Kelly is the founding director of Unisus, a group of companies providing skills, care and wellbeing services to empower people to reach their potential. Kelly started the business following a career in the voluntary sector, in various roles but always supporting people in some way to improve their lives. After several redundancies and feeling like she wasn’t reaching her potential herself she set up what is now Unisus, first on her own and supporting people to get into work / meaningful activity. Then she realised that it was a bit lonely working on her own and that the business model wasn’t working as people kept moving into work and so she worked on devising a new business model incorporating the three areas Unisus now provides. Having rebranded following intellectual property issues with the previous name, Amy helped Kelly to launch Unisus and step into her brand bravery.
You started Unisus quite a long time ago now do you want to tell us what was the catalyst for that happening?
My background is in the voluntary sector and I worked for lots of charities but it was always on funded projects which had a finite amount of time that they were funded for and also I wanted to progress, so I had a lot of jobs and I kept being made redundant. I got a bit fed up of that so I decided that I would set up on my own and then I would make sure I didn’t make myself redundant and so far it’s working!
Yes! It’s working very well because you’ve been working since 2014 when you started or 2013, one of the two
It was 2014 when I first started but it was just me for a few years and then I started to think big because I was a bit lonely on my own and also it wasn’t a very good business model because I was very good at helping people into work and progressing and there was no repeat business so that wasn’t great. So I came up with the idea of having three sub-brands and doing all the things that I do now so that’s Skills, Care and Wellbeing.
Brilliant I think it would be really great for the people listening to know a bit more about what those three areas are because they’ve expanded and expanded over time haven’t they and you do a lot of amazing things to help people now.
Well we started off, as I said before, I was just helping people into work at first and then when I started to think about the different strands I didn’t really know how I was going to achieve what my big aim was. So I just kind of started making steps towards what that would be. We started delivering funded employability workshops and then I started to try and build the care service and there were a few things that happened that didn’t quite work, which you learn from, and then we launched the care service. Now we deliver 1600 hours a week of care to people to help them stay living independently in their own homes and we employ about 70 people, so that’s a lot bigger than when I started.
Alongside that, because I was focusing so much on the care I couldn’t really give as much attention to the other things, so the skill stuff that we were doing kind of fell away a little bit for a little while, although there was the odd project. But the counselling service, under the wellbeing brand, we started a small project with one volunteer student on placement just providing counselling for people who couldn’t afford to pay for it and we did that with a little bit of grant funding. So that just ticked along nicely for a little while and then we expanded it and got some more funding and expanded it a bit more and now I’m really focused on trying to make that much more sustainable and a lot bigger. So we’ve now got four students on placement and one waiting to start, so we’ll have five on placements soon. We’ve got a new member of staff starting so she’ll be working 25 hours a week and we’re going to offer that out to businesses for their employees. Yeah so that’s the plan.
On the skill side of things, we were approached by Sunderland University to deliver care training. We were already delivering care training to our staff and they asked if we would join the Consortium for the Northeast Workforce Skills programme so there’s lots of different partners involved in that, we’re one of the smaller ones, but it’s a huge piece of work for us and they’re supporting our care training so we can offer a bit more of it and help us to skill up our workers.
That’s a really new thing isn’t it? I wrote that down because it was one of the things you just posted about this week, but I think that’s wonderful. But I think also you know you started this business and you have loads of experience obviously in voluntary sector but you were a carer and then you decided to start this business providing care, I feel like that’s quite a brave thing to do. Do you want to tell us a bit about that?
Being a carer was one of the jobs that I had, it was working for a charity but it wasn’t quite working on a funded project it was more commercial, that side of the charity. So I did care work for a few years and then I changed jobs into employability so I was helping people into work in that job and then helping people to stay in work if they’d been off with like a health condition. Then I worked in different other various roles. So I decided to bring all that under one roof. Sorry I’ve forgotten the question!
I was saying that you know you started this with you being a carer but to make that decision to start this care side of Unisus that was quite a jump!
Yeah it was and I was kind of inspired by some coaching that I had where a lot of the people there, because we were in a group, all kind of had this mindset that you had to have the skills to be able to do the work, but actually you started to think well actually if you hire someone else to do the the work that you’re not very good at or you don’t know about, then you don’t have to stick to your experience and you can sort of branch out. So that’s what I decided to do and I had this wild idea that I was going to set up a care service and I didn’t have a clue how and I didn’t really realise what was involved. Some might say that was brave, and I think you would call it brave, some might call it really naive. Sometimes I think ‘oh my God I didn’t I really didn’t have a clue’.
So one of the things that I had to be really, really brave about was finances because I completely misjudged how much it was going to cost. So I had this little loan, really small loan of about £15,000 and I remember going to register with CQC. We had this meeting with CQC and they grilled me for three hours on how we were going to set this up and everything. I don’t think they usually last that long but this particular woman was quite diligent. And she was like okay so you’ve got this £15,000, and then what? And I was like well what do you mean that’s like loads of money!
In actual fact it cost about quarter of a million pounds to set up, something like £200,000, so it was a lot more than I realised. So for a point we had these huge overheads and we just didn’t have enough money coming in. So we were in quite a lot of high risk debt at one point which terrified my husband. Now I’m the kind of person who likes to juggle things and kind of find solutions so although I wasn’t totally comfortable with that I was more used to it whereas my husband, he likes to save up before you can buy things but he’s really careful with money and so our sort of values clashed a little bit during that time. I can’t say that I was relaxed about it, I absolutely wasn’t, I was really worried. I put a lot of effort into trying to secure the finances that were needed to be able to carry on and I had managed it but when I looked back I think how on earth did I do that.
How on earth did you do that Kelly?
Because my husband was so worried about it I ended up supporting him emotionally through that as well as myself so that was really really hard. But I think one of the things that I can take from that is that I just knew in my gut I had a really good thing and I wasn’t prepared to give it up. I knew if we could just get to the point where we were you know breaking even, then we would be able to survive and thrive and would be able to create this fantastic thing that could help lots of people. So that’s what I did I was just determined, I was just like no I’m not giving up, we can’t give up now. If we give up now we’ll end up being in an even worse position you know we’ll be in loads of debt that we haven’t got a vehicle to pay it off with. So I just had to keep going which was really frightening for me and my husband.
It must have been but it does say a lot doesn’t it as well about trust in things going the way that you think they’re going to go. Did you say something about trusting your gut feeling and it’s like knowing, that inner knowing that something is going to work out. That’s really important that I think as business owners we kind of have to have don’t we?
Yeah and I just had a belief in myself and my own ability to sort things out because I’ve been through some rough times before and I just knew that at some point it would just become clear and it would be okay. Actually what happened was that lockdown happened and at that point we secured a very big care package which really just made a massive difference and we could refinance because of the bounce back loans and stuff so that saved us as well really. So it was timing, a bit of luck but just determination but yeah when I look back I think how on earth did I do that, what on earth was I thinking and quite frankly I never want to go through that again. But I am glad I stuck at it because I think I would have regretted it if I hadn’t.
Yeah you’ve created this amazing business now and to have come through those trials. Then there’s other things as well that we haven’t talked about to get to this point, you must look back and feel so proud and that’s just wonderful. Every time I speak to you you’ve done something else and I’ll say “oh hi Kelly” and you’ll say “oh I’ve just employed somebody else” or “I’ve employed five other people” or whatever. Of course Ian came and worked with you as well didn’t he? I want to talk about that because I think working with your husband must be more challenging, how does that happen? how easy was that to do?
Not very easy but one of the things that I say all the time is “what have I done” but depending on what’s happening I say it differently so like “what have I done yes” or “oh my god what have I done” you know. But yeah bringing Ian in he had a few instances at work as well where he wasn’t happy and I just said why are you doing that? You could put that energy into the business and it would grow the business quicker with your energy and input and skills. So I managed to persuade him eventually and he came on board, probably at the wrong time because it was just before all of this stuff happened financially, so both of our incomes were dependent on the business. I got us into that mess which it was a bit of a mess for a while but managed to get us out as well. So that was quite worrying, especially for him who was who’s more careful and likes to save up and stuff like that.
That feels like a really good sort of partnership of like being prepared to go into it risks and someone who’ll pull you back a little bit but still let you go. So that you’re gonna have that in between perfect division.
Me and Ian have always had a bit of a relationship where we would bicker, we’re sometimes a bit more like brother and sister than husband and wife. We bicker even when we agree and then we don’t realise that we actually agree with each other and we’re actually arguing over some tiny little part of whatever we’re arguing over. Then over the years we’ve kind of come to realise that we actually agree and so we’ll argue less now but in the business we find it really difficult to do the same task together. So it’s fine like if we’re interviewing together because we’re kind of just take on roles but if we have to actually talk to each other and resolve something or do a task together then we just clash and I’ve learnt that that’s not the best use of each other, like each other’s skills. If I need someone to help me in that way I’ll think about doing it in another way. Ian’s taken on a bit of a different role to what we were expecting at the beginning, well what I was expecting. What has actually happened is, he comes in, I’m here all the time, it’s my baby, I push it forward, make it happen and he comes in and he’s here like usually on a Monday and Tuesday and then a bit extra if there’s something going on but as a routine he comes in on a Monday and Tuesday, whether there’s stuff to do for him or not. Then comes in when he’s really needed and usually gets dragged into things like talking to staff over like you know disciplinaries and you know what’s going to happen because I’m good at making things happen and pushing the business forward whereas I’m not always the best person to communicate things with other people so I tend to just come out with stuff and blurt it out however it lands and which isn’t always the best way. Whereas Ian, he’s got the skill where we can see what’s going to motivate someone to get them on our side and sort of push their buttons if you know what I mean. He’s got the talent for seeing what’s beneficial for both sides and then emphasise on that to encourage people to move forward together, so that’s really his skill. So we bring him in for stuff like that and I’ll go this is what I want to happen can you suggest how we make it happen? Then he’ll come up with an idea and a way of wording it which is his skill so that’s good.
That’s great I love that if you’ve highlighted an awful lot of his strengths as well but your strengths too in there. I think one of the things that I know you do do a lot of is you’re always developing new skills aren’t you, you’re always doing training, always learning and obviously I think because of what you do is is quite key anyway but it’s the business skills as well as the the skills you need to do the caring, the skills and the wellbeing isn’t it? And I think continuing to do those things even when you must know quite a lot already it’s amazing. So what have you enjoyed learning the most?
I don’t feel like I’m ever done, I always think I can learn something new.
Yeah I agree.
Whereas Ian isn’t as focused in the same way as me so he’s actually the other side of what he’s actually doing, because it sounds like he doesn’t really do very much, because he’s only here for a time but actually what he’s done is he’s taken over looking after the house and feeding us and stuff, so I don’t have to think about that. He enjoys cooking and just making sure everything’s working at home so that’s great because I don’t have to think about it anymore.
Yes you often take photographs don’t you of your dining table with your food on it.
Yes I’ve stopped doing that. I used to post the breakfast picture every Sunday and then when I saw people they’d be like oh your full English and I was like this is really getting embarrassing that’s all I’m known for, I’m gonna stop doing that. Yeah in lockdown that was one of the only things. that was the highlight of the time wasn’t it food!
Yeah it certainly was. So I wanted to talk about obviously the time when we started working together on the Unisus brand because before being called Unisus you were called something else, I don’t know if you’re allowed to say what it was or if you want to say what it was, not important, but yeah obviously you had to do a rebrand because there was some IP issues. Do you want to share a bit about that time?
That was really hard because I think I had already had the idea to have the three sub-brands. So I had those sub-brands already, I’d done a brand refresh with the sub-brands, with you I think. Then when we started to launch the care side of things along came another company called Cygnet who had the same name and were obviously following on social media. The name kept coming up and I was thinking, do you know what there’s something not right here, I need to go and check and I thought like I knew about them and for ages I just thought oh it’ll be alright, it’ll be alright but then you know when they started following us on social media and stuff I started thinking maybe this isn’t okay maybe I need to go get some advice. So I did and I remember it was the last day before Christmas and I went to the IP Centre in Newcastle and they said well you can use the brand for the skills and wellbeing but you can’t use it for care because it’s the Cygnet part of it that’s important and that’s the bit that’s clashing with this other company. I was devastated to be honest.
The day before Christmas too!
It wasn’t the day before Christmas it was the last day of work and so it was like maybe Friday 19th or something like that. I just remember being so devastated because you know I had this whole thing about cygnets and the sort of baby swan you know the ugly duckling,
Yeah you built it up beautifully with the whole story around it.
I had and some people said oh well what it means to me is when you’re like you know when you see the swans like just on the water but underneath they’re like paddling like this and nobody can see that’s me and that’s what people would say to me. So I really loved that brand but then I had to come up with a new name and it took me a long time and asking another people, you were involved in trying to help and come up with something. I had loads of ideas and settled on Unisus in the end which is a unicorn and a pegasus crossed, is the Unisus – that is the horned unicorn but crossed with the Pegasus which is a horse with wings and the unicorn is the horse with horn and so that’s what a Unisus is but most people just call them unicorns because they don’t realise they’ve got another name. There are some other names that you can call the same thing such as a Pegacorn and I can’t remember the other names but they’re not as good.
No, that sounds a bit My Little Pony doesn’t it? Unisus sounds serious.
Yeah wow and this is the thing, so it sounds quite in a way corporate which is kind of me in a way. I’ve got a community background but actually we want to be commercial as well, we don’t want to be a charity but we want to do good things we want to help people but at the same time we don’t want to be charity so it’s kind of in between that social enterprise values. It reminded me of when I was growing up with I don’t know if you remember He-Man and She-Ra, that was a cartoon that was on and there was a Unisus on that and My Little Pony does have a Unisus on it as well so it’s quite playful but then it doesn’t sound like it is so that’s one of the reasons. Nobody had heard of that word before so it was like you know some other like big brands they don’t have anything to do with what they do in the name like Tesco and ASDA, god knows where that comes from do you know what I mean?
ASDA is Associated Dairies and it’s just from the first letters I don’t know about Tesco.
I think Tesco is something to do with the people who started it and the two names mushed together but anyway they have like random names don’t they so it can be meaningless but it can mean something as well. I kind of thought it was quite magical as well with the Unisus.
When I was looking for names I was thinking about the evolution of the cygnet and the swan and that sort of thing because the strapline of the company is Empowering people to reach their potential and that goes for clients as well as staff and one of the reasons is because I didn’t feel like I reached my potential when I was an employee. I’ve certainly had a lot more opportunity to try new things and take risks since I’ve started in business so I think I’m reaching my potential now. So we were looking for that sort of theme and so thinking Flourish or Thrive but none of them quite worked but the Unisus stuck. I did have someone ring up and said Unisus who named that? I was like well actually it was me and they were absolutely mortified!
Well one person out of however many you’ve reached I think that’s okay!
I’m quite proud of it so I wasn’t really offended. It’s not going to appeal to everybody and that’s okay you know what I mean as long as I’m feeling proud of it and feeling brave because of it then I think that’s the important thing.
Yeah, naming is so hard isn’t it? I’ve had loads of conversations just this week about naming businesses and it’s such a challenge. It takes ages to come up with a good name doesn’t it because you have to be sure you like it and especially when you had one that you really liked to have to swap over to something else. It’s just devastating really and that’s awful for you.
And to make sure you don’t have something the same as someone else again do you know what I mean?
Exactly you’ve got to do all your due diligence.
So we’ve trademarked the brand so just in case that issue comes up for us.
Well it won’t now it might come up for somebody else though, they need to do their diligence and check when they start a business. It’s so important, well worth doing but obviously you need to protect yourself against things happening in the future with things that don’t exist yet, so that’s great that you’ve done that.
So I have really enjoyed talking to you and I feel like we could go on for another half an hour easily but I can’t. So you were going to share a tip with us and I know you told me what it was at the beginning and I think really you’ve alluded to it all the way through. It’s clearly a really good one so would you want to tell us what that is?
Yeah it’s just whatever you think that you can do in business, just think bigger because I think that’s what I did when I first started I thought about what I could do and I was small. I made myself small but actually when I started thinking bigger and what was possible and what I could achieve you know even if you don’t get to that big overarching goal you’ve still got higher and more success than what you would have done if you just started off with a really small goal. So a big massive goal and a big vision of what you want the business to look like when it’s finished. I’ve actually more than achieved my original vision because I think I set out to have 50 staff, I’ve now got 70, the care service is sort of flourishing and still growing and the other two parts of the business are still quite small compared to where I want them to be so the aim now is to get those as established as the care. If you have a small goal and you don’t hit it then you’re not going to achieve very much, whereas if you have a massive goal you’ll get higher than where you would have gone before.
So just think big but don’t underestimate your finances because that’s really stressful and I really wouldn’t recommend that for anybody. I wish I’d kind of had an inkling about how much it was going to cost but it’s where do you go to get that information.
But no regrets now because look what you’ve done! Yeah that reminds me there is a phrase isn’t there – shoot for the moon and even if you miss you’ll land amongst the stars which was on a card my parents gave me when I started my business. I had it on my shelf for ages and that’s what you’ve done but you’re very very close to the moon. A little bit more to do. It was funny because I was going to ask you what next? I’m sorry and I missed that…
I was gonna say sometimes I’m just over the moon when I think about what I’ve achieved and other times I just think oh no well I haven’t achieved it because everybody else has done it. If it wasn’t for the others like my staff I couldn’t have done what I’ve done. Ian reminds me a lot that it’s because of me because if it wasn’t for me none of that would exist but I still have to give credit to the other people who help me.
Yeah absolutely you’re empowering them all to reach the potential aren’t you just like your strapline says. Living it! I love that, thank you very much.
Find Kelly: unisus.org.uk
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