Starting A Social Business: An Interview with Frankie Bennett of The Hard Yard

Frankie is the founder of The Hard Yard, a social enterprise that runs tough prison workouts, designed and led by trainers who have been to prison. We chat about searching for purpose, changing perceptions and why you don't need to buy into the latest fitness fad to get in shape and reach your goals. © The Hard Yard

Hi Frankie! So, what inspired you to set up a social enterprise?

I wanted to do something purposeful. I was working for a charity at the time, where we were doing absolutely fantastic work, but we struggled to get funding. Hundreds of people were calling our information line every week and receiving loads of support. I would hear people saying "I don't know what I would have done without you, thank you so much for all your help." But when it came to getting funding, we would have to beg trusts and foundations and they'd always say "Sorry, we don't fund ongoing services. If you've got a new project we might be able to help." This ongoing service was the backbone of what we did, so it started to drive me a bit mad. I love the charity sector, it does such great work, but it was that hunger for a bit of sustainability that drew me towards social enterprise.

I was thinking, how can we do purposeful, important work, but do it smarter? Is there a way? So, that was what made me wonder if I could start a business. I still don't feel legit, I still have impostor syndrome, but you couldn't choose a better tool for self-development and learning new skills than starting a business!

© Sophie Carefull Photography

[bctt tweet="You couldn't choose a better tool for self-development than starting a business" username="sophiecarefull"]
How did you go about turning your idea into a business?

First of all, I started furiously googling 'social enterprise' and 'social change'! I found a course online called Year Here and it fitted my needs exactly. We learnt about other people's business models, saw how they were effecting social change, did frontline placements. It wasn't all necessarily to do with enterprise, but campaigning too, and learning about how others were innovating and making things happen. I got a bursary and did that for 9 months, then during the latter months of the course, I came up with the idea of The Hard Yard.

What are the key values behind The Hard Yard?

Everybody should feel that, if they have skills and they're willing to work hard, they can have meaningful employment and be valued and gain respect for doing that.

We're here for people who have skills and are willing to work really hard, but they're being held back by past mistakes. In a way it comes back to purpose again, if you've got something to offer, you should be able to offer it; that's my core driver. In our case that's workouts, training, motivation; all those things that come with a great trainer.

I think there's a lot of confidence and self-worth that comes from knowing that you've got skills and other people want to pay for them.

There's something wider as well in that there needs to be an attitude change in the way employers and wider society view people who've got a criminal record. Often there'll be someone closer to you than you think who has one or who has been in prison, and there are all sorts of reasons people end up in those situations. You can't just have a growing scrapheap of people where we just say "Oh sorry, you screwed up once and now that's it, you're done." By all means, hold them to account and get them to work hard, but I would like to see a sea change. So that instead of it being just the odd “good” employer, we could just say in general that we, as a society, are better.

[bctt tweet="If you've got something to offer, you should be able to offer it; that's my core driver." username="sophiecarefull"]

What are some trends you've noticed in the world of health and fitness recently? 

I think we're starting to feel the baselessness of the Instagram world - we know some of it isn't true and the veneer is fading. I think what appeals to people about The Hard Yard is that it's raw. They feel that they're on a journey with the trainer. In January we ran a lot of sessions in real backstreet halls and people liked it that it wasn't perfect, because we were just working out. It wasn't about what shake we were going to have afterwards, or how we looked when we were doing it.

People can come in whatever they want, you don't have to be wearing Lulu Lemon leggings and a full face of makeup!

It's just not about that, it's about working really hard and, for those 45 minutes, pushing everything else out of your mind. It's about focusing on exerting yourself in a different way, not just mentally but physically.

© The Hard Yard

What can people expect from a Hard Yard workout?

The whole workout is bodyweight only, so it's perfectly tailored to each person's individual ability. You're lifting exactly what you can manage. We never do 20 of this or 10 of that, it's always as many as you can do in this time period, while keeping the perfect form. That's what our trainers are really great at; going around and checking that everyone's doing it right and safely.

Better to do three right than ten wrong, and that's definitely the approach that we take.

A Hard Yard workout has some substance behind it, and a real reason why you're doing it too. It's about mental focus and challenge, rather than just "Oh no, it's six weeks until my holiday and I've got to look hot in my bikini" or "I better look good in front of the other guys" - that's really integral.

For us it's all about good, clean motivation; you want to improve your life and improve the life of others.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?

I think there's a lot to be said for talking about your idea like it's a real thing from day one. I still now find myself saying "I'm trying to..." but the people on the Year Here course were the ones who made me realise that I was doing it and that it was a real thing. I learnt to say "The Hard Yard is..." rather than "The Hard Yard will be..." even when it was still just an idea. 

[bctt tweet="There's a lot to be said for talking about your idea like it's a real thing from day one." username="sophiecarefull"]

I would also say just ask! I've found that often people are so keen to help and so you have to try not to think "Oh they're so busy, they don't have time for me" because people will make time to help. Through Future Girl Corp, I met the lovely Selina who'd started her own environmentally friendly events agency called Bulb. I spoke to her at the end of one of her talks and she said she loved what I was doing and that she would mentor me. Sometimes people say it and you don't really expect it to happen, but she's just amazing. It's a prime example of someone who's not really getting anything out of it, she just said that people did that for her when she was starting out so she wants to do something for me. 

What are your favourite books or resources that have helped you on your journey?

In terms of organisational culture and having a big dream, I'd recommend Let My People Go Surfing by the founder of Patagonia. It's kind of risky, because it makes you want to jack in your job and go and live on an organic farm! It has some great lessons in there about valuing staff, staying true to your ideals and what happens when you don't.

I went to a talk a few years back at the Royal Academy from my favourite social enterprise, Emmaus. They started in France and now they run furniture shops all over the country and they're often staffed by people who've been homeless or have come from rehab centres. It's an incredible approach; people donate the furniture, people from low incomes buy it, everything gets recycled, it's really smart. All the different elements link together so well.

© The Hard Yard

What does a typical day look like for you?

It's super varied at the moment as we're in startup mode. I'm often working on my own, which takes a lot of self-discipline. I'm on an accelerator programme called Bethnal Green Ventures, which is great, so yesterday we had a meeting with someone who'd set up a similar business and was telling us the ins and outs. Then I wrote an article that I wanted published, looked into impact measurement, did a bit of work on our website, read up on SEO and Google Analytics. I'm always chopping and changing. Running a business means you have to become an expert in loads of stuff! I'm also going to have to learn a lot about curriculum design and effective teaching for our training programme.

How do you manage the ups and downs of running a social enterprise when you're mostly working alone?

Having access to the Bethnal Green Ventures co-working space helps so much, because you need to have people around you who get it. 70% of the time it's really hard, but then when you get a win it feels amazing, but if you're not a founder you don't know how it feels. 

© The Hard Yard

What has been your biggest win so far?

Running our workouts, hands down. Being at the end of a workout during our pilot in January, seeing ten or twelve hot, sweaty customers who've paid full price and are willing to pay full price again.

When they write on their feedback forms "Your trainer is the best trainer I've ever had" - those are the real highs.

That was the proof of concept; it ticked all the boxes and that was super exciting. We've still got things to figure out, but having had that vision, I know it can be done.

What have you got planned for The Hard Yard over the next year?

We're back this summer with more tough workouts! The changes I saw in January when I was working out with our trainers three times a week were so dramatic! I can't wait to get it back up and running so that I can get back into shape again myself! 

You can follow Frankie and The Hard Yard's startup journey on Twitter and Instagram and you'll also find them on Facebook.

To be the first to know about this summer's training, you can sign up to the mailing list on their website. Don't forget to shop their Game Face training apparel range while you're there!