If you’ve ever wondered what might happen if your social enterprise was a real business with real investors. This is what might happen. I don’t think this is what’s technically described as a ‘hostile takeover’ but Call Brittania founder, Karen Darby, certainly received some very forceful advice from Bridges Ventures and Big Issue Invest (BII).
As someone who knows nothing whatsoever about the call centre business, I’m not going question the investors’ judgment – either in pushing Darby out or in investing in the first place – but I think this result should causes us to look again at where big money ‘social investment’ fits into the investment world as a whole.
There’s a couple of telling quotes here:
This, from BII’s director of investments Ed Siegel, is probably not intended to be as wryly comical as it comes across: “When BII makes an investment we typically seek an active role in the business – normally as part of a well-functioning board – in order to ensure that the agreed social and financial objectives are achieved. In the vast majority of instances the support and guidance we offer is very welcome.”
I struggle to imagine a situation where the ‘advice’ that seems to have been given to Karen Darby in this instance: ‘we think you’re the wrong person for the job, please sod off or we’ll turn off the money taps and your company will go bust’ would be very welcome. As mentioned above, though, that’s not to suggest that I have an informed opinion on whether or not that advice was correct.
Lacking the inadvertent humour but with a clearer message is this from Call Britannia chair Sarah Anderson, one of the non-exec directors who helped to show Darby the door: “People who own businesses who look to other people to risk their money have to take account of what other people say to them, especially after they’ve chosen to recruit people as non-executive directors who have an enormous amount of experience.”
That’s the reality of taking on equity investment from people who aren’t your friends and family.
I certainly sympathise with Karen Darby position as a social entrepreneur who’s had her business taken away from her but – in terms of the bigger picture – the ‘Battle for Call Brittania’ may not be a bad thing for the development of social investment in the UK. It gives social entrepreneurs thinking about taking on (relatively) big money equity stakes a very clear illustration of the reality of the world they’re stepping into. Whether or not this specific decision is the correct one, maybe it’s a sign that our social investment business is growing up.