Fluency: How to build a startup with a social impact

What's your story?

I’m originally from Dublin, Ireland. I moved to London 13 years ago after a solo round the world trip for a year and a half. I have a masters degree in urban planning so started working in that field when I arrived but then re-trained as an arts manager in 2002. I’m very proud to be Irish but London is definitely my home. No other place in the world has the diversity of opportunity and people that this city can bring.

How did your business journey begin?

I started working freelance in the arts in 2006 and fell into the digital space when I was working at the University of Greenwich in 2007 on an e-learning project. I started my first online business in 2009 when I moved to the south of Spain to live for a year. On my return to London, I set up 8fold - my digital wellbeing company - showing small businesses the potential that the web and social media can have for their business.

But many of my clients were just too busy to implement much of my advice so three years ago I saw a gap in the market for providing outsourced digital services and, with help from UnLtd and then the Nominet Trust, I started training low income women in East London with these skills. 

To be honest I’ve never had a passion for working with young people specifically - as a feminist, creating economic opportunities for women and girls was always more my thing. But as I developed this work, I couldn’t ignore that youth unemployment remains stubbornly high here in the UK and is still catastrophic in many European countries such as Greece. Spain and Italy. I realised that if we don’t provide work opportunities for this generation of young people, then we run the risk of a ‘lost generation’ with knock-on effects in communities for decades.

Fluency was accepted onto Bethnal Green Ventures social technology incubator last summer and we have been building the platform and the business since then.

Did you always want to run your own business?

I realised quite early on in my first few jobs that I was just not cut out to be an employee. My first job was in one of those toxic firms where being seen at your desk was more important than the actual work you did and the partners would throw some work at you at 6pm just as you were trying to get out the door.

I remember thinking that this was a ridiculous way to run a company and now, at Fluency,  ‘flexible working’ and ‘work hard and go home’ are core values that we promote.

Have you always had an interest in social change or what made you create a business for the benefit of others?

I have always been interested in social justice but never knew that you could combine business and social impact until I came across the School for Social Entrepreneurs four years ago. Being accepted onto their programme literally changed my life.

Without that year of self development  and trying stuff out, Fluency would never have happened. Looking back now, I can’t believe I waited so long to start a social business. I believe that the nature of business will fundamentally change over the next ten years and that all businesses, if they want to succeed, will need to be ‘social’. It’s my vision to create a successful sustainable social business that makes money and changes the lives of people all over the world and in doing so show others what’s possible.

How does Fluency work? 

Fluency is a modular digital learning platform. We believe that digital skills are job skills and that every young person, no matter what their background, has the potential to be digitally fluent and take their place in the economy. Our learner’s journey starts with a competency test so we can serve up a personalised learning plan that is at the right level for the user.

Learning is delivered via video, articles and images and is tested with in-lesson quizzes. We work closely with industry and employers to  teach young people the skills that small businesses, agencies and startups are looking for.

Once the learner has deepened their knowledge, they unlock real-world challenges which allow them to put their learning into practice and build that all important work experience. Finally we use insight from our platform to match-make young people to employers and freelance opportunities effectively.

When did you realise the potential of Fluency?

I founded the company to solve two big problems: the fact that there are limited work opportunities at the moment for young people, both here in the UK and across Europe, and the lack of digital expertise in small businesses in the UK. I’ve always believed that the mark of a good social business is when a real market need meets a real social need.

I think I started to realise the potential of what we are doing when pretty much everyone I spoke to just got it straight away. It seems like such a simple idea - connect yong digital talent to companies that need digital help - but sometimes the simplest ideas work best. As Tim Berners-­Lee said in 1997, technology can be a great equaliser or a greater divider; we want to make sure it’s the former.

How have you grown your brand?

I’ve grown the Fluency brand by getting out there and talking to as many people as possible about what we are doing. As female founder and especially as a woman in technology, I jump at any opportunity to speak at events and be interviewed for publications. In just over a year we have grown awareness of the Fluency brand a lot but it still surprises me when I meet people at events and they tell me they’ve heard of my company!

What was the biggest barrier you’ve come across?

The biggest challenge this year has been raising investment for the company no question. Dealing with investors for the past nine months has been one of the most painful processes of my life. There is not a culture in the UK of investing in high potential but high risk tech startups like there is in the US.

Business angel events all over London will try and get you to pay them to pitch your business to a bunch of city guys in suits who know nothing about the tech world and are just there to make themselves seem important. Some investors will run you around the houses having meeting after meeting only to say that your company is not for them.

Nine long months of pitching and coffees - it’s exhausting and demoralising. And if you’re in the tech for good space like we are, then just forget it - most investors don’t get the concept that you can make money and social impact at the same time.

What made you get involved with the digital world and was that always your ambition?

No, I never thought of working in digital before my year at the University of Greenwich. Amongst other things I was working on an e-learning project during my year there and got really interested in digital. Coming from an arts background I knew nothing about the digital space and finding out that platforms like WordPress and Twitter existed was a revelation to me as the tools of production were now in my hands.

Want to know more about Fluency? You can visit their website, follow them on Twitter or give their Facebook page a like! 

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