Dave Linton On The Challenges & Opportunities Of Being A Social Entrepreneur


Dave is an innovator, social entrepreneur, thought leader, mentor of social enterprises, motivational speaker and the founder and managing director of multi award-winning Madlug C.I.C. which won the Social Enterprise UK consumer facing award in 2018.  

Prior to beginning his journey with Madlug, Dave was a youth worker for over 20 years.  and for the past three years he has also become heavily involved in mentoring and raising awareness of social enterprises.

Following a hugely successful crowdfunding campaign with Madlug over the summer of 2017, Dave was given opportunity to have brunch with Sir Richard Branson in what was a great opportunity to share the story of Madlug with a global business leader.

Dave is extremely passionate about using Madlug to influence a new young generation of social entrepreneurs.


Dave discusses key trends in the social enterprise sector and how people are moving more towards a social mindset than a pure capitalist one, whilst providing some great insights into storytelling for success.


Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Tom Allen] - To get things started could you please share a bit about your background and what led you down the path of social enterprise?

[Dave Linton] - As you previously mentioned I was a youth worker for 20 years. And for me, I just love young people. I love helping people. And for the last 15 years of my youth work career I was so, so interested in organisational structure. I was interested in being intentional and being visionary.

And for me the reality was that I always was attracted to business, but I wasn't attracted to really making money. I wasn't hungry for money, I was hungry to help people.

For me, that's really what kept me out of business for so long, but then social enterprise gave me a way that I'm able to do business and I'm able to help people.

So I make money purely to help people and that for me is my background of how I ended up in it.

So youth work was the kind of helping and the learning of the organisational stuff that then took me into the place of social enterprise.


Fantastic. So tell us a little bit more about Madlug and what it was that brought you to founding this particular social enterprise.

My wife and I are adoptive parents and we had foster placement as well from we were first married. And it had come to an end and we had a space in the house we were living in to do more fostering. But we had a little break and we had moved then into a different location in Northen Ireland. So we had to go right back to the very start, and it was in 2014 we were doing that and I remember going the training classes.

In week four, they talk about children in care moving and I heard a story of a young girl at that training course and she told her story which was, "When we move the local authorities don't give us suitcases. Sometimes foster carers will loan us suitcases but quite often our belongings are moved into black plastic bin bags and we lose our dignity."

And so it was in that moment I was so moved that I was in tears. I just felt like I've got to fix that.

And that started the whole journey of well how do I start that? Do I go to my young people I was working with and collect their old second hand bags to give them to the local authority? And that would have fixed the problem. However, the reality is these kids have huge value, worth and the right to be treated with dignity and to be given a proper bag. So as I started to think through, ‘well how do I do that?’ The clear model was to set a charity up and fundraise and give new bags to these kids. But in myself, the thing I didn't really like about youth work was fundraising. It was the thing that didn't really fit who I was, my skill base, or skillset, and also to run a few marathons; I was never the physique to do that. So the idea of that wasn't really kind of my thing.

And I previously read the Tom’s Shoes book on Start Something That Matters and that inspired me and left me kind of invested in using business to do good and I thought, "Well, I wonder could I do this with bags? How do I get a new bag to a kid? Well, if I sold a bag 'cause people need bags…" And every time I started to think this through, the more people I saw carrying backpacks and carrying bags in there every day. So, what? People are buying this? So could we generate the funds from what people are buying to give a bag to a child?

And it was really at that moment that I started Madlug, Make A Difference Luggage. And it was...as I was saying to you earlier that I didn't really know much about social enterprise. Yeah, so it was in that moment that I started Madlug and basically a bag company that we could sell bags, so we could give bags to these incredible children.

That's a great story, Dave. And I'm sure you've come up against a lot of challenges in founding the social enterprise. So what have those challenges been for you and have you worked your way around them?

I think that what I've learnt is…

the challenges always become the opportunity, so at the time they're challenges.

So for me starting off in Northern Ireland we're not really a country that has created brands that we wear. We're importers of brands and so from the States, from Europe, from the UK, we import what we wear. And so I was faced with this this great idea, however, culturally it was something we didn't do.

And so it was trying to get people to support what we were doing. It was the financial issue. I remember coming home to my wife and saying, “Look, I have this great idea.” And she went, “It's a great idea but we can't risk all our finance on this.” And I remember telling the friends this great idea and they were nodding their heads and saying, “Yeah, yeah.” But I had the reality where I didn't have finance. I was a youth worker. I had enough to pay my bills, didn't have big savings and I remember all I took was 500 pounds. And the 500 pounds was basically the initiation cost to get the logo designed.

[I paid] 40% up front and I just went with it. How I ended up with the rest of the money, was my mentor from a social enterprise program I was on. As an entrepreneur, I was driving way ahead faster than my mentor. And the program was coming to an end. It was about three days left of mentoring and he said, “Look, it's clearly obvious that you have had a lot of time with your design company and designing your logos and your brand. If you get them to invoice me, I'll pay the rest of the bill.”

And that was the end of it. And then we went live with new stock apart from the samples that I was holding and said, “Look guys, if you order today, it may take us three weeks. And we'll get through.”

So the first day, we got enough orders to place our first order. And then we just kept reinvesting and reinvesting and reinvesting. The reality was I couldn't afford the risk of doing a crowdfunding [campaign] because at my age with no business background, no family that had business background, it would have been a complete failure if we hadn't raised the money. And it would have been a stop to the whole dream. And fixing the problem of black bin bags. So I needed really to show that this work, to work hard.


So finance was a big challenge. Then moving on from finance, we saw this was starting to work.

The other challenge really is loneliness as a leader.

In that, I love being around people. I'm inspired by people and you're starting to get beyond just the idea and you're starting to see it work. But yet you're still on your own working it until you can afford to bring other people around you.

And for me, the loneliness was at times...I could give up. But every time I wanted to give up, I got a letter or a little bit of encouragement from a young person who cared, who had received the bag. Or I got a story from a social worker who had given the bag, or a customer who is so inspired by buying a bad and that left me in this place of ‘it's worth it, I'm gonna do it’ and I stepped into the next day and then I saw growth. But those were the two main challenges; finance, but I think that because we had no finance we have a better business today, because we didn't go too far into buying too big premises, too many people hired, too much stock bought. And the loneliness has taught how to get deep and how to keep the right mindset everyday. Because of those loneliness moments, you have a mindset that you have to say, “Right. Let's move on. Let's get past this. Let's go.”

There's some great learnings there, Dave. So what changes have you seen in the social enterprise sector since you began Madlug in 2015? And what do you believe can be done to drive the sector forward?

What I've seen in social enterprise is there are more people doing it in the last few years.

So in Northern Ireland, for instance, we were the first one-for-one business to be here in Ireland. And now we're seeing that because we have done it, because it's worked, it is inspiring many others to do it. So it's becoming nearly everyone's thinking the one-for-one is the way to do it, or social enterprise is the way to do business.

So I think there's more people doing it. I get excited because I think it's more natural in younger people, in that they think socially to start with, rather than just a little add on.

So I get real excited to the youth growing into this. And I think that it will move most social enterprises, most businesses into a more social enterprise model going forward as they take leadership roles within them. But I think, in that, we're becoming more confused in the last three years... I've seen a little bit more confusion of what is social enterprise. And because there are so many - we’re a Community Interest Company, but you can be a private company with aims and objectives in your memorandums and giving your profits away. There's the B Corp stuff coming in.

I think we're ending up with a strife where there’s lots of people using language of social enterprise to sell product, but not necessarily driven all the time.

So I think there's a coolness with it. That’s bringing people who are taking advantage of it sometimes to grow business faster that way. It’s a nice carrot, but it's harder than probably business with social impact.


It's interesting, because I've made the same observations about the sector here in Australia in many ways. There's ongoing debate around the definition of social enterprise, but we're also seeing a lot of people, in essence, claiming to be in the space; although they might be a pretty typical business, donating one or two percent of their profits towards a cause. So it's funny how the social washing can creep in as well, right?

Yeah, and it's leaving a challenge. Those who are pure and those who are genuine, it's challenging us. In some ways, it's a positive because it's making us sharper. We've got to compete on a business footing as much as any other business. But it just concerns me that sometimes I think the real learner will be in what we've seen the last three, four years of growth in this space, is how many of them will be nailing their colours to social enterprise in three years time. Or will have been a social enterprise, got out of social enterprise and no longer part of the community? Taking advantage of it. However, the good, positive side of it all is that there's more help being done, more money being generated to give away. So whether it's pure or not pure...something's being done more than what was done before.

We're moving more into a social mindset than just a pure capitalist mindset.

So, what advice then would you give, Dave, to the listeners out there who are keen to start their own social enterprise but perhaps they're finding it a little bit hard to take the leap?

My advice is simply this, find your black bin bag story. There's lots of great social need out there; homelessness, kids in care system, older people who are in nursing homes, whatever. There is lots and lots of social need out there and you can be so broad. But it's finding the thing that nearly seems insignificant. Because I think that's the significance in making social enterprise work for them.

So for me it was the black bin bag story and the bigger kids in care story. So it really keeps me focused that's what we're about. So when people come and say, "Well, are you going to become a fashion brand beyond bags?" We go, "No." Because our social story is we started to because no child in care should carry their life in a bin bag. So we're focused on how we get bags to kids in care. That is our part to play.

And we'll play alongside some of the others. Now, if another bin bag story comes in the journey of Madlug, then we start another thing. So I would say, if it's homelessness, look for the thing that really puts something in your stomach of just, “I've got to fix that.”

And don't start until you've got that. Keep going and keep everyday looking for that one thing because, that one thing is what makes you unique.

Yeah, absolutely.

Don't start before you've got that 'cause you'll get lost in the crowd where everyone's doing the same thing.


That's really interesting and sound advice. It's obvious worked strongly with you, Dave. So when it comes to measuring and communicating your impact then, what do you think are the keys to doing this as a social entrepreneur?

Well for me and the Madlug story, I'd say it's how many bags can I generate to give children in the care system. So in the UK, there are 90,000 kids in care. One child is moved in every fifteen minutes.


And many of those children are carrying their belongings in either flimsy plastic bags or black plastic bags.

And what we have found out since starting, is that many of them often feel lost in a care system that nobody cares. Everybody is paid to care.

Foster care is social workers and social work. So for me it's simple. It's the more bags I can get to these kids, the type of message on it that says, "You are incredible, value, worth, dignity," which is what's on our bag that we give the kids. Then that for me is a measurement of the impact, because I know that works. We've also had lots of feedback from young people who have received them; stories of just being blown away. The fact that somebody cared who didn't know me.

And they're using that kind of language. Anybody listening can check our blogs and there's an amazing letter we got. I got it at one of those times of being lonely from a kid in care, handwritten to us. And you'll see the impact, so that's how we measure. The other thing is, what has changed for me is it started off by just giving a bag to kids in care. How do we give bags? But we've realised the impact of people carrying Madlug bags. So the more we become the brand for children in care and even those who haven't received a bag; if they start to know that anyone around the world carry Madlug bags they say, “Oh, that person cares for me, that person believes that I'm incredible.”

For me that's also the impact, that I know that story of feeling lost. And yet somebody who hasn't got the power or the ability because of the child protection issues can actually just wear it proud and say, “We care.”

So for me, that's how we measure our impact. We're still growing in this whole space.

That would be the biggest challenge in social enterprise; you’ve got to really run a business and business is hard work on its own. And then you're setting up a charity mindset of giving. So you’re running two things. Social enterprise is not an easy option. It's a harder option. But it has a lot more impact.

That's some great advice, Dave. So what inspiring organisations and projects have you come across beyond Madlug that you believe are creating some fantastic, positive social impact?

This is a hard one to answer because there is so many. Last year, I had the privilege of going to the Social Enterprise World Forum. And that blew me away. It took me outside of social enterprises just being a UK thing. And my knowledge of it just being a UK thing, to being a global thing. And to hear stories of people in Canada who were running employment, recruitment agencies, making money and giving people hope with jobs, to hearing stories of people using beer to basically give clean water to people in developing countries. It was just phenomenal.

But I think for me locally, I have to do a wee shout out for some of our local [social enterprises] because starting on this run of social enterprise, in a country that we're seeing a lot of growth in with social enterprise. There's one that's called, AEL, and they are basically Ireland's first ethical water. It's traceable water in bottles for drinking. And they're now into nearly all the hotels and they're just phenomenally growing. And you can trace where it came from, the route it's taken. But what I love about the organisation is it started a number of years ago as a charity working with people with disabilities. It was around about the quarter million turnover, but struggling purely funded. And they've turned the whole thing into this amazing social enterprise. So water is only one aspect of it.

But you know I run this thing of mixed work force and having the benefits to disadvantaged young people to work with people with disabilities. And so they operate in a third; so third disabled work force, a third who've really had a rubbish life, and a third of professional workforce. And that organisation has grown. In fact that it won social enterprise of the year in the Northern Ireland space last year.

I'm real excited about that. I love watching that, but it's unfair to the others because there's so many great things happening across the world today.

So to finish off then, Dave, after sharing those examples. What are some inspiring books that you'd recommend to the listeners?

I want to give you one book today and I think that this has been so key. It's not on the social enterprise space but I think that social enterprise is built around story. Story of where it's come from, to what it wants to do and the impact it wants to have. There's an author called, Donald Miller called, “Building a Story Brand.” I have built the whole of Madlug around this thinking of ‘how to tell a story, how to communicate the story, how to invite people into the story and position it.’ I sit in so many things and watch so many presentations and I just think, ‘if you just knew how to tell your story better!’ Then, [as a result of that], see greater growth and greater impact, because there's lots and lots of really great things happening, but we just don't know how to tell a story.

So “Building a Story Brand,” it's a book that was out about a year ago. It’s worth a read. I would say every organisation needs to read it. Another book, good to read, “Good To Great” by Jim Collins. Good to read, classic, building a team, getting the people to be driven for social impact. I think that's a classic as well in the leadership space.


Recommended books


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