Lessons in empowerment, entrepreneurship and resilience

Written by
Mary Appleton

12 Sep 2016

12 Sep 2016 • by Mary Appleton

There is something rather incongruous about running your own successful small business while being told quite frequently, by strangers who pass you in the street, to “go and get a job”.

This is the exact situation faced by many of the 1,500 Big Issue magazine street vendors on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Selling The Big Issue magazine is, as Stephen Robertson puts it, “the ultimate lesson in empowerment, entrepreneurship, and resilience”.

As the CEO of the charity arm of the magazine, Robertson is keen to point out that while The Big Issue is widely recognised, many members of the public remain clueless as to how the business model actually works.

Apart from being given a few initial free copies, vendors – usually classified as socially or financially excluded – pay for every magazine themselves, at 50% of the cover price (£1.25). “There’s no sale or return; you buy at your own risk,” explains Robertson. “You have to turn up on time to your allocated pitch, plan profit and loss, and develop sales skills pretty quickly: as a buyer, you must convince me not only of the value of the product, but of yourself as a person.”

As a sustainable business idea, it’s the epitome of risk. “Who would think: ‘I’m going to produce a magazine, sell it to people no-one likes and then have them sell it on themselves?’” Robertson asks. “Why would you have a bunch of people who are hated owning your brand?”

Yet despite being “one of those mad business ideas that almost no-one would back”, The Big Issue has developed a social impact and reach that could not have been foreseen. With an average weekly circulation of 78,200, the magazine celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and in 2015 the Foundation helped some 2,200 vendors on their journey to social and financial inclusion. Robertson’s mission, he says, is to create moments of “meaningful engagement” with the brand, ultimately addressing the causes of homelessness.

The ethos behind the magazine – and the Big Issue Foundation (TBIF) charity, which has Robertson at the helm – is to provide “a hand up, not a hand out” by giving homeless people a legal way to raise money. They are empowered to consider long-term goals, set personal objectives and achieve stability.

“You don’t come to us because you have a complicated tenancy situation,” Robertson says. “Typically you’re living in a time horizon of about an hour, in terms of what happens next: how do I get out of the rain?; where will I sleep?; 60 minutes is about as far ahead as you can think. But if you can produce some money the next day, saved from yesterday’s sales, you’ve just added 23 hours to your time horizon.”

Established in 1995, TBIF charity links vendors with support and services to help them address the reasons behind their homelessness. The distinction between TBIF and other homelessness charities, Robertson says, is that the people it helps are ‘customers’ rather than ‘clients’.

“The journey starts as a commercial transaction; the model allows you to build a livelihood so you have to start thinking about what you want out of the relationship. You go on a journey of change, and that’s much more important than me telling you what I think is appropriate for you.”

Robertson concedes that TBIF might reach more people if it were a service-providing organisation, but he’s clear of the need to “focus on what we do best”, despite commercial pressures. “We would probably be more successful if we opened a hostel in London with celebrities at the launch,” he quips, “but we don’t want to trade on that. We want to provide the best customer service to our vendors.”

TBIF’s service team connects vendors with local services across financial inclusion, health, welfare and accommodation, helping them to open bank accounts, access health services, reconnect with family and friends, volunteer, train, learn, start enterprises, and find paid work. In 2015, TBIF worked with 2,200 Big Issue vendors and achieved around 8,500 ‘positive outcomes’ – journeys away from homelessness – the highest number yet. The average full cost of a positive outcome for a Big Issue vendor was £105 compared to £150 in 2014/15. For Robertson, the idea is a cheap, high-impact model of change that’s personalised and can be replicated at scale.

Ethos and agility

Robertson himself made the move into the third sector, joining Marie Curie Cancer Care, following a 10-year stint with music retailer Our Price. At that time, charities were beginning to become less reliant on legacy funding, and to acknowledge the benefits of specialist skills: “They were beginning to hire experienced marketers and, in my case, specialist retailers to help with the retail operation,” he explains.

A year later, Robertson joined homeless charity Shelter as director of commercial operations, where he would stay for some 13 years before being approached by The Big Issue Foundation. He was intrigued by the business model and agility of the latter.


The Big Issue offers homeless people the one thing no other organisation does first – a job – but also gives people a choice as to what they do with that job,” he explains. “Contrary to external views, The Big Issue and TBIF are very small. There are less than 100 people supporting 1,500 vendors. I’d always had large teams and volunteers before. This was a chance to roll my sleeves up andget involved.

Challenging stereotypes

Central to Robertson’s own agenda is changing perceptions of the brand, not least through working with corporates. In 2011, retail bank HSBC volunteered sales staff to train Big Issue vendors on the street. HSBC employees put on the trademark Big Issue red tabard to sell the magazine themselves. “As soon as they put on the tabards, they were no longer banking specialists, but feckless, drug-addicted people who were ignored or told where to go,” reveals Robertson.

Programme output showed the HSBC staff learned as much as the Big Issue vendors, including how to make sales. Their experiences that day helped shape a Vendor Day programme which TBIF runs regularly with corporates. At law firm Freshfields, all trainees must undertake work-shadowing with vendors as part of the induction process. Participants experience the work and approach of TBIF – which often prompts them to re-examine their own judgements.

“You are only the person you think you are as long as you fulfil that stereotype; as soon you as stand out in a way that’s uncomfortable for some, you’ll have a different experience,” says Robertson. “Put on a red jacket and you’re more transformed than you would be with special effects make-up!”

The advantage for TBIF? “It’s ambient marketing,” enthuses Robertson. “People never forget it. We are creating a legacy of people, interests and opportunities.

Wider campaign for change

Robertson believes that having vendors on the street is a campaign in itself, and his mission is to emphasise positivity around that to get people to engage. “When you buy a magazine you tend to bond with that vendor as an individual. I want to think of different ways of communicating so we can help the 1,499 other people,” he says.

Stories such as James Bowen and Bob the Streetcat have helped publicise the work of The Big Issue in recent years, and to highlight the organisation’s wider purpose. “Those who’ve made a conscious decision to go in a positive direction emphasise the power of human endeavour, entrepreneurial spirit andmachievement in face of adversity in a way that resonates,” Robertson says.

At a macro-level, he puts the widening equality gap down to austerity. “The homeless are characterised as ‘them’; when times get tough, marginalised groups suffer increased demonisation,” he says.

He would like to see more joined-up thinking and enterprise-based ideas around giving people opportunity. “It’s not about keeping people out of your way, but at front of mind. There’s so much value in investing in people, in giving them meaningful occupations."