ecoskill provides e-learning services for sustainable businesses and aims to act as a catalyst for the successful creation and development of many new businesses in the green economy. I caught up with Richard Boothman, one of the company’s co-founder to find out more about how the idea for the business came about, difficulties faced along the way and the vision for the company.
Hi Richard, Thanks for doing this. How are you doing today?
I'm feeling good today, thanks. I try to go for a run two or three times a week when I first get up and today was one of those days! I find it is a good way of starting the day feeling invigorated and ready to go.
Can you give us some background information about yourself?
I'm a middle aged, middle class, white male with a wife, two sons (both now young adults) and a mortgage which is too big for this stage in my life. I grew up on a farm in the Yorkshire Dales and when I was 17, I couldn't wait to get away. Now, I sometimes think it would be good to go back.
I've had an interesting and varied career, mainly spent working for other people and for most of the time in insurance where I specialised in managing claims made by both individuals and businesses.
When did you get the entrepreneurial bug?
I've always wanted to have my own business but could never come up with the right idea. My father was a farmer and was his own boss. Because of this, working for other people never really sat comfortably with me.
I eventually came to have my own business later in my life. I was in my early forties when I started RTW Plus, a company that provided help for people who had been injured in accidents – car accidents mainly but some work-place accidents too. We provided medical and vocational case managers to help people get back to as near normal as possible after life-changing injuries. This was very fulfilling work but the business was a bit of a roller coaster. We secured a major contract early in the life of the business and ended up relying on this one customer too much. In the end, though, a competitor wanted a way of getting in with this customer and decided the easiest way to do it was to buy our company! This was after we had been going for about 5 years. At the time we were employing about 20 people and were turning over more than £1m each year.
How did the idea for ecoskill come about?
I've always been interested in the environment and, in fact the first HE course I did when I left school in the mid 1970s was an environmental course but at that time there were very few jobs in the sector. In the mid 1990s when I was stagnating in the job I was doing, I decided to go back to school and I began a degree in environmental subjects with the Open University (OU - http://www.open.ac.uk/). I graduated in 2004 but before that, I'd also started teaching on an environmental module with the OU and I've been doing that ever since. I teach on 4 different environmental and business modules alongside starting up and running the business.
We originally intended ecoskill ( http://www.ecoskill.co.uk/ ) to provide outsourced environmental services for medium-sized businesses but soon after we started in late 2010, we realised there wasn't much of a market for this type of service. We picked up a number of small contracts but it wasn't really having the impact we wanted and it wasn't playing to our strengths.
Towards the end of 2011, we won a contract to help the International Labor Organisation (ILO – http://www.ilo.org/global/lang—en/index.htm the UN specialised agency which seeks the promotion of social justice and internationally recognised human and labour rights) to review and rewrite a training course they offer to potential entrepreneurs in China and South East Asia. The course had been very successful in its early incarnation as a means of teaching entrepreneurship but the ILO wanted to move into environmental entrepreneurship and wanted help to redevelop the course. This is now being delivered across China and they anticipate they will train perhaps 5 million potential entrepreneurs in the next couple of years.
The scale of the ambition in China made us wonder what provision there was in the UK for this type of service and our research revealed there was very little. This gave us the idea for developing a course for green entrepreneurs in the UK and from that point onwards, ecoskill became a business focused on e-learning for sustainable business.
Tell me about the early days, what was the hardest part of starting the business?
Starting a business is not that hard. Obviously, you have to have an idea and a desire to do it, but the mechanics of getting the business going are not difficult. We opted for limited liability status and registered with Companies House, opened a bank account and transferred some money from our personal accounts to the business for the initial shares and we were off!
The difficult parts are deciding exactly what you want to do, how you want to do it and who your customers are going to be. When we began looking at outsourced environmental services, we were adamant that we weren't going to travel very far from our base in Winchester because doing so isn't sustainable. We also intended to provide services to small and medium-sized businesses that were interested in becoming greener but didn't have the skills internally or the time to do this. We did our market research, identified that there were more than 4,000 businesses of the right size in the geographical area, joined the local Chamber of Commerce and began networking. Virtually everyone we spoke to agreed the idea was a good one but very few people were willing to pay us to do the work for them.
The hardest part of that phase of the business was converting the few real enquiries we did get into firm orders and we soon realised that there were not going to be enough of these to sustain a real business.
What is ecoskill? And what are you trying to solve with it?
ecoskill provides e-learning services for sustainable businesses and aims to act as a catalyst for the successful creation and development of many new businesses in the green economy.
In the near future, all businesses will have to be sustainable and pay attention to the planet and people as well as profit. The 'business as usual' model is not an option. The ecoskill courses help and guide people and companies to participate successfully in the growing green economy.
Whilst we're absolutely committed to protecting and enhancing the environment, we recognise that a return to the type of existence our grandparents may have been comfortable with is not feasible so we want to help businesses identify new ways of meeting people's needs. This is about fundamentally rethinking the way we manufacture things, the way we use them and the way we dispose of them when we're finished with them.
Manufacturing has to use fewer resources than has been the case up to now and the goods have to be manufactured for longevity and for dismantling and recycling at the end of their life. Consumers have to look again at rental models (renting a washing machine for a specified number of wash cycles for example) and at buying clothes that will last. All items will have to be dismantled at the end of their life and most, if not all, of the constituent parts used again to make new items. This is known as a circular economy (as opposed to the linear model we currently use) and you can find out more from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation which is championing this model (http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/)
We also need to find new ways to generate and and use energy. We need clean energy sources with minimal emissions of greenhouse gases and we need to use the energy we generate as efficiently as we can. Again there is tremendous scope for new businesses in this sector.
There are some pioneering examples of where these changes are happening but at present they are few and far between. We hope our e-learning courses can help new and existing businesses to recognise the challenges we face and fundamentally to rethink their business models to meet the opportunities presented.
About the first few months, how excited were you, tell us about how those months felt, what happened?
When we first identified the opportunity, we were very excited but didn't want to get too carried away. We'd already had a business idea and realised quite quickly that it wasn't as good as we initially anticipated. So we spent the first few months doing market research. We spoke to a lot of people both face to face and electronically. We floated the idea for e-learning for green entrepreneurs with them and the feedback was almost universally positive. We also researched other training providers to see what they were offering and whether there was anything similar to our idea.
The more research we did, the more excited we got as we realised that, almost without exception, the idea was welcomed and that there was nothing similar available. From this stage, the hard work began as we worked to develop the course material, find the right platform to use to deliver it to users and make sure that we were able to charge for it and get the money. We formed the initial idea in November and December 2011, began the market research in the first few months of 2012 and then worked very hard to develop the material and put it into the right format between about May and October. We launched the first ecoskill course in mid October 2012.
How did you initially get traction?
We had a bit of a deadline as we were committed to working with StartUp Britain (http://www.startupbritain.co/) on their tour of Universities and FE colleges which took place in October and November and we were also sponsors of the “ecoskill green business award” category of the NACUE (National Association of College and University Entrepreneurs - http://www.nacue.com/) Varsity Pitch competition. This opened for entries at the end of August and culminated in the pitching competition final in mid-November.
This probably demonstrates to you how we began to get traction. We worked with partners who were already working with our target demographic. In addition to NACUE and StartUp Britain, we also worked closely with Change Agents (http://www.changeagents.org.uk/), who were really helpful in the market research phase and helped us to set up some focus group discussions.
Like most new businesses, we didn't have a great deal of money so we've relied on social media to develop interest in what we're doing and to help increase the number of touch points we have with potential learners.
What are the most crucial things that you have done to grow it?
We always knew that growth was likely to be relatively slow. We're a new company selling a new course and, as things stand now, we've only one course to offer. So it's going to take time to develop our credentials and to become the first place to go for help and support in starting or developing a sustainable business. We're prepared for this and are taking the time to identify the market for other courses and to develop appropriate material whilst building up our reputation as knowledgeable people offering high quality, affordable courses. Developing the website, putting together a couple of groups on Linked In and building our twitter presence have been important. We also have a Facebook page.
What would you say has been the highlight of your entrepreneurial journey so far?
The opportunity to work with the team at StartUp Britain for nearly a month after we'd launched the first course; to meet potential entrepreneurs face to face and hear their stories and help them was undoubtedly a highlight. We also met some inspiring people through sponsoring the green business category of the NACUE Varsity Pitch. These were people with real green business ideas who wanted to make a difference.
What should we be expecting from ecoskill in the coming months?
We're currently working on the ability to offer the first course,“Generating Ideas”, by instalments. This will make it easier for participants with lower incomes to reach it. Alongside this, we'll also be launching a series of short courses aimed at existing businesses under the Green Economy Transform Your Business Series. These will focus on improving business management and competitiveness by going green. We also have plans to offer webinars on specific topics and to develop our forums to become a recognised information exchange for green entrepreneurs.
There are other ideas in the pipeline but these will work alongside the continuing launch of further high quality learning programmes for sustainable businesses. As we become more successful, we also intend to plough some of our profits back into the community, as investors in new green businesses but also by funding the work of charities and social enterprises that focus on safeguarding the environment.
Lastly, what three pieces of advice would you offer entrepreneurs starting out today?
Our three pieces of advice to anyone thinking of starting a business today would be:
• Look at the opportunities in the green economy.
The opportunities are tremendous and as this is a sector that is still in its infancy, there is less competition and more chances for your business to grow quickly as a result.
• Whatever your business, make sure you pay attention to the planet and to people (your employees, customers, suppliers and anyone who may be affected by the way you do business) as well as focusing on your profits.
• Don't expect success to come easily. We seem to be in a culture that expects instant gratification but in business this doesn't happen. You'll have to work hard to establish your business and to make it successful. If you're prepared to do this, you'll find that, when it does become a success, it'll feel so much better than if it came easily.