Gap market, market gap; or why your mental health idealism might not overcome the market

Social enterprise isn’t always the best way to get something to happen, but sometimes it’s the only way. Mark Brown wonders what the demise of mental health magazine One in Four, which he edited, can tell social entrepreneurs and potential mental health disrupters 

(This is an extended version of an article which first appeared at Guardian Social Enterprise Network on June 2nd 2014 titled ‘My mental health magazine and the sadness of closing a social enterprise’)

If you’re all about the money, making the decision to finally bring to an end a failing project that hasn’t paid its way is a relief.  Finally: no more sleepless nights trying to make the balance sheet add up; no more time explaining the gap between your aspiration and you achievement.  If your motivations are social rather than financial, the final end of a project that you’ve invested your time, your money, your energy and your belief in is far more difficult.  Social enterprise, making social good happen through selling goods and services, may seem like a win-win, but it has some difficulties than aren’t always apparent when you begin.

For more than six years, One in Four has been a magazine written by people with mental health difficulties, for people with mental health difficulties, conceived and edited by me, a person with mental health difficulties (amongst other attributes).  It has never been a magazine for mental health professionals, the worried well or of any particular therapeutic or philosophical approach to mental health.  Launched by the social enterprise Social Spider CIC just as the banks began to collapse in 2007, it’s a project that I threw my heart into and one that I’m having to sadly bring to an end with the next issue.  The story of One in Four tells us some valuable things about the ways in which idealism can’t bend economic realities to its vision and the way in which a great social idea isn’t always a brilliant social business.  As with anyone launching themselves into an ambitious project led by ideas rather than market analysis, our enthusiasm and social drive blinded us to one oft-uttered platitude: there may be a gap in the market but is there a market in the gap?

The first thing I can say with hindsight to idealistic social enterprise is building a market for your social enterprise is hard if there isn’t one there already.  Mental health is one of the areas where social enterprise approaches social challenges remain in their infancy.  It has been dominated by three main business models; state provided medical or social services funded through taxation; charities funded by public and philanthropic donation and latterly by public contracts and, to a much lesser extent, projects originally derived from subsidised therapeutic work situations producing goods and services produced by people with mental health difficulties for sale to the public.  None of these models are about selling something directly to survive.

This means there isn’t really an established market in mental health.  The public sector is the main spender; we don’t actually have any statistics for how much private individuals spend on mental health related products.  Historically, a diagnosis of severe and enduring mental health difficulty meant an individual left the market completely.  Prejudice, stigma and loss of earning potential meant that the people who experienced mental health difficulty were shunted to the margins of society where we became a social problem to be solved by others spending on our behalf.  It still remains true that a mental health difficulty means that you are more likely to end up skint.

When we first began work on One in Four we reasonably expected that it would be the kind of project that a charitable funder would support: a mass circulation publication given out via places like libraries, doctors surgeries and hospital and clinic waiting rooms for free as vehicle for useful information, practical tips and the sharing of life experience so people wouldn’t feel alone and isolated with their experience of mental health difficulty. We initially assumed there wasn’t a market but that there was a wide open gap ready to be recognised by the types of funding that exist to meet social need where the market fails to do so.  When the kind of funding wasn’t forthcoming, we moved on to looking for other ways to sell the publication so it would stand on its own feet.  We thought: if charity won’t provide the necessary funds, enterprise will.  This is the point from which many social enterprises begin.  First we thought: we’ll sell it in bulk to NHS trusts; they have an obligation to provide information and we can do it cheaper in a way far more in touch with the wishes of people with mental health difficulties.

You can’t disrupt your customer

That they didn’t buy gives us our second lesson for UK social enterprises.  Whilst the spending freeze in the run up to the 2010 general election and the NHS spending cuts that followed it didn’t help; there was another reason why the NHS and major charities weren’t up for spending:  disruption.  We’d always intended that One in Four would shake up the way that public information about mental health was provided, being written by people with direct experience rather than communications departments.  What we didn’t realise was that a disruptive model like this can only work where customers are free to move to your product from other products.  In mental health, it isn’t the people who use NHS services that control the spending on information; it’s the people who are currently creating and disseminating information.  It’s so obvious looking back that our accidental disruptive model, at a basic level, required the market we were disrupting to say ‘Oh yes! You’re right, we are out of date and a bit rubbish’.  Then give us money.  One in Four, to work on this model would have had to disrupt its customer, rather than disrupt its market.

In an effort to broaden our base of subscribers we offered individuals the opportunity to subscribe to the magazine at a price of £10.00GBP a year for four issues by post.  Around the same time a publication partially inspired by One in Four launched to the newsstand direct to consumer market and survived around six months before its investors pulled the plug.  During the same period, publications in broadly the same area as One in Four with much longer histories quietly shuffled into the printed night.

Why should anyone trust you when you say ‘We’re the good guys?’

Again, the historic dominance of state/charity funding presented a problem for a new entrant.   People in general, while used to paying for a whole range of goods and services were not used to paying for mental health related goods and services.  This meant that it was harder to sell directly to them when there was a range of other services in the same space available to them for free.  We were on occasion accused of profiting on the back of the suffering of others, an unfair charge but not an illogical one.  If you are committed to the public sector, why should you take the word of a social enterprise that they’re ‘the good guys’ and not just a bunch of people in it for the cash?’

State/charity dominance means something that is not apparent to many who haven’t tried to produce socially useful media for a mental health audience: there is no advertising spend targeted at people with mental health difficulties, partially because there is no notion that people with mental health difficulties might spend on their own care, support or wellbeing.  Or indeed anything.  This gives us our third lesson for idealistic social enterprise: being the first social enterprise in an area is really, really hard, because being morally and ethically committed to the area and looking for social profit doesn’t mean you can overcome the lack of customers and revenue streams.

We take the decision to end One in Four at the point where it has managed to cover its direct costs and could have continued if I and my colleague could continue to keep it going as a charitable activity, giving our time for free.  In the end, we made what funding we could get go as far as possible, cut our costs to a bare minimum, continued to pay our writers (something that far larger media combines don’t always do), built up a subscriber base and survived for nearly six years.  Have we made a difference?  I hope so.

Which leads us to the final lesson, and a general one that is possibly the most dangerous to ignore: if no one takes a risk, nothing new will happen.  Things still need to change in mental health and we need more money that is prepared to take risks on new ideas.  One in Four managed something new.  Some people took a risk with us.  I hope more people will take better risks in mental health in the future.

Mark Brown is development director of Social Spider CIC, the publishers of One in Four.  He continues to develop a variety of mental health projects and services and is increasingly well known as a mental health commentator.  He is @markoneinfour on twitter.

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