Robert Labossiere – Social Enterprise Advocates

Social Enterprise Advocates provides legal and business development support for social enterprises, and the people who work in them. Specifically we help with incorporations, grant writing, business contracting as well as more personal things like immigration, estate planning and wills.

What is the story behind what you do and why you started it?

After working in the non-profit sector for over a decade, I found myself unemployed and unable to find a similar position. A friend told me about the School for Social Entrepreneurs, thinking it might be a good way to kick start a project we had been talking about. I discovered that a lot of things I found wanting in the non-profit world were being addressed in the social enterprise model, in particular the relationship between incentive and reward, and the drivers of financial sustainability.

Why are you passionate about this cause?

While I have worked for most of my life in the non-profit sector, I am also a qualified lawyer. I moved away from the law for many reasons and couldn’t really see myself going back. But with my experience at the SSE, I found myself interested again in practicing law, seeing the possibility of shaping a different kind of professional practice, one that aligns with my particular interests, commitments and talents.

I am developing a practice/business where I don’t exclusively do legal work and the legal work I do tends to be supporting the kind of organizations and causes I believe in. At the same time, I am able to pursue other more or less creative projects, one or more of which I hope will grow into a viable social enterprise.

The biggest challenge to my success, and the one that the SSE has most helped with, is resilience. I have had serious difficulty in my life handling conflict and facing possible failure. My experience at the SSE demystified these shibboleths.

Who are your beneficiaries and how do they benefit from your service?

I am not choosing who my clients are but by having an office within the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) community, those are the people I first come into contact with and who know me best. It is a very interesting community, mutually supportive but not exactly a “market” or “audience.” I have worked with dozens of people and organizations.

A particularly rewarding experience with an organization involving incorporating a for-profit business that has a very strong social mission. The founders strong social commitment led them to feel they should involve others actively and equally as directors and shareholders, yet that impulse had to be balanced against the enormous personal investment of the founders and the need for them to maintain a clear vision for the organization. We were able to find an innovative way to balance both interests.

On the personal front, I really enjoy creating wills for people working in the CSI community but also people from the neighbourhoods near the office. One great experience was preparing a will for someone living on a disability allowance. People living on fixed incomes are not generally able to hire lawyers. We were able to work out something with the help of her regular caregiver, who was somewhat surprised when, as soon as the work began, my focus shifted entirely, and confidentially, to the client. Both of them were used to him mediating all sorts of encounters, with my client usually being treated as if “disabled” not just physically. He was surprised to learn later, after our work was completed, that she had provided modestly for him in her will. It was a very touching moment that I felt privileged to share in.

How does your enterprise sustain itself financially/ what is your business model?

Our model is traditional fee for services, but we twist that in a variety of ways. We are generally more affordable, setting our fees below the average for lawyers in this city. This reflects our lower costs working within a co-working space but also the fact that profit is not our only bottom line. We also provide free consultations regularly to the CSI community, which both helps people see their legal problems a little more clearly, and creates a lot of good will. And we discount our already low fees depending on circumstances, as in the wills example already mentioned. We have been thinking about a “pay what you can” model too but haven’t yet sorted out how to test the idea out, to which services it should apply.

What was your biggest challenge in starting your social enterprise?

Initial funding to get started and patience while you build a client base are the biggest obstacles to developing any kind of professional practice. Being able to do many different kinds of things to pay the bills helped with the former, while having lots of ideas and small projects on the go keeps you looking forward instead of wasting time worrying. So far it’s working out pretty well.

What are your key achievements/ milestones?

It is difficult to work hard enough when you are starting out. You don’t know where to put your efforts and can waste a lot of time “busy,” feeling productive, when really you are just spinning your wheels.

After years of undervaluing my work, I am starting to ask for and get fees that are commensurate with the difficulty and importance of the work I’m capable of doing. I feel that my skill set is appreciated and people like working with me.

It’s too early still to be able to measure business/organizational impacts but I’m working with a number of organizations and individuals that I feel are going to do great things and it is very rewarding to be playing some part in that.

How has the SSE program supported you in the development of your enterprise?

The SSE program was very patient (the word “bemused” comes to mind) as I churned through various ideas. They are definitely more interested in the person than the project. I wasn’t sure why really but now see it as a question of fundamentals: you aren’t going to be able to build anything good and lasting if you aren’t clear about what you are trying to do and able to focus your energy.

I feel more accepting of myself and more aware of my strengths. It’s like I’ve found a path and though I can’t see too far down it, I’m pretty sure it’s going to get me where I want to go.

I see others in our cohort moving forward with a similar sense of optimism and like it when we can get together and share that sense of confidence and forward movement.

What are your plans for the future?

I am not certain I want to scale Social Enterprise Advocates. There are distinct advantages to working on your own, even though it also limits profitability. But there is potential there and I’m looking forward to major regular clients with larger, more consistent legal needs. I also have invested quite a bit of time in several enterprise projects that are good candidates for funding.

A year from now, I’d like to have a roster of thriving social enterprise clients so I don’t have to worry so much about month-to-month expenses and also have more resources to support the other projects I’m always cooking up.

But my dream is still the same as when I entered the SSE: to create a successful social enterprise, a profitable business serving a useful social purpose. I’m still not sure what the business will be exactly, but this is the goal on my Bucket List (which is a pretty good movie too, by the way).

What would your advice be to a budding social entrepreneur?

My friends at the SSE will laugh. I LOVE to give advice.

Work what you think of as hard, then double that. I don’t think I’ve ever worked quite as hard as I am right now and there’s still no real danger of breaking anything.

Dream less, do more. Even simple practical things mean much more than a hundred lean business canvasses.

Make failure your friend. You are going to be spending a lot of time together.

Don’t work alone. Accountability to others is the best incentive and you can’t really know if you can lead unless there are others there with you.

Finally, is there anything else you would like to tell us that you think helps illustrate what you do?

I have found that I have social, analytic and creative skills that haven’t been put to the best use. Unguided by any clear sense of purpose, it’s not so surprising that they haven’t particularly contributed to my productivity or ability to make a living. Bringing them into alignment is still challenging; they compete with each other, pulling me in different directions. But I have a glimmer now that it’s possible for them to work together and that the result can be something truly remarkable.