Supply Change is a B2B platform matching buyers (organisations like local councils or housing associations and corporates) with social enterprise suppliers for everything from food and drink, to marketing, cleaning, road signage, flooring, energy and more . . .
NB: Social enterprises are businesses that maximise social good; either giving back to society or the environment. They still make a profit, but re-invest that back into the cause they’re supporting. For example, Belu water, which sells mineral water in glass or recycled plastic bottles and donates profits to water charities. Social procurement is the term for when larger organisations contract social enterprises rather than conventional businesses for goods and services they require.
Interviewed in London, October 2020
Aoise: “Myself and co-founders, Beth [Pilgrim, CEO and Buyer Lead] and Verena [Wimmer, CTO and Product and Data Lead] founded Supply Change following our Year Here course [a social entrepreneurship programme that Sophie from Birdsong also attended]. They’d both previously had careers in industry while I was straight out of Uni and didn’t initially feel equipped to work with them – I was learning so much. Beth was from the non-profit sector and branding, and Verena was from data analytics. I’d just graduated in Law and French from Leeds.
I’d originally wanted to get a training contract and go into corporate law, with the idea I’d switch to something more like human rights or social justice in the long run. I didn’t manage to get a training contract with a legal firm the first time I applied, so I applied to Year Here as I wanted to have an impact on society and this was a different way to do it. The business I’m running now; Supply Change – is a more developed iteration of an idea I had on the course.
During the programme I did a consultancy project for Orbit Housing in the Midlands and they asked us to research why they had so few social enterprises in their supply chain. We thought it would be straightforward to answer this question but discovered there were a lot of barriers to social enterprises winning contracts in the public and private sectors . . .
1 Issues of scale – they don’t attract investment as they might not be perceived as being able to scale.
2 They’re often local and might not have coverage geographically.
3 There’s a common misconception that social enterprises aren’t effective and might pose an additional risk.
In reality, big contractors fail all the time – like Carilion collapsed and private sector provision created the Grenfell fire disaster. There’s no greater likelihood that a social enterprise would be poorly run than a commercial company.
The typical issue in the world of procurement we aimed to improve on was the lack of action around social enterprises. Although there had been talk and publicity around using more social enterprises, no one was actually taking them on – it wasn’t being realistically tested or put into action.
We are the first, and still the only, tech solution for matching social enterprises with public and private sector buyers. Being tech-focused makes it a more scalable proposition than a traditional agency, which makes us more attractive. The platform works like this – buyers type in a few details; location, service required, etc – to search our database for social enterprise solutions. Social enterprises apply to us, and once we have thoroughly vetted them, we create a profile, upload it to our site and introduce them to clients.
We had the initial idea in 2018. By the end of that year we had launched in London and The Midlands, before spreading to cover the whole of England, and recruited our next staff member in Spring 2020. We’re now thinking about our next round of investment.
We work with 70 social enterprises across UK, providing anything from food and drink, marketing, cleaning, road signage, flooring to energy and more. At the beginning we did a lot of Googling and word of mouth research to find our social enterprises. By this point, two years on, we get approached more than the other way around. If you look, there’s a social enterprise for every need – it’s so important to consider them.
We’ve worked hard to raise investment – all in all, the pre-seed amounts to about £65k in a mix of grants and equity. We were about to do another round which was postponed by lockdown and COVID-19 issues. It’s not easy to get investment for social enterprises and it’s the downfall of a lot of them, a factor which unfortunately applies to us as well. We’re currently in a hard stage where we are not new but we have a lot of plans so we need more investment soon. Getting ready to raise investment is a big deal; it’s often said that raising money is a full-time job – but we also have to run the business at the same time, so it’s a very intense period.
When targeting investors, we look for people who are already interested in what we do and who believe in the mission. They need to They need to fit ideologically as well as – we found some social procurement specialists – like us! That was cool. It might not be a big financial money spinner so they need to have a reason to get involved.
To attract new clients and suppliers, we run marketing events, like a ‘Meet the Buyer’ event with 13 different buyer organisations like Zurich, Wates Construction and L&Q Housing and 100 social enterprises who all had the chance to network. We run social enterprise support like webinars; for example a peer support call for all our gardening and cleaning social enterprises. We have a dedicated marketing person, Kate, who’s made our marketing and comms more systematic and writes fantastic blogs to bring us to people’s attention.
We are quite lean so we don’t like to pay for things! We use Remo instead of Zoom to create better connections online – we use Trello, Twitter and Linkedin, all the business-y platforms.
It’s a tough business to be in. We are all part-time on London living wage. Things only tend to grow when people have time to put in and we need to get paid. On our days off we all do other work to cover our costs. I’m in a fortunate position with an advantageous rent situation with a friend in London – who is super generous. My running Supply Change might not be so viable without things like that. I sometimes feel like I have sacrificed a clear career path to do this, but then again, I’m 26 so maybe that’s anxiety talking.
Highlights include being shortlisted for a few awards, and our first funding success was a highlight. That first bit of affirmation – From the Bromley By Bow Centre, Beyond Business when we realised people believed in what we were doing was a huge moment – then we knew we had to put it into action, which was a bit intimidating.
I believe in our purpose but often have worries about whether I can do it. I ask myself what I am doing, or crave having a corporate job. I want stability because it’s often up and down. Luckily, I can share these worries with my co-founders and even more so, my family and friends.
In the meantime, there are big new things on the horizon; hopefully raising more investment soon; building a new offer with Cracked It – and also building a potential, exciting new revenue stream.
My best advice for anyone starting their own project would be; things take time – from very early on I thought I needed to be full time, needed an office, needed more clients – but building slowly and building it well are good signs of success. Try and be as collaborative as possible – use your co-founders as emotional support and share the load.
As much as possible, always try and speak to everyone – go to networking events and be open to offers and new pathways – within reason – not to the point of burning yourself out, of course. Always have a learning attitude. No matter who you meet, there might be something you can learn from them.