Skills for Enterprise Case Study: SEE Companies & Michael Solomon
Michael Solomon is the founder and Managing Director of SEE Companies. SEE Companies' mission is to empower people in making purchasing, investment and employment decisions based on Social, Environmental and Ethical (SEE) criteria, to encourage and help companies and social enterprises to set the highest standards of SEE business practices and to build the business case for adopting credible SEE policies and practices.
Having attended an academically focused secondary school, Michael opted to jump off, what he saw as the conveyor belt towards Oxbridge and conventional career choices, by deciding to go to art school. His year there was fun and stimulating but showed him that before he could even think about his future he needed to broaden his experience and perspective on life so, aged 19, he set off to see the world and spent the next four years travelling through Europe, Asia, Australasia and North America. Diverse experiences such as volunteer work in India and a stint as a paralegal at a Los Angeles law firm, specialising in prosecuting high profile corporate fraud cases, gave him the broader perspective on life he sought and a strong desire to make a positive difference. He also gained confidence and insight into his own strengths and weaknesses and was hit with a strong realisation that he could be successful in doing anything he felt passionately about, he just had to find out what that was.
Michael returned to the UK in 1995 and completed a BA in Economics and Finance at the University of Manchester. His studies, combined with work as an economic researcher at RBS's Treasury and Capital Markets division in London, gave him a more traditional perspective on the mechanics of business. Asked to develop a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) website at a financial publishing company he joined in 2001, Michael recognised his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when his employers failed to understand the direction he wanted to steer the project. He quit in March 2002 and has been developing the SEE Stamp, the 'credible standard for responsible business', ever since.
Five years ago Michael was a one-man-band working from home and occasionally in borrowed offices but in 2007 the team has grown to 5 and is augmented by a highly motivated stream of interns. Recognising the value of networking and building credibility through association with experts in relevant fields, SEE Companies has developed partnerships with dozens of NGOs and campaigning organisations, including ActionAid, Tax Justice Network, Burma Campaign UK and Compassion in World Farming, and an association with the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford University's Saïd Business School. The latter has enabled them to tap into the talent of a team of MBAs who provided two months' full time strategic planning and consultancy last summer. SEE Companies now works out of offices in central London and expects to have 100 companies accredited with the new SEE Stamp standard by the end of March.
Initially, like many start-up enterprises, SEE Companies was financed by a mix of funding from 'friends, fools and family', personal resources and odd jobs and consultancy projects. Having finally completed their first detailed business plan in 2006 (an eye-watering 130 pages), Michael is currently leading SEE Companies through their first major funding round with venture capitalists and preparing to launch the SEE Stamp and SEEstamp.com at the same time!
Michael quite clearly loves what he is doing and really believes in its wider value, this has given him the stamina to survive on just 7 days holiday in the last since he began the business. Although this focus has lead him to, at times, neglect friends and family, and though he is still far from financial security, he has no regrets at all regarding the path he and the SEE Stamp initiative have taken. He is genuinely thankful that his unorthodox education gave him the understanding and perspective of life, and more importantly himself, that he needed to look at things a little differently and have the courage to act. He does admit to spending a few hours every 3 or 4 months thinking "what AM I doing?!!" but confidently declares that he does not need to contemplate giving up on his vision while momentum continues to build.
When asked if, with hindsight, he would do anything differently in the way he has developed the business, he says 'at the moment, no, but ask me again in a few months' then explains that what has been achieved so far is such a mix opportunity, hard work and determination but also accident and design, that he cannot untwist it. However he has learnt important lessons along the way. While obviously an excellent communicator and highly successful in selling his ideas to others he has come to appreciate the importance of listening to feedback and using this to improve the business and its services. He also warns that passion is no substitute for understanding your market and target audiences. Like many entrepreneurs before him, short of cash and resources and looking to deliver new and innovative products and services, he has used lateral and creative thinking to overcome obstacles. However, he cautions that having an innovative idea you believe in is not sufficient, it needs to be tested thoroughly in the market. In an ideal world this would involve a professional piece of market research, but back in 2002 he simply got on the phone and started persuading Corporate Social Responsibility managers to speak to him. This process continues, he learns, as he informs and persuades while continuing to build a successful and highly innovative business which will help other businesses prosper from integrating credible SEE policies and practices into their operations making the world a better place to live in.