Just 18 months ago, Zoe Peden had completed tech development on MyChoicePad, an educational app that uses symbols and signs to help children and adults with learning or communication difficulties. Over 1 million children in the UK have communication difficulties that require specialist help. In addition there are over 900,000 adults with speech and language needs.
But raising finance proved difficult.
“MyChoicePad wasn’t sexy enough for mainstream investors,” says Zoe. “But the social investment market wanted more and more proof of our social impact before they were willing to take the risk and invest in us. We needed the money to be able to show our impact, so it was frustrating.”
Big Venture Challenge
That is where UnLtd, and its Big Venture Challenge stepped in. Zoe was one of the first 25 people to be offered a place on the Challenge’s intensive 12 month programme of support, designed to help social entrepreneurs raise external investment (debt or equity) of between £50,000 and £250,000.
Match-funding of between £25,000 and £100,000 is available from Big Venture Challenge if a co-investor is prepared to invest an equal or greater amount during the 12 month award period. (If the business succeeds, UnLtd look for a small return from their investment. If not, they treat it as a grant.)
Each Big Venture Challenge winner receives support from UnLtd and two other NGOs: ClearlySo and the Shaftesbury Partnership
“We were given a lift, first by the Big Venture Challenge,” says Zoe. It also gave her exposure. and then ClearlySo, an organisation that helps social entrepreneurs raise capital, invited Zoe to their investment conference, where her company received runner-up spot in ClearlySo Social Business of the Year award. In summer 2012, Zoe’s company was selected to join the Wayra Academy tech incubator, which has been a huge boost.
“Recognitions like these are great,” says Zoe. “Once you get plucked out for one you’re above everyone else and you get recommended for lots of other things, so it gives you a platform. It gives me confidence that I can go out there and say ‘someone else believes in me’, not just me alone.
“After all the work that I have put in, I am now ready to start seeking investment. Despite working for a social purpose, I will run Insane Logic like a normal business and not rely on hand-outs.”
Changing attitudes is the thing that makes Zoe most proud of her business, she says. “Two years ago I was saying to schools that technology was going to be the future. But only one or two schools in the country were picking up iPads as they were seen as an unjustifiable expense. But it’s all changed so much. Schools and language therapists understand the benefits of technology. I like that I was a part of that and I was there right from the beginning.”
Big Venture helped her start-up company to be taken seriously. “Being on the Big Venture Challenge is something to be proud of and something that has enhanced our brand,” Zoe adds.
“As the founder and CEO, I get to make all the decisions but sometimes I have nobody to talk to. The support from UnLtd has helped that. I have someone to bounce ideas off and to act as a kind of Non-Executive Director. I have someone to challenge me, which as a first-time entrepreneur, is invaluable
“I think being on the Big Venture Challenge has changed everything. We wouldn’t be where we are now if it wasn’t for BVC.
Enough working capital
“In terms of my advice to other women starting up, have enough cash or financial support to go without a salary for at least 18 months to get everything off the ground. Build business partnerships from the start, surround yourself with people who know lots more than you do in different specialist areas and persuade them with your passion to work for you for free at the beginning.
“Lastly, be prepared to be incredibly emotionally resilient to get you through all the ups and downs. It’s not for the faint-hearted.”