When Renata Cooper started her company with nothing more than a humble Facebook page, she never dreamed of the ripple effects she was creating, quite literally.
Forming Circles is an ethical and social investment company creating ‘ripples’ in the community through the power of giving.
The company pioneers change in Australia through community engagement, education, mentorship and grants for small business, and as an advocate of education and literacy.
While doing so, Forming Circles are continuously seeking investments within the circles its has supported or observed. The core target audience has been youth, women and small businesses.
Dynamic Business sat down with Forming Circles founder, Renata Cooper.
What convinced you to start Forming Circles?
My background and professional expertise is in financial markets. I took time off work to have children and after I had two wonderful kids, I wanted to get back into work. However, instead of returning to my previous role, I looked to ways of making a difference in the community around me. I wanted to create a business model that would fulfil my need to create a difference and also be sustainable.
When I started networking with women in business, I realised two things: there was a need for more awareness about education and there were many women with great ideas who weren’t being mentored, supported or had adequate funding to execute their business idea or growth to the next level.
This led to the inception of Forming Circles in 2011. The business model is founded using both tools of the 21st Century such as social media, crowd-funding campaigns and innovative thinking and the more traditional method of driving positive word-of-mouth through impactful actions. I wanted to set-up the business using a disruptive innovation approach so Forming Circles could create a new market and value network based on the foundation of giving to accelerate brand awareness and business growth. When we started, there weren’t many businesses of our size investing into creating stories of success in the community around them.
How has your initiative evolved?
Forming Circles started as a simple Facebook page that brought together like minded women on a regular basis to discuss, learn, debate, network and raise start up funding for their business by learning new skill via giveaways. Through organic growth (that matches societal need), the business has evolved to include a national literary competition for young Australian writers and publishing a book profiling winners of this competition.
We also supported worthy projects such as an anti-bullying animated short film that features Cate Blanchett’s voice, the 2013 Sydney Writers Festival and supported an Australian entrepreneur with funding to attend G20 Young Entrepreneurs Alliance Summit. I get personal gratification from the fact that through our pathway of creating a brand of influence in the community, our actions are helping other like-minded individuals create ripples of positive change and ‘pay it forward’.
What challenges have you faced along the way, and how did you learn from them?
The biggest challenge was keeping up with the exponential growth of the company. While I had a vision of how Forming Circles should evolve, I did not anticipate the growth as soon as it occurred. Areas of the business evolved faster than the company. For example, while establishing an angel investments portfolio was part of the vision for Forming Circles, it has already started to some degree through organic activities.
The other challenge has been coming into areas that I had no past professional experience in. The Written Portraits competition launched to support literacy on a national level received an array of great stories from youth across the nation. To share this talent and compelling narratives with wider audiences, we embarked on publishing a book with the winners and highly commended stories. In spite of not having personal experience in publishing, I realised this was an important initiative to support the competition and winners. You have to push the boundaries and try new things that help bring your passion to life.
How have you managed/balanced your personal time and the time you’ve put into the project over the years?
Let’s just say that I’ve burnt the midnight oil several times for about a year since the business started. Juggling two young children and a couple of start-ups has been tough, but worthwhile as it is rewarding. I don’t think there is a middle ground when you start a business – you just have to be prepared to work long and hard.
What relationship do you see business having with the community?
While small businesses are born out of the spirit of community; engagement is an extension of what we do. I think bigger corporates need to engage more with community. Young people and entrepreneurs are different thinkers. To help a nation grow, you need to engage on their level and be part of the change they are trying to create.
What tips or advice do you have for others looking to start their own enterprise?
There are a few things to consider:
See the big picture and work backwards. For me, the vision was to encourage growth through positive and impactful investments. I then deconstructed how I would do this and do it well. Some people get so caught up in the tasks that they lose sight of the vision.
Be prepared to work really hard. There are no three, five or seven steps or secrets to being successful – it is combination of long-term vision and hard work. Especially in the start-up stage.
Be disruptive. Use research to your advantage and explore new territories. Look at doing things that are outside the norm and your comfort zone.
Don’t be afraid to step away from the path you chose if you see a better opportunity elsewhere. Passion is wonderful, but you need to see if the business model works for you.
Don’t get complacent with growth. Keep looking for ways you can evolve and innovate.
Get start up funding. I would have never achieved Forming Circles current growth without the start-up funds. I believe we would have a very different company. Also “falling hard and getting back up” is much easier when you have funding. You just try a different angle.