Establishing a social enterprise, a journey of opportunity with a few twists and turns!

By Lois Cameron (Co-director, Talking Mats Ltd)

Digital Talking Mats MiniIf you had asked me 10 years ago if I would be preparing to go to on a work trip to Australia and New Zealand to develop and promote Talking Mats I would have probably looked at you and smiled, but in May I fly to Melbourne with my colleague Nicki to work with an Australian company Zyteq, our Australian distributor. The planning for this trip has been a long time in the making, including all negotiations about intellectual property, logistics and financial return, and then the drawing up of contracts to cement our joint partnership. A long way indeed from my life 10 years ago as a speech and language therapist working in learning disability.

So how and why did we get here? In 1998 I joined my colleague Dr Joan Murphy at the University of Stirling. Joan developed the communication framework Talking Mats. I joined her to help her research its application in learning disability. Joan built up a research programme around Talking Mats and that meant that there was an evidence base that supported its use in aphasia, learning disability and dementia. We were both fortunate in that at that time we were both working as clinicians and researchers, so we were influenced by both facets of our working life. I think that, because we were clinicians first and saw the power of Talking Mats to improve the quality of patient/practitioner interactions, a very strong driver for us was to get Talking Mats used in practice.

Jeannie-miniSocial enterprise fitted in with our approach and philosophy. Social enterprises are an ethical way of doing business that is about more than profit. Any profit that is made goes back to supporting a specific social mission, in our case people with communication disability. This was important to us as we felt that our learning had come through our experience of working with people with a communication disability, and therefore it was important that any return went back to that field.

Setting up Talking Mats as a social enterprise has been an exciting journey that took us well out of our comfort zone, but achieving it has given us the freedom to develop our product and training and work with a great range of people and organisations e.g. nursing homes, third sector organisations, schools, health services,and  advocacy groups. It is much more possible for us to be responsive and we do not have the bureaucratic constraints that working in a large organisation brings.

team feb 2016-miniHowever our skill set had to change and we had to quieten the therapists within us and gain a business focus! We now have a staff of 9 and are responsible for making sure we can pay them at the end of each month. We have a clear business strategy with three strands to the business that give us the financial framework to be able to address our responsibilities as an employer. These are:

  1. Training
  2. Products
  3. Consultancy and Research

We are a small business and that means we need to be able to respond to lots of different and sometimes competing demands; the day to day operations, marketing, and day to day finances. However, in the midst of the day to day stuff it is also important that we keep looking ahead. The world is changing and we need to be able to grow and move with the times.

None of this would have been possible without our fantastic team of staff and the support we have had from the many different organisations along the way. Our local business gateway encouraged us to keep going in the early days when it all seemed a bit overwhelming and we were close to giving up. Firstport gave us a start-up grant of £20,000 that really helped get us going, Social Enterprise Scotland has encouraged us along the way, and it was one of our very good days when we became one of the first ever winners of the Scottish Enterprise Edge Award .

User-miniSo setting up a social enterprise has been an exciting journey and it is a long way from life as an Allied Health Profession (AHP) or is it? AHP’s often need to find creative solutions to tricky problems because that is what their role often entails. So, if you are a solution-focused individual with a vision that you want to realise, then maybe social enterprise is an option for you. It will be hard work. I think I work harder now than I have ever done in my life but this work opens doors to opportunities and possibilities, and for us it is the chance to make positive changes in the lives of people with communication difficulties.

If you’d like more information on Talking Mats or you’d like to get in touch please take a look at our website: www.talkingmats.com or follow us on Twitter: @TalkingMats

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