There is something rather incongruous about running your own successful small business while being told quite frequently, by strangers who pass you in the street, to “go and get a job”.
This is the exact situation faced by many of the 1,500 Big Issue magazine street vendors on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Selling The Big Issue magazine is, as Stephen Robertson puts it, “the ultimate lesson in empowerment, entrepreneurship, and resilience”.
As the CEO of the charity arm of the magazine, Robertson is keen to point out that while The Big Issue is widely recognised, many members of the public remain clueless as to how the business model actually works.
Apart from being given a few initial free copies, vendors – usually classified as socially or financially excluded – pay for every magazine themselves, at 50% of the cover price (£1.25). “There’s no sale or return; you buy at your own risk,” explains Robertson. “You have to turn up on time to your allocated pitch, plan profit and loss, and develop sales skills pretty quickly: as a buyer, you must convince me not only of the value of the product, but of yourself as a person.”
As a sustainable business idea, it’s the epitome of risk. “Who would think: ‘I’m going to produce a magazine, sell it to people no-one likes and then have them sell it on themselves?’” Robertson asks. “Why would you have a bunch of people who are hated owning your brand?”
Yet despite being “one of those mad business ideas that almost no-one would back”, The Big Issue has developed a social impact and reach that could not have been foreseen. With an average weekly circulation of 78,200, the magazine celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and in 2015 the Foundation helped some 2,200 vendors on their journey to social and financial inclusion. Robertson’s mission, he says, is to create moments of “meaningful engagement” with the brand, ultimately addressing the causes of homelessness.
The ethos behind the magazine – and the Big Issue Foundation (TBIF) charity, which has Robertson at the helm – is to provide “a hand up, not a hand out” by giving homeless people a legal way to raise money. They are empowered to consider long-term goals, set personal objectives and achieve stability.
“You don’t come to us because you have a complicated tenancy situation,” Robertson says. “Typically you’re living in a time horizon of about an hour, in terms of what happens next: how do I get out of the rain?; where will I sleep?; 60 minutes is about as far ahead as you can think. But if you can produce some money the next day, saved from yesterday’s sales, you’ve just added 23 hours to your time horizon.”
Established in 1995, TBIF charity links vendors with support and services to help them address the reasons behind their homelessness. The distinction between TBIF and other homelessness charities, Robertson says, is that the people it helps are ‘customers’ rather than ‘clients’.
“The journey starts as a commercial transaction; the model allows you to build a livelihood so you have to start thinking about what you want out of the relationship. You go on a journey of change, and that’s much more important than me telling you what I think is appropriate for you.”
Robertson concedes that TBIF might reach more people if it were a service-providing organisation, but he’s clear of the need to “focus on what we do best”, despite commercial pressures. “We would probably be more successful if we opened a hostel in London with celebrities at the launch,” he quips, “but we don’t want to trade on that. We want to provide the best customer service to our vendors.”
TBIF’s service team connects vendors with local services across financial inclusion, health, welfare and accommodation, helping them to open bank accounts, access health services, reconnect with family and friends, volunteer, train, learn, start enterprises, and find paid work. In 2015, TBIF worked with 2,200 Big Issue vendors and achieved around 8,500 ‘positive outcomes’ – journeys away from homelessness – the highest number yet. The average full cost of a positive outcome for a Big Issue vendor was £105 compared to £150 in 2014/15. For Robertson, the idea is a cheap, high-impact model of change that’s personalised and can be replicated at scale.