Business, Branson and Big Green Week It’s not every day that you’re asked to sit around a table with Richard Branson, and it’s no small undertaking, especially when the subject matter is Business Innovation, a topic that he’s pretty hot on. In fact, it transpired that Richard couldn’t make it to Bristol’s Big Green Week in person, opting to take part via 21st century methods instead and lending a tropical note to the proceedings at the same time as he skyped in direct from Necker Island.
But palm trees and pina coladas aside, how best to get the message across in a forum that included environmental greats such as Merlin Hyman of Regen SW, Paula Owens and host, Hon. Sir Jonathon Porritt? After a few sleepless nights, I settled on an angle that steers everything we do at FRANK Water – how small companies can make a big difference, through collaboration, innovation and re-imagining.
And so this is the kind of thing I said…
FRANK Water is a team of quiet activists. Over the last seven years, we’ve funded clean water for more than a quarter of a million people through 96 clean water projects.
We’re a small Social Enterprise AND a registered charity. We share a small Bristol office and a kettle with two other organisations. We can still gather our team around the kitchen table.
Our small organisation aims to address a big problem, providing safe drinking water to the millions of people worldwide who still don’t have access to this basic human right.
As a small company, we have to play to our strengths and our big competitor weaknesses. One of our key strengths is working together. Relationships are crucial.
We work together with our suppliers, distributors and stockists, who help to spread our message. We work together with partners in India whose expertise produce amazing results. We work together with local people who bravely take the initiative to generate change in their own communities. We work together with generous donors who share our vision. We depend on our team of dedicated and talented volunteers. And we learn from experts in the water sector, with whom we in turn share our experiences. Through working together, small companies like us can multiply our leverage and deliver extraordinary impact.
Our other key strength is our ability to innovate and reimagine. Our size makes us flexible. We can test and reiterate, learn from our mistakes and react to the ever changing environment. It’s worth remembering that the vast majority of innovations are recombinations/reimaginations of existing technologies. Don’t wait for the eureka moment, look at what is already in existence and create new combinations to make it answer the problem you are faced with now.
FRANK Water started by taking a tiny portion of the controversial bottled water market in order to divert profits from our big business competitors to satisfy a local demand and fund clean water projects – water for water. We reimagined a luxury everyday product to act for good, working as a not for profit social enterprise.
Our drive in the UK is to recreate healthier, greener drinking habits, to influence people away from single use bottles of drinking water to refillable containers.
Our FreeFill initiative, developed for festivals, has reimagined water on the go… providing filtered, chilled site water that reduces waste, encourages healthy drinking habits, changes behaviours and raises funds at the same time
This year at the WOMAD festival, we’ll be announcing that through supporting FreeFIll they’ve funded a complete clean water project, water for over 4,000 people in India.
At the project end we concentrate on water quality, testing for both biological and chemical contamination. We believe that delivering access to water that isn’t clear of both, isn’t safe. We’re reimagining older technologies, such as UV strip lighting that’s both cheap and widely available and combine them in new ways with more modern techniques and approaches in order to tackle emerging water issues.
Charities are often accused of being unaccountable, to both funders and the people that they are supposed to be helping. There’s been a recent trend towards impact assessment which draws on scientific advances to measure the effect that charities are often having. However, these impact evaluations are often too costly for small charities. To get round this, we’re piloting devices which automatically generate information on how many people are using safe water, and how regularly. We use this real time data to report back to our funders, whilst village water committees access this information to inform their service.
We’re small, we stay true to our values and we don’t compromise integrity for growth. That’s not easy when we are surrounded by pressures to grow bigger.
The capitalist paradigm is that bigger is better, but it’s clearly not always true. Big watches small, then copies, or more commonly buys the small innovator, often to simply snuff them out.
All business needs finance to breathe. We bank with Triodos, an ethical bank, but FW has never borrowed money, borrowing money to take the next step in your innovation, on your own terms often shoots a small company straight into the world of big finance, with big corporate law and expectations of standard investors, short term and profit driven.
A well-timed, simple idea has a magnetism that attracts skilled volunteers, passionate staff and generous donors, which may need you don’t need to borrow, but with the growth in crowd and community funding there may be more suitable options for small business finance in the future.
Big can be good, but it’s rare and many small things combined can have a bigger impact. Small can also be deadly, like the microscopic bacteria and viruses we work so hard to eliminate from water sources – so shouldn’t be ignored.
In our discussions during Big Green Week and beyond, let’s not forget that climate change in all its forms, will inflict damage on every continent, but it will hit the world’s poor disproportionately hard. We all have a part to play and through working together and reimagining we can all make a difference.