Transparency and (green) social entrepreneurship

So on Day 2 at the SSE residential, 140 social entrepreneurs packed into the Great Hall at Dartington to hear from Colin Crooks, social entrepreneur and founder of Green-Works, the furniture recycling social enterprise It takes quite an individual to hold that big an audience engaged and attentive for nigh on 2 hours, but Colin made it look effortless. And he demonstrated one of his key values, transparency, in virtually every sentence and every answer.

He split the witness session into four sections: Start-up, structure, people and new developments, drawing frequently and vividly and openly on his own experience. Below are my efforts at a transcript / bullet points of what he covered along the way, and the questions asked in each section. Hopefully it makes some sense, and you can take some nuggets of advice and wisdom.

– Hates waste: of things, of products, and of people; used to just rail against it ineffectively before finding social enterprise
– Worked in plastics factory for 40p an hour
– Went to university age 24 + saw wasted talent there…society was wasting that talent
– I pick up things in the street and drive my children mad
– Glad to be in a place that gets environment + sustainability (Dartington)

– Started a paper-recycling business which went OK, but collapsed when the price of paper collapsed. Price collapsed by 35%; margin was 8%.
– Brutal experience, extremely unpleasant, and learned a huge amount.
– Paid off debts (£100,000), got married to an "extremely patient" woman.
– Elected to be a councillor in Lambeth (West Norwood); by accident… (18.9% swing); See things as a councillor (schools, hospitals, charities, residents association) that you would not normally see
– Lots of organisations that had “shocking furniture”; one meeting with 30 people…with no furniture
– Next day, went into major blue chip company that was throwing away 600 desks and chairs
– "Idea was obvious to me: so I rented a van… moved 600 desks over 4 months"; that was the beginning of Green Works: an intermediary role to solve market failure: I will take this furniture off you at a timetable that suits you, and I will provide / sell that furniture to organisations that need it (via a massive warehouse)

– But very hard: steep learning curve; have to take it all within 24 hours….
– £23,000 turnover after year 2…not getting paid; van + volunteers; was it going to take off?

– HSBC: invited in to HSBC’s major bank in old City of London; cabinets for sticks, gloves and hats
– Start talking about HSBC’s new building at Canary Wharf (Colin used to be a window cleaning manager)…filling the entire building with 7,000 people + closing down 17 smaller buildings in City of London; and new furniture for Canary Wharf
– Want us to take away 7,000 desks in 6 months; took me 3 seconds to take the risk and go for it
– £500,000 contract for a business turning over £23,000: the original business destroyer contract (if they pay a day late etc…); this is mad, this is too early….optimistic side won: gotta go for it
– Demanded sum up front + water-tight contract to allow him to get bank support + warehouse

–  Peter Weatherstone (@First Fruit) signed and sealed a deal with him; to employ homeless people + get warehouse…on first meeting; his turnover was £75,000
– “That’s why I love being a social entrepreneur and in social enterprise; because we did it on trust, on wanting to achieve the same thing”
– Got pro-bono legal advice from Lovells: and ripped up the normal HSBC supply contract: November 7th 2002: signed the lease…+ first trucks rolled in
– 3,000 tonnes of furniture over the next 6 months; 52,000 items of furniture (including 1,000 hat stands) “The most amazing experience of my life: I’ve never enjoyed myself so much ever”

– Story shows you two things about starting up:
1) If you really believe in what you’re doing, and you believe you have the skills to do it…then do it; (but make sure that it is in line with your mission)

2) You cannot do it on your own; and there’s no reason why you should; huge diversity of skills and expertise needed to make it happen; the sum of the parts greater than the whole

Is there competition now? Huge, intense competition; lots of people + orgs emerged; mostly delighted (because GreenWorks couldn’t cope with it all); some competition using dodgy tactics

What are your personal key values…and how do you apply them? You can stamp your values through your organisation like a stick of rock as a social entrepreneur. For me, it is never divert to landfill; absolute integrity and transparency; + giving people a chance. Challenge to apply those, but we make them part of the interview, induction and review process in the organisation

How challenging to forge relationships? You do create an energy around you; all you can talk about is the enterprise (breakfast, dinner, pub, friends, networks). Word of mouth got us HSBC. Relationships are the key things, but need to have an authenticity; you have to do a lot of networking, and kiss a lot of frogs…but find some princes on your wavelength who get it. Don’t try and force something that isn’t naturally happening. “If it doesn’t come naturally, you’re doing it wrong”

How do you ensure furniture is re-usable? We collect everything, regardless of its state. And none of it goes to landfill


– I really believe in a not-for-profit model…company limited by guarantee: need directors + understand you are no longer the owner.
– First year: £2000; second year: £23,000; at first, friend + wife was enough. Needed more challenge as things went on (not just yes-men).
– Guy from Centrica: instantly professionalised us: get the numbers and know the numbers (disciplines + structures).
– 3 person board grew to 6. Bringing in particular sets of skills. People we knew or knew of.
– Recruited people who are do-ers. No "Lady Mucks and Lord Fauntleroys", but people who open their phone books and help us. And push and probe and challenge me. Advice that I couldn’t buy.
– Decent balance: I give up control of salary and (some of) strategy, but they were recruited to help me achieve my mission. And therefore I’ve found that hugely rewarding….
– Frankness is the key to making that board work; be honest when I don’t know the answers; you can be superman outwardly, but need to be open and trusting to the board. Then they will help you, not beat you up. If I tell them all the answers, how are they going to help?


–  Is your structure succession-proof? Probably could do with tightening up. Biggest concern with integrity of business + some of those things I hold.

Where do you recruit trustees/directors from? Advertise some vacancies on NCVO, SEC, SEL….and they are people who are looking for this kind of thing. It’s also about being networked, and networking your networks. [we are a charity and a company limited by guarantee; so the directors are also trustees]


– I’ve made a lot of mistakes and got a lot of things wrong; and some right
– Sometimes you know instantly if you’ve got it right (Chris); just got on with it; applied himself intelligently…etc. for 4 days; then took him on when I dislocated my knee
– Best single recruitment I ever did: and it was backing enthusiasm and intelligence and attitude
– You have to be direct and clear with people (which some people find tricky)…you have to call the line, otherwise people cross it

– Recommends Good To Great (section on there: get the right people on the bus) by Jim Collins; get the right people on the bus and make sure they are in the right seat; and the bus journey may change…so the people may need to change (or change their seats). Need to know what skills you need, what part of the journey you are on, what skills you don’t have and what skills you need to get in…

– I’m out of my depth a lot of the time…and I don’t always know how to do it; I freely admit that.
– Brought in a load of more experienced people: didn’t get the dream, didn’t get the mission… didn’t get it in their belly, even if they did on their spreadsheets; and it nearly destroyed us. £200-300k spent on people taking us nowhere. Very much harder to get rid of them.
– Learning is: Do not recruit in a hurry…if you don’t think the person is right, go round again. Frustration of getting the wrong person in is infinitely worse than taking time getting the right person. 
–  Regular feedback from day 1. Direct, straight and true.
– If it’s not working out, the sooner the better in terms of getting rid of them / parting company


When did you draw up an HR plan? When we got to around £1m. Intensely different business then and at £2m. But before that, keep the momentum going; do stuff. Instinctual.

What was the problem with the ‘wise heads’? Was it about the money primarily for them? Yes. Not just about the money; it’s also about doing what’s right. They knew the price of everything and the value of nothing.

How did you start to dismiss these people or agree to part? A frank conversation, normally. Pointing to history + some examples. Ask them "What do you think we should do?"

Who are the key players in the business? Changes all the time. Depending on circumstances and what stage of the journey the organisation is at.


– You have to keep revitalising, keep developing, keep it new.
– Done some of the biggest ever contracts for recycling furniture in the UK. So looking also for some new things
– Went to Sierra Leone; met an MP starting a library there; offered her furniture; most amazing place I’ve ever been…most amazing people; so we are working to revitalise a whole community by providing them with furniture etc.
– Needed: nowhere to store books (mud floor, palm roof). So sent out a load of metal cabinets. Quadrupled them number of books in Sierra Leone; and all are stored in metal cabinets by age group. 
– Also, back in the UK, have set up a fully computerised joinery workshop. Taken four years to get right. Because we are a warehousing business, not a manufacturing business. Finally turned into profit in the last 6 months.
– About the right people, the right partnerships and taking the opportunities
– Keep refining and revitalising the model…and to do all of that against the odds. And, to some extent, at times, against the opinions and advice of trustees + directors.
– Seeing the benefits of those two things has given me another level of energy for the future


Share Button

5 thoughts on “Transparency and (green) social entrepreneurship

  1. I’m new to the SSE, our school in Leeds has just started – I was on the residential and loved it and wanted to say that I think the existance of this blog is a good thing. It’s nice to be able to have an online record of the event to look back on.

  2. Fantastic article . thank you. Colin Crooks just answered some of my dilemmas especially about the importance of the right people on board .
    Sydney SSE Australia

  3. just read the first half of this article – can’t finish it all now, but just wanted to thank you now Nick…
    I also have a transcript in handwriting and so maybe can merge the 2 but you’ll save me further wrist wear …
    and will be very pleased if this actually does become my own first blog posting – I usually don’t understand what info I need to give for it to work – although of course if it doesn’t, you won’t be able to know that here and i’ll have to ask how to help me understand what I need to do elsewhere …

  4. clearly it worked! – maybe it has something to do with Nick’s transparent (IT) talents?
    And just to reiterate thank you Nick – or whoever else booked this speaker – Colin a man after my own heart.
    And my Mrs wishes I didn’t pick up recycling in the street too!