Andrew Duncan of Soar
''It’s still possible to do great business while thinking about the social impact that you’re having'' - Andrew Duncan, founder and executive chairman of Soar, tell BQ how his Social Enterprise is making a difference.
What does your social enterprise do?
Soar provides a high tech, forward thinking digital platform to the ethical banking market (for example, credit unions, community banks and building societies). This is a market that has been largely underserved by suppliers in the sector for 20+ years.
We provide a platform that enables efficiencies for our customer and for them to engage and grow their organisations with innovative (mobile and web-based) applications. Rather than playing catch-up with other parts of the financial services sector, our technology helps them leap ahead - enabling them to be attractive challengers in the market whilst continuing to have a positive impact on their communities.
What made you start your business up?
I started the business because a number of credit unions contacted me to create mobile apps for them. At the time I was leading Soar’s sister company, SwarmOnline (Swarm), I realised that this type of technology in the ethical sector was really lacking and many institutions needed help with it. At the moment, it’s challenging for a credit union to build traction and growth as most don’t have the right digital engagement.
We want credit union members to have the same opportunities and service as those who use retail banks so that credit unions can continue with their ethical vision.
How do you measure your impact?
At Soar, we take the feedback from our customers on board. We collate this through surveys and direct feedback from those in the credit unions who are using our application. We are definitely in a lucky position where we get to hear from the credit union workers who are using Soar, but they are also able to relay feedback they have had from their members.
We are also able to see the number of members using our solution through credit unions and as we watch this number grow, we can see the social impact we have is rising and more members are wanting to use this type of technology to continue to build the relationship with their credit union and their community.
What help did you have to start your social enterprise?
I was keen to grow our business organically, so I built Soar with no external finance or debt. As we phased some team members from Swarm over to Soar, we had some help from Swarm in building our initial app until we finally had our own team together. We are also lucky enough to have support from Scottish Enterprise to further grow the business and our development team.
How did you decide on what legal form would work best for your business?
Soar is a private business that operates in an ethical way. We want to demonstrate that a private business can have social impact at its core. Our aim is to help ethical businesses grow but we need to do this with a high level of rigor and due diligence, for example, with security standards and meeting regulatory obligations.
In our experience, our customers are unable to get that level of ‘peace of mind’ from the social enterprise market. Being a private business also gives us more options when it comes to financing future growth for the market.
What’s the best thing about being a social entrepreneur?
One of the best things for me about being a social entrepreneur is taking something that I am passionate about and using it in a positive way. As a team, we have managed to build a company that continues to be experts in technology but one that also serves an ethical purpose.
In the credit union market, it’s also just good to know that myself and the team are at the forefront of something great in the ethical sector and that all the work we’re doing is having a positive impact. It’s really allowing the industry to move forward, and this in itself is inspiring for us to be a part of.
What has been your biggest challenge when setting up and running your social enterprise?
A big challenge for myself and also the whole team has been entering into a very traditional market. Credit unions are run for the benefit of their members, not shareholders, and will do everything they can to stick to their core values. However, some are hesitant to move away from their traditional methods of working even if it is what their members want.
Understandably, many credit unions are afraid that technology will take the personal service away from their members. We do not want to get in the way of this and work hard to bridge the gap and offer further education on how credit unions can get the most from technology.
What advice would you give to aspiring social entrepreneurs?
I would always tell aspiring social entrepreneurs to consider your customers, your business and the impact you’re having on everyone that you serve. It’s still possible to do great business while thinking about the social impact that you’re having. It doesn’t need to be difficult either, there’s usually always something good that you can do that will be within your capabilities and it can even be the impact you have through the suppliers that you use. This outlook will also encourage a certain type of person into your business and these will most likely be the people you want to be helping to build your company. After all, the success of your business has as much to do with the quality of your team as it does your personal efforts.
What information sources would you recommend (books, websites, organisations?) to help someone just starting their social enterprise journey?
I would definitely recommend going to as many events as you possibly can regarding social entrepreneurship and your own market. These are the best places to learn about being a socially responsible business but also about your customer too. You’ll gain some great advice from people who have done this before and most likely meet some useful contacts for the future.
Social Enterprise UK is a great place to find some inspiration in their blogs and articles and they run some informative webinars and events for you to utilise. Gov.uk is also a good place to find some useful pages on setting up a social enterprise to get you started.
What are your plans for the next 2-5 years?
In the next few years, we would like to not only offer a solution to credit unions but also to others in the ethical finance sector such as building societies and community banks. Our solution will deliver a key difference to society so that credit unions and others in the sector can compete more efficiently with major financial service organisations and they can continue to have a positive social impact on their members and communities.
The UK Social Entrepreneur Index, sponsored by UBS, is a celebration of social entrepreneurship across the UK.
Open to social entrepreneurs tackling a social or environmental issue at any scale, entrants will act as beacons of inspiration for others to encompass positive social impact.
For more info visit www.socialentsindex.co.uk.
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