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My fascination with the Big Issue began when I discovered one of its co-founders was Gordon Roddick, husband of the late Dame Anita Roddick, creator of one of the eighties’ most successful enterprises, the Body Shop.
How was it possible, I thought ,for one couple to start up not just one but two of our most recognised businesses?
For that’s exactly what the Big Issue is. A business.
Up until that point I probably thought the same as everyone else when I saw the street vendors springing up in our towns and cities. What a good idea, giving people the opportunity to sell a product rather than begging for hand-outs.
We’re now accustomed to their presence, and probably don’t think too much as we pass on by as they’ve become a familiar fixture in our high streets.
However, I had an opportunity this week to learn more from Stephen Robertson, CEO of the Big Issue Foundation, who explained how much power there was behind the simple business model.
For the street vendors selling The Big Issue, a news and current affairs magazine, the formula is this.
To qualify as a vendor they have to be homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. The Big Issue organisation does not ‘seek out’ or actively recruit homeless people, so individuals have to have made a conscious decision to improve their situation.
This alone is significant, as it rests the responsibility with the individual.
Vendors are not employed. Instead they have to buy their own stock to sell to customers – in other words, a micro-business.
Stephen explained that homeless people tend to live in the moment, focusing each minute, hour or day on where they’re going to be, what they’re going to eat and how they’re going to get shelter.
Requiring people with this sort of ‘survivalist’ mentality to switch to a ‘save up’ mindset and put money aside to purchase next week’s stock allows them to begin to take control, starting to think about tomorrow rather than today.
Alongside the economic steps they take, the human factor of being a street vendor is also significant.
Generally homeless people want to ‘disappear’ and hide away from the gaze of passers-by. So standing in full view of the world and trying to sell to strangers requires bravery.
Put most of us on a street corner with a product to sell and we wouldn’t know where to start. Our traditional British ‘reserve’ would kick in as few of us are natural ‘showmen’.
Yet here are individuals in a difficult situation having to stand tall and proud and engage with people who’d normally look down on them. This formula of engaging with the public can give vendors an opportunity to rebuild their confidence. But it’s a daunting challenge.
If that challenge is made easier, it’s because The Big Issue magazine itself is a good read. With its focus on topical news and current affairs, often with a social responsibility theme, it has more gravitas than many maintstream glossy magazines. And due to its credentials, there are often headline interviews with leading names (the current issue features an interview with Johnny Depp).
The Big Issue Foundation sits alongside the magazine to connect vendors with vital support and solutions that enables them to rebuild their lives and journey away from homelessness.
All in all there couldn’t be a simpler, yet more powerful business model, engaging up to 2,000 vendors at any one time selling around 100,000 copies a week.
So the definition of a successful business isn’t just about the size of its balance sheet, but rather its impact in human terms.
We should celebrate this particular British Institution (a feature not just on our high streets but now widely copied around the world) and not take it for granted.
And next time you pass a vendor on the street, remember they’re running their own micro-business, dealing with stock levels, forward planning, and sales. A smile and a hello would go a long way.
And if you fancy a good read a purchase would go even further.

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