Rob Wall, Roll for the Soul

Coffee being made at social enterprise Roll for the Soul

A message from Roll for the Soul:

Roll for the Soul closed at the end of 2017. We had a choice about whether to renew our lease for another five years. After looking hard at how likely it was that the business would be viable throughout that time, we decided: not likely enough.

We called time when we did so that we didn’t leave a mess behind. It felt as though this was the best way: with dignity and on our terms. If we’d committed to another five years, it may well not have been so neat and tidy. In short, it had become more and more difficult to be profitable. We looked at lots of things that we could do to make more money, or spend less. But we couldn’t see a solution that avoided compromises we didn’t want to make.

We’re so grateful for the support we had when setting up and running the business. It was humbling and joyful to meet so many great people, to have so many people help us, and to be part of a diverse and wonderful network of individuals and organisations who stand for something better than profit-at-all-costs.

What does your social enterprise do?

Roll for the Soul is a not-for-profit bike café, workshop and event space. We aim to celebrate and support every wonderful aspect of bike culture. But more than that, we offer a city centre space where interesting things can happen.

What is the story behind why you started Roll for the Soul?

In 2008, in my mid-30s, I felt that it was time to strike out on my own and try to start something from scratch. I suppose I felt I was still young enough to recover if I crashed and burned, but also that I’d learned enough to be able to give it a proper go.

I was involved in a couple of really great grassroots, volunteer-led cycling projects prior to setting up Roll for the Soul and those are the things that really inspired me. I saw that other people had started something from nothing and that these people weren’t all that different from me. They just worked hard and followed their vision and made something happen. These two things came together in my mind as the basis for a non-profit bike workshop, cafe and event space. A place where bikes get fixed, people learn skills, and which offers opportunities for creativity as well as consumption.

I long ago gave up on the idea that I can change the world in any large-scale way, but I very strongly believe that we can all make our little bit of the world better. And that’s what I wanted to do with Roll for the Soul.

How do you create social impact?

We’re a pretty standard business on the face of it: selling food and drink and fixing bikes. We have perhaps 100 cafe customers per day on average, and we fix about 1,000 bikes per year. But I think where we really contribute something to Bristol is through in-kind support for lots of other organisations and groups. For example we offer free meeting and event space to lots of cycling organisations and we actively promote their work. But we also do a lot of things that aren’t directly cycling-related. We’ve become something of a hub for the social enterprise community in Bristol. Every day people from this community are in the cafe having informal (and sometimes formal) meetings. It’s really important to us that we provide a space where this can happen. And also a space for other creative activities.

City centres can seem overwhelmingly focused on consumption, so we like to provide a space where people can make and do things as well as consuming things. That might be music, or visual art, or crafts. It’s become part of our mission to provide a space that fosters these things. Things that people are doing for love not money.

What is your business model?

We sell food and drink and we sell bike maintenance services, at the most basic level. We also have hire bikes and a meeting room which we hire out to commercial organisations at a commercial rate.

What was your biggest challenge in starting your social enterprise?

It’s very hard to identify one thing as the business was created from nothing, so we had to figure out everything as we were going along and we still do. But perhaps the obvious answer is that we had to raise around £115,000 to get started. That came from various sources- grants, crowdfunding and loans. It was hard work making that happen, although SSE really helped in terms of providing guidance on putting together a convincing business plan.

How has the School for Social Entrepreneurs supported you?

The best thing about the SSE start-up programme for me was being around other people who were going through similar processes (albeit with very different businesses). Just getting together every few weeks with a bunch of people who were full of energy was very motivating. I’m still in touch with a good number of people from the course and it’s great to see them making progress with what they’re doing. I’ve been delighted to be able to go back to SSE as a fellow and help out with new cohorts’ studies. It’s a nice feeling – cliché or not – to give something back.

What would your advice be to a budding social entrepreneur?

Two main things, I think. Firstly, be prepared to work very hard. I imagine everyone says that, but it’s true. It must be very hard to start any business, but you have a bunch of extra stuff to think about with a social enterprise. Secondly, find the right people to help. Be sure that they share your vision and that you can work effectively together.


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