This week I chatted to Sarah from Together Equal to find out more about her business, successes, and goals:
Tell us a little bit about yourself
I’m the co-founder of Together Equal, a not-for-profit which creates and sells Conversation Cards for families. In every pack, there are 56 cards, each with a different question. These give parents and kids a fun way to start conversations as well as foster ideas and build relationships. The questions have been developed with consideration to:
- Helping kids develop critical thinking and soft skills with an awareness of the environment around them
- Letting kids recognise their own strengths and build self-confidence and self-esteem
- Challenging social stereotypes and unconscious bias
- Giving parents a platform to deal with subjects that aren’t always easy to address in the natural flow of a conversation
It all sounds quite serious but actually, they’re great fun. We’ve had some amazing feedback from schools, parents and children alike. To ‘play’ you just take it in turns to draw a card from the pack. You might get:
- ‘What do animals talk about?’
- ‘What makes someone clever’
- ‘Which of your teachers would survive a zombie apocalypse’
- ‘Is it OK to call a boy ‘girly’?’
It was really important to me when we were developing this first pack that we were able to start conversations around subjects that would make a social impact and had an intrinsic value, whilst providing a vital income stream for charity. Did I mention, all profits go to small independent charities in the UK who are working with victims of violence?
How did Together Equal start?
I’m passionate about equality. I have worked with smaller, UK based charities who support and empower victims of violence for almost two decades. For 10 years, I have supported a charity called Eaves which ran multiple programmes in support of women. They had a couple of refuges for survivors of domestic abuse, a programme for women who had been trafficked, a drop-in centre which offered counselling (mental/substance abuse/legal) and a lobbying division who worked tirelessly to promote women’s rights and impact government policy decisions.
From working with Eaves, I became painfully aware of how difficult it is for charities to get funding. Every government grant is highly competitive and they tend to be awarded against numbers rather than the quality of service delivered. Better to patch up 150 women a month, and have them returning, than work long term with 50 women over a longer period and really help them gain control of their lives. Corporation funding is equally competitive and it all depends on the passion of the people who can influence decisions. Individual support is always amazing but there is generally only so much one person can do.
About 5 years ago we started looking at creating a product which would deliver a sustainable income stream, as well as make a difference. Something that had more value and impact than a rubber wristband. Eaves service users had highlighted that when they arrived at the drop-in centre it wasn’t equipped to accommodate their children – particularly from a food perspective. So we set up a social enterprise and developed a baby/toddler food range that was to be stocked in Planet Organic and Wholefoods. Unfortunately, Eaves went into administration a couple of months before the product was due to hit the shelves and the social enterprise was swallowed into the administrative abyss by the liquidators.
My co-founder and I were determined that although it was too late to save Eaves there were still small charities out there that could benefit from a sustainable income stream. With years of experience working in the marketing industry, I was aware that printed materials tend to be cheaper and easier to produce whilst providing a vehicle to tell a wide array of stories. It’s also flexible enough to be adapted into other languages, subjects and formats.
There’s a really powerful quote from Emma Watson that I refer back to frequently: “How can we effect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?” These Conversation Cards are our response to that question.
What challenges do you face when running a business?
There are some real highs and lows when running a business. The most difficult of which is remaining optimistic and self-motivated. Having said that there are some very specific areas which are challenging:
- Funding: As a not for profit we don’t qualify for many grants. As a sustainable fund-raising concept many of the awards bodies don’t believe in assisting fundraising efforts, even though they profess to be looking for concepts which are sustainable. We started with a Kickstarter campaign but really didn’t have the community support we needed to make it work. We’d try it again but we haven’t yet grown the community we’d need for it be successful. At the end of the day, we relied on the goodwill of one private donor who really believes in what we’re trying to achieve. (Thank you, Georg!)
- Scale/Ambition: Individual sales are great but we suffer the same fate as many charities; there are only so many packs even the most avid supporter is going to want to buy. Our charity partners are selling these through their own shops and while one has made 200 in the last quarter, and has been relatively easy for them, it’s not an amount that can make the significant impact they, or we, really want to achieve. To really make this work we need to get listings but don’t have the contacts or experience yet – although we’ve started to make some headway on that. It’s a steep learning curve, but we’re positive.
- Support: We don’t have any employees and we don’t have any budgets. We’ve got this far on goodwill and energy. When you talk to people about what we’re trying to achieve they can be incredibly supportive. This support though doesn’t really convert to action. At the moment we have a few hundred followers on Twitter and Instagram – if every one of them bought a pack of cards and told someone else, and they bought a pack of cards and so on, it would be awesome. But this network effect just doesn’t happen.
What’s your biggest success or achievement so far?
Every time you have a small win, it’s amazing. We just got our first order from the National Theatre bookshop and I hand delivered it myself. As I walked into the building I forgot all the pain we had, and was just so happy and excited that we’d made a breakthrough. Every small step forward really does feel like a huge leap as you take it. The most rewarding aspect concerning running a business like this is the amazing people you meet and the stories they tell you along the way. The women who have survived violence and are fighting to protect other women from having to go through the same ordeal. The charity workers who tirelessly campaign for change at a national and a grass roots level. A whole community of people who want to change the world and aren’t afraid to try.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I’m working on a start-up for construction and hospitality workers which has the vision to be the most worker-centric platform in the world; supporting temporary, gig and self employed workers to have more predictably, continuity and security over their financial lives. Aside from that I’m the mother of 2 amazing girls and a dog. Running is my ‘zen’ time, and I like to write when I have the time.
What’s next for you/your business?
We’d really like Together Equal to go global. We started with the vision that this was more than a social enterprise – it’s a movement – we’re really keen to amplify this and help as many people in as many countries as possible. To this end we have an app version on Google and the App Store, we have the artwork which would be easy to adapt. We’re currently talking to UN Women about scaling this to Germany which is very exciting.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
The hardest part of the job is staying motivated. With any small business or start-up there are really big ups and downs. It’s really important to remember and celebrate the good stuff. Someone bought me a notebook to write down things to be thankful for and if things are really looking quite dark I revert to that. As you would say, there is no light without darkness.
What part of your job do you enjoy the most?
The best part of the job is the victories – however small. We recently became part of the Kingston University Social Innovation Programme where they fund a team of five interns to work with us over 6 weeks. We have an amazing team allocated to us and they’re bringing so many fresh ideas and so much fresh energy. It is so important to always be meeting and talking to different people, it’s the best way to develop and learn. It also reminds you why you’re doing this in the first place.
How do you handle criticism or setbacks?
I used to have a friend who would say feedback is a gift. If someone is taking the time to criticise you then at least they care. Or at least you’ve managed to engage them on some level, whether it’s negative or positive. I always listen to criticism but try to keep it in context. There’s so much energy driving people you will never know 100% what is driving their feedback.
In terms of set-backs, as I’ve mentioned I have my journal of things to be thankful for. I try to keep a positive mental attitude which mostly involves repeating platitudes to myself. My favourite one is ‘Build it and they will come’. Close second is ‘if it was easy, everyone would do it’. Failing all else the super hero pose from Grey’s anatomy, but you have to be in the right frame of mind to do that. And alone, possibly.
What advice would you give to people starting out?
Surround yourself with friends and supporters. It can be tough and it can feel very lonely. My friends are my biggest advocates and cheerleaders. There’s no way I could have achieved what I have so far without them.