24 October 2019

Startups, once regarded as mere rugrats of the business world, have flourished to become true contenders in an ever increasingly complex, often volatile, marketplace. Today, these technologically savvy entities, known for their innovative thirst to solve a problem, insatiable hunger for growth and motivated by the cloak of uncertainty, are regarded by many as integral components to the nation’s economic success. Is it possible that we, in the social housing sector, could actually learn something from these agile actors?

As housing associations we evidence that we are agile, essentially via stress testing and asset/liability registers as per our regulatory duties. But simply because we show we could be agile, does this actually mean we are? I believe being agile is not simply a process or set of procedures for the organisation, it requires a certain mindset as found in startup organisations.

Startups have a remarkable culture. Known for their principles-based approach, not constrained to place, environments or compliance to the same level as housing associations, startups function via the malleable premise of smarter working practices. Furthermore, there are no staff shortage problems. That’s not to suggest that housing associations have problems with recruitment but, it is acknowledged that startups attract an array of keen graduates longing to learn quickly, get ‘hands on experience’ and in an environment which recognises and appreciates creativity and innovation.

The agility of startups can be likened to the flight of a butterfly, not remaining in a place of comfort but flitting from one project to another in response to market needs. However, housing associations have a long-term commitment to the varying complex needs of tenants and residents. Needs which can be time and resource consuming, yet rewarding if approached appropriately and with respect.

Despite the current political challenges, housing associations are endowed with a long-term future. Nonetheless, such security instils complacency which should not be ignored. In contrast, startups have a high risk of failure (statistics suggest up to 90% fail). However, I believe that this risk is embraced within the entrepreneurial DNA which allows for responsiveness and agility.

Indeed, some successful startups have become influential leaders. This accolade has been facilitated through knowing their customers’ wants, a notion which housing associations should equally be committed to. Unfortunately, so many within the sector are risk averse; entrenched within traditional practices; fearful of getting things wrong; focused on business as usual rather than getting to know what tenants and residents truly want.

Startups demonstrate that success can come from having a different mindset. Accepting the value of agility, flexibility, responsiveness and resilience; adopting smarter working practices that do not rely on position and place; being appealing to new talent and taking time to know your customers and their needs - but moreover, seeing the opportunities in taking risks. So, if you were to start up now, what would you do to create a service fit for your customers in 21st century?

Debbie Roche

Debbie is a Board Member and Tenant Plymouth Community Homes

With over 20 years strategic board member experience Debbie, a former Plymouth City Councillor and Health and Social Care lecturer, now works within the Third Sector. She is currently Chair of MaleVoicED, a charity which provides a platform for males with experiences of eating disorders and co-morbid conditions to share their narrative.

Debbie is a board member and a tenant of Plymouth Community Homes. Having initially served on the Customer Focus committee as a co-optee, Debbie now sits on the Development and Audit and Risk committees. She is also a member of the National Housing Federation’s recently formed, Board Member National Group.

Debbie is also Chair of Pembroke Estate Management Board, Plymouth’s only tenant-managed organisation, for nearly four years.

What can housing associations learn from startups?