Following the last blog post about some of the exciting projects that Urban Foundry is involved with and the lovely reaction that got, Lucy has decided that Ben shouldn’t get off that lightly. Given that getting him to write the last one was like pulling teeth and knowing that there was zero chance he would write something himself if left to his own devices, Lucy (being the real power behind the throne) sat him down and interviewed him about his mid-year thoughts on how it is all going for Urban Foundry. His responses, which were nearly titled: ‘I thought I did this last week – why do I have to do it again?’, can be found below.
Why do you think things are going so well for you and Urban Foundry?
That feels like a tempting fate kind of a question!
The past 2 years or so have been really hard, and whilst we’re coming out of it stronger than we went in, there were times in that first year where it was really tough trying to keep a small business going. I’m still cautious about it all, and always wary of hubris – even though there’s been a lot of lovely opportunities we’ve been able to open up in the second half of that period that are coming to fruition now. So, whilst there’s lots of good things happening right now, I try not to count my chickens!
More generally though, I’d like to think a reason for things going well is that we’ve always stuck to our values of being a purpose-driven business since I started the business in 2004. Our focus on purpose has meant I (and in the past 10 years ‘we’) have always had a clear goal of why we’re doing what we do and what we want to achieve. I don’t think I was that good at articulating that for a long time to others, though that’s gotten better, but we were always clear on it internally.
For us, it’s never been just about making money. Obviously, you have to generate income – you have to do that to survive – but generating income is not our sole reason for being. Our purpose is why we exist and that’s to use creativity, our expert knowledge of regeneration, and a strong DIY socially entrepreneurial approach to do what we can to change our corner of the world for the better, delivering projects that improve people’s lives, make great places, and build more purpose driven organisations like us.
What was your motivation to go from a one-person set-up to a 16+ team?
I hit a point where I was doing all the hours I could work (truthfully quite a lot more than that) and it came to a decision about it either just staying like that forever, or growing it with more people. There’s only so much one person can do. I decided I wanted to do the latter, so that it was less about our clients working with me and more about them working with a company of people who are all really great at what they do and who all share my values and outlook on the world and why we do what we do. I love working with a team of people – it brings other challenges, but for me, it’s much nicer and lots more fun than working on my own.
What really excites you every day?
Doing new and exciting projects with a team of very talented and passionate people with great ideas who work really hard at trying to make what we do as good as it can be.
I love creating things that make other people happy and that help them fulfil their ambitions – seeing people wander our markets with a smile on their faces, or enjoying a coffee and cake at our HQ Urban Kitchen venue, having people tell me that they’ve learned something new, or helping people to be able to do something they couldn’t do before because of our help. That’s what I really enjoy.
It’s also really lovely to see things I helped start right at the outset of the company still going strong, even though in some cases my involvement with them ended a long time ago – the Dylan Thomas Prize for literature or the Albert Hall are two examples where others have since picked them up and driven them on, but they’ve started from things we did to get them going. It’s often a slow burn when you do regeneration projects – I think we’ve been proved right far more times than not in terms of sowing the seeds for these sorts of initiatives and what should (or shouldn’t!) be done.
Although it’s not something I get to do every day, I am also one of the Welsh Government’s Big Ideas Wales Role Models, and that involves talking to young people in schools, colleges, universities and through organisations like the Prince’s Trust about starting up their own ventures. I’ve also done work in the same way with Swansea University and UWTSD, and I really enjoy helping other people to take their own good ideas to the next levels.
Where do you want to go next?
We want to expand the PopUp Wales initiative from the small scale pilot into something that goes beyond a short-term project, and linked to that we want to find a longer-term solution to the Swansea Library of Things. We are just starting to open for evenings at HQ Urban Kitchen, which expands our opportunities, plus there are things that had to be parked during the pandemic for practical reasons like our 51.6 series of talks, which we’re also looking to resurrect soon.
We’ve also just started with weekly Marina Markets and it’s also looking at that whole project and seeing where that goes next with the various locations we operate in – most of which have proved fairly resilient to the pandemic, but not universally, so there’s some things to think about there too.
So, it’s about ensuring legacy of those projects, but we’re also looking at how we can build on them to create more and better activities under the overarching BCorp theme of business as a force for good.
There’s lots more, but you always tell me off for talking too much, so I’ll leave it there!
If you’d like to chat with Ben about working with Urban Foundry, send us an email: email@example.com – maybe even meet him for a coffee at HQ Urban Kitchen!