After starting out as a journalist, Katharine Hibbert wrote ‘FREE: Adventures on the margins of a wasteful society’, a book about her experience of living in London for free for a year. She became so interested in the issue of empty houses that she never went back to journalism, instead founding Dot Dot Dot Property Guardians. The company offers a secure, flexible and affordable way for landlords to take care of their empty properties, at the same time providing the guardians- who must all be doing some voluntary work- an opportunity for cheap housing.
Katharine told us about what it’s like working in housing and how to go about running a social enterprise.
OM: Can you describe an average day at work?
KH: I suppose I have a pretty standard-looking job these days – 10am til 6 or 6.30pm, at my desk in the office with my eight colleagues, dressed in business casual, drinking tea. Actually, I tried to work that way even when it was just me on my own – I think the trouble with being self-employed is that it’s easy for the work to spill over into every hour of the day, and I prefer it if I work properly when I’m working, then stop properly in the evenings and at the weekends.
I try to keep the mornings as clear as I can to concentrate on long-term tasks – writing things like the business plan, client proposals, funding applications or articles. Then I almost always have meetings in the afternoon – either internally with colleagues, to plan future work, to solve problems that have come up or to catch up with what they’re doing, or externally with clients or prospective clients, funders, partners and others who’re benefitting from our work, helping us or who we’re working alongside. Between the meetings I’ll answer emails and do all the other fiddly tasks.
Or at least that’s the dream. In practice, especially when things are busy (which is almost always), I’ll be helping colleagues to get urgent tasks sorted whenever it’s needed – helping to edit reports to landlords we’re working with, suggesting ways to redesign processes, contributing to decisions about how to price things or what we can afford to spend. It’s not at all unusual to be brainstorming a problem or hearing an update as soon as I walk into the office, before I’ve even changed out of my cycling clothes. And actually, I quite enjoy that – my eight colleagues are great, and it’s fun to work on solving things with such smart people who have good ideas and care about things turning out well.
But however busy it is, I try to exercise every day, and get outside at lunchtime. Working harder isn’t always the way to get more done, I find, if it results in feeling grotty and miserable. And I don’t want my colleagues wearing themselves out, either, so I try to actively discourage a long-hours culture. I think about work things all the time, though – not worrying too much, just mulling over problems and ideas. But I quite like that. Better than being bored.
OM: How did you decide to set up your business?
KH: I wrote a book about waste, empty homes and squatting – FREE: Adventures on the Margins of a Wasteful Society (Ebury Press, 2010) – and after it came out, I was still completely preoccupied by the problem of empty homes, and also the opportunity they represent.
I know from my own experience how crippling it is to pay London rents at the same time as trying to do things you care about and which help others and make the world a better place but which don’t make money. So I wanted to find a way to help other people to reduce their living costs so that they could get good stuff done – and finding a way to let them living cheaply in empty homes seemed like a great solution that works for everyone. Landlords get their property looked after, guardians get homes, and everyone benefits from their voluntary work.
So the combination of those goals, plus the knowledge, network and profile that I’d gained from writing my book, made me feel like I might be able to do something to make things a bit better. And I’ve always enjoyed setting things up and trying to make them work better, and I think my personality is quite well suited to entrepreneurship, so starting a business felt like a challenge I’d like to take on.
OM: What was the hardest part about starting Dot Dot Dot ?
KH: The hardest thing was keeping on struggling to get it off the ground when I had no evidence it was ever going to actually work. It took a whole year of planning, getting the right people involved, sorting out legal issues and insurance and so on before we won our first significant client, and for all of that time, I asked myself almost every day whether it was worth it, and I wasn’t always at all sure. Was I just throwing effort at something which would never turn into anything? Wouldn’t it be better to go back to the journalism I’d done for a living before? Or, come to that, a job in a cafe or as a swimming teacher or in a bike shop or any number of other alternative careers I fantasised about. In fact, I think I was very fortunate in how swiftly things came together, but it felt like a long battle, and it was often a bit bleak. Keeping myself going through that time was definitely harder than any of the practical tasks I had to do.
OM: And what’s the best part of the job?
KH: Any number of things! First and foremost, I get a lot of satisfaction from knowing that we’re giving people good places to live. I know what a difference affordable housing has made for me, and I’m really glad that we’re able to offer our guardians places that work for them, and which I hope are managed in a way which makes the whole thing a positive experience.
And then I’m absolutely in awe of the guardians themselves – so many of them are doing absolutely amazing voluntary work, whether it’s saving lives by rescuing people from the Thames with the RNLI or answering the phones at the Samaritans, or making people happier by mentoring kids or hanging out with isolated elderly people. And without asking for any recognition or thanks. Totally inspirational.
I love working with my colleagues. When everything’s going smoothly, I find the office a cheerful place to be and I hope that they do too. But – even more importantly – when there’s a set-back or a crisis, I massively appreciate the way that the team pulls together and everyone applies their skills and intelligence to getting things fixed, and takes pride in making sure we do as well as we can.
And I really appreciate the range of skills I’ve had to learn – a basic knowledge of everything from accountancy to plumbing, HR to housing law. I won’t say I’ve always enjoyed the process of learning it, but it has taught me a lot about myself!
OM: Do you feel you’re treated differently in your industry because you’re a woman?
KH: I hope not, though inevitably I probably am. But it’s not all bad. Housing and social enterprise have a good proportion of women within them, though not enough in the most senior positions, and I feel supported by – and inspired by – many of the other fantastic women I have got to know through work.
OM: What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given? And what other advice would you give to anyone looking to do what you did? What qualifications and experience do you need?
KH: Learning how to be assertive and how to project authority and conviction is absolutely crucial, I think – for everyone, but especially for women, and in any role but especially when you’re trying to change things or do something new.
The exact way to do this is different for everyone and in different contexts, of course, but I think everyone needs to consciously try to work out what feels right for their personality and style, and which allows them to avoid both passivity and aggression.
I can clearly remember the feeling when I began to get it right while working as a journalist – noticing that when I stood up straighter and spoke more loudly and clearly, people turned to look at me in meetings, and actually heard what I had to say.
Being an entrepreneur is kind of similar to learning to be assertive, actually – everyone who does it probably finds a different way to make it work for them. You can never know enough or have enough skills to be able to do everything, so it’s mostly a matter of just getting on with it all as best you can, being ready to answer the questions and solve the problems as they come. And not being too terrified of it all crumbling, if at all possible. Having lots of people you can phone up to help you when you’re stuck helps a lot.
Also, my mum said you should smile when you’re talking or listening, even on the phone, and she’s right. People can tell.
OM: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made in the workplace or in your career?
KH: I try not to beat myself up about things I’ve tried that haven’t worked out, or times when I’ve made the wrong call – if I had a proper go at it, or if I made a sensible judgement based on the information I had at the time, then it’s good to learn the lesson for next time if possible, but there’s not much point looking back and wishing it was different. If you’re going to take risks, or try to do things you’re not sure you’re capable of, sometimes it’s not going to work out.
I am sorry for the times when I didn’t try hard enough or gave up on things or didn’t enjoy them because I was worried about what other people might think, or that I might not be good enough, though. One of the best things about getting older has been realising that other people hardly ever notice when you mess things up, and if they do they’re usually just grateful it wasn’t them doing it.
OM: What does success mean to you?
KH: Being able to spend most of my day doing the things I’m good at and that I enjoy, on work I’m proud of, alongside people I like.
And also not working too much!
So that I have time to do all the other things that are at least as important as being successful professionally, like being a good friend and being fit and healthy.
OM: What’s your feminist wish for the future?
KH: I would like to live in a country that is increasingly full of ambitious, powerful women who take pride in their strength and success and are admired for it. I feel as if I’m surrounded by some pretty awesome women as friends and colleagues, and I don’t think, at the moment, that our culture gives them as much credit as they deserve.
Fancy working for a good cause like Dot Dot Dot? They are currently hiring! Details here.