah, all the money, apart from £10,000 from Unlimited for the legal fees.
IMMY: Unlimited are a grant-giving body that don’t support projects, they support people to set something up. So every single penny, apart from that 10k, has come from us, our freelance jobs, our savings. And every little thing has come from the team. Including 55k loan that the five of us got, that’s not been touched but sitting there as a rent deposit.
Whilst the money we’re after in the crowdfunding seems a lot, we got several quotes from architects for this space and they all came in at around 150,000. But we found this one architect who worked on other Hubs that was willing to work at cost.
ME: You have five days now. Do you think you’ll do it?
IMMY: Yeah. I’m scared and I’m nervous, but I’ve watched this team go through two years of hell. I can’t see [us not getting it] after 27 days of doing this and managing to get nearly 30,000 pounds from people. I don’t know how, and this is the naive bit, I really believe at some point something will happen and the city will get behind us.
ME: I hate to ask this, but what will happen if you dont make it?
IMMY: If we don’t make it, it is problematic. We will probably have to go for social finance, which is the equivalent of a loan but lots of organisations do social investment where the numbers are much lower and over a long period of time. But what that means is that we will be paying back a loan every month so everything will be a little bit more expensive and we’ll end up being a little bit more exclusive for a while. I haven’t got any issues with taking a loan but if we do, it drastically reduces the amount of stuff that we wanted to do, like let people come in and use the space for free if they can’t afford it. But we have started that process, as to not mess around any of the people that have been on board with us delaying it again.