When hope drives you to independence
A view from Melissa Robertson

When hope drives you to independence

Christmas time is full of reminders of what it really means to be a small business, and indy outfits remain an eternally hopeful bunch, says Now's chief executive.

At this time of the year, with Christmas just ten days away, I’m often reminded what it truly means to be a small business. Perhaps it’s the fact that the agency Christmas party genuinely means something to people. Or maybe it’s that moment you have a pitch brief lobbed at you just seconds before Santa shimmies down the chimney. In an independent agency you tend to feel the rough and tumble of the journey much more, and Christmas is no exception. It’s much harder to predict what might be hurtling round the corner at you in the New Year if you’re not already working up a multi-million TV spot for Christmas 2018.

Yet, us indy outfits also remain an eternally hopeful bunch, taking on financial risk in the hope of profit and to fulfil our ambitions. In the UK there are over a million SMEs like us, collectively employing around 16m people. That’s a hell of a lot of hopeful people kicking around.

In an independent shop, there’s always something you could or should be doing – simply because there isn’t anyone else to do it. That proposal that needs to be written? Well the only possible time to do it is going to be Sunday. And thank goodness my other half is out three nights this week, because that gives me a whole load of uninterrupted evenings to get a whole load of shit done.

The stakes are just that bit higher for an SME. In a big company, with a few bad decisions or unlucky periods, you might get a profit warning or someone’s head might roll (but they’ll probably trot into another corporate job elsewhere). In a small company everyone is acutely aware of the fragility and tempestuousness of the business.

But these are very much first world problems. While there is certainly jeopardy, it’s not life and death. Our purpose is to do good work for good people, have fun and hopefully make some money along the way. Yet for many people around the world, the notion of entrepreneurship is a whole different ball game. Those that make the decision to forge their own path are often fighting before they even start – against poverty, lack of education, inequality and oppression. Dreams are universal. Opportunities, sadly, are not.

Which is why this year, instead of spending time and money on a Christmas card or an agency light installation, we’re doing something a bit different. We’re putting £1,000 towards microloans to help borrowers around the world start or grow a business, and hopefully realise their potential.

There’s an amazing nonprofit organisation called Kiva that has been going for 12 years. Their mission is to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty. One-hundred per cent of lender’s money goes to funding loans. Kiva works in more than 80 countries across five continents, lending an average of $2.5 million each week. And what’s fantastic is that you fund a loan, get repaid, and use that money to fund another loan. A wonderfully positive circular process, which has built a renewable pool of funds that is revolutionising access to financial services around the world.

Eighty-one per cent of these borrowers are female. These are the real world-changers. Like Lourdes from Paraguay who found herself cast out by her family and the child’s father when she got pregnant at 18. She used a microloan to build a snack business against the odds. Pamela from Nairobi counsels 40 women affected by HIV, owns her own jewellery shop to fund it, and donates 50% of her profits back to women in the group diagnosed with HIV. Najah lives near Jericho in a refugee camp, and has created a successful business raising sheep and goats to sell milk and meat. Lindawe from Zimbabwe is only 22 but operates three businesses in her village – a poultry business, a small shop and Lee Juice (homemade juice and soda). All awesome, brave, hopeful women.

So, this Christmas, let’s hear it for the really brave independents. The ones truly fighting the odds, hoping for a better future and changing the world from the bottom up.

Melissa Robertson is the chief executive of Now