‘Hey’ is a new series where we catch up with interesting people from Plymouth and the surrounding area. We discover what they are about and what they are up to.
Next up in the series is Owen Finnie, Pollenize.
Pollenize CIC was founded by born and bred Plymouthians (and best friends) Matthew Elmes and Owen Finnie in 2018. They finished university and didn’t want to stay in London and climb the corporate ladder, so they moved back to Plymouth. Relieving symptoms of hayfever and setting up an allotment lead to the creation of Pollenize.
Photographer: Chris Parkes
How are you?
I am doing very well.
I think today has been a particularly normal day at Pollenize. Trying to manage multiple things in one go. We had someone come in today earlier to talk about the Plymouth Social Enterprise Festival. Then it’s been mixed up with doing posters and design and then answering emails. So, yeah, it’s quite a diverse day, but it’s lovely. That’s how it works most of the time.
How did Pollenize come about?
In 2018, Matt (our other Director) and I had finished Uni, and didn’t want to do the graduate ladder climb. We came back from London, both at the same time and we both suffer from hay fever quite severely during June. We had heard that local honey helps alleviate the symptoms of hay fever, so it put us on a bit of a path, of where we might be able to keep honeybees of our own.
Because we didn’t have any space to and we don’t have a huge amount of resources or access to land, we thought why not an allotment? We got an allotment plot through the City Council and we asked the Allotment Association to put bees there. It just came up against an objection. Someone didn’t want there to be bees there so it kind of put us down a bit more of an interesting path to look at what other spaces in the city weren’t being used and where we could keep them.
We approached The Real Ideas Organisation and they have this beautiful garden just below Devonport Column called the Zion Garden, which is home to apple trees and some really interesting species of Oak. And, there was space to site a beehive in this spot… so we did! We had no intention of creating a business in that initial moment. But, We got the idea that maybe something could happen from it and it just started snowballing the more we explored it. If people had experienced the same challenges Matt and I had with access to land and beekeeping, we could potentially take them to this spot and they could do beekeeping with us whilst we were learning how to do it. I think that’s pretty much the short version of how Pollenize began. With the help of crowdfunding we were able to accrue more sites quite quickly. We had to do all the legal stuff like Companies House, and our articles of association, all of these things that are like a baptism of fire, which you learn really quick! We gradually explored the larger conservation angle of Pollenize and spread out into lots of different methods of pollinator conservation, and widened the lens beyond just honeybees.
What’s your main mission statement as an organisation?
We deliver nature led remedies to help pollinating insects recover so our environment can flourish. Generally, we are involved in pollinator conservation, which is a shorter way to explain what we’re doing. We research nature and draw information from it that enables us to make decisions or ‘prescribe a solution’.
What’s the favourite thing about your job?
Just how varied it is. One morning, I will be doing beekeeping and I’ll be taking students or staff out beekeeping, which is lovely. Next, I might be having a high-level conversation with a senior manager of a huge corporation of 500 plus staff, about how to enhance their ESG strategy, so you just wear a slightly different hat and you have to be a certain way. I think it makes you quite agile as a person in terms of manoeuvring those different conversations all the time. Diversity of the day is the best thing about the job.
One thing for everyone to try?
Try planting some seeds.
This is probably a bit self promo, but, plant some seeds, particularly native wildflowers which attract pollinators to your garden. Become aware of the processes in nature that benefit you. Make your garden a haven for wildlife. Behaviour change is probably the biggest challenge of getting people environmentally engaged, it’s the undoing of processes and behaviours which are so solidified into society. I think there are a few things which have helped to fast forward this process in people. Firstly, coming out of the COVID pandemic after having spent more time in nature. The very scientific fact is that if you keep taking away the land which animals and insects thrive in, if you keep condensing it to make it smaller, things are going to come into contact with each other that shouldn’t – and that’s how viruses can be transmitted more easily. I think people have started to understand it from this angle whilst also realising that being out in nature is actually a really enjoyable activity for exploring where you live.
Planting is another way of creating a deeper connection with nature. You sow something, something grows, then something visits it and pollinates it- it’s amazing! Pollination is responsible for a lot of our food crops and how we survive as a species, so I think a connection to that is important. We hope that Pollenize does ripple into more behaviour change.
What are you most proud of?
Matt and I have worked really hard to get Pollenize where it is and our small team has championed us from day dot as well. I think a project we’re particularly proud of, which we feel like could go bigger than a city scale, is ‘Seeds for Schools.’ That was 90 schools and just over 38,000 seed packets, which we handpacked between a team of five of us, which took us a long time. It was a really proud moment, our perseverance through what is quite an economically turmoil part in our history. I think weathering COVID personally, and with the business, although not a unique experience, it was good to come out the end of it with our feet still on the ground.
How do you maintain a work life balance?
Yeah, that is tough sometimes. A couple of years ago I would go home after work and keep working and I don’t think that’s very healthy because it just doesn’t allow you to turn off, to take in the day, or even prepare for the next day. Your brain is just constantly on. I’ve learned how to definitely pace myself, and also resource management as well is something which I’m really trying to get a lot better at because I think it’s like a muscle that you have to exercise. I don’t think you’re just good at resource management.
You have to constantly try and put effort into it, otherwise you just burn out really quickly. And when it’s your own business, it’s really hard to turn off as well, because it’s my livelihood, it’s other people’s livelihoods as well, so you just have to be like, it’s okay to turn off at 5pm and then turn your laptop back on in the morning.
Just making sure on the weekends that you just go and do something wholesome or go and have some beers, you see your mates, and just take your mind away from the work. I think having a good work life balance is so important. One thing that I do say to a lot of people, which I think I do preach to myself a lot, is learn how to laugh at yourself. If you can laugh at yourself and not take yourself too seriously, not much can touch you. Surround yourself with good friends, they create the microclimate around you, and help sustain that balance. This applies with work too, especially networking events, being open and engaged is a real advantage in those situations, it can leave a lasting impression on someone, and hopefully turn into a positive business relationship. Essentially just being comfortable in your own skin.
That’s one of the really lovely things about being in the South West. I think there is a general adoption of a slower pace of life down here. And I think that’s because there’s so much natural beauty on either side of the county. I think that definitely helps keep a balance, knowing that there’s so many things you can do and that it’s not going to go anywhere.
What are your plans for the future, for you and for Pollenize?
For Pollenize, It is definitely to scale further into the South West and turn into a nationwide business. I am quite proud of how lean it is currently, but I think lots of the stuff that we have created, it isn’t necessarily tied to the UK, it can be a global product. But I think growing in the immediate future is growing our team. Talking about resource management and the capacity of our team, both Matt and I kind feeling out where both our strengths lie and what we’re both taking on as directors. Knowing what we could essentially give out to other people to grow the team, I think that’s really the future of it.
Learn how to let go of things, and reminding myself that delegation is good and passing on the responsibility is okay. But yeah, well, World Pollination. That is the one, isn’t it?
Playlist for podcast?
Definitely a podcast if I’m by myself. Playlist if I’m with friends, if we’re sitting around having beers. The podcasts I usually go for are comedies. There’s one called Gossipmongers. They’re hilarious. People write in with unsubstantiated rumours of just hilarious stories and it’s proper belly laugh stuff. I think if people want to listen to really wild stories, that will get you smiling. There’s another one called You’re Dead To Me, which is a podcast with a comedian plus an expert and then the presenter, and for example, the podcast will be about the history of ice cream. The comedian will have a bit of an interest or add a layer onto it, and then there’ll be a story and talking about the history of ice cream. So, yeah, you’re learning about something quite niche and good quiz general knowledge information.. Another one that I like is a comedian called Theo Von, he’s American, from the deep south. Lots of his podcasts are as good as the guests that he gets on, which can be hit or miss for me.
I do love podcasts. It’s like such amazing media for getting informed about the things your interested in, it gets your brain engaged, right?
Any advice for people starting up like a CIC company and how they can reach people?
I am honestly a massive advocate of the social enterprise business model, and obviously there’s a load of legal structures underneath that. Pollenize is a CIC and I think really making sure that whatever your business is, it has a socially/environmentally enterprising overarching theme.
Figuring out which legal structure best suits you as well and looking for advice to support that as well. Because I think a lot of people go into that a little bit unsure and it becomes a bit of a confusing area. There are lots of support networks out there like PSEN, POP, there’s a lot of individual consultancies that will help guide where maybe you could start. We were really lucky we had that at the beginning.
Did you have to kind of jump through a lot of hoops in the sense of business plans?
I think, again, something we didn’t do, which in hindsight we really probably should have put a lot of stuff down on paper, like ideas and business plans. It should have been an evolving document which we’ve revisited, came back to. Cash flow 100%. Get down the cash flow immediately. Don’t save it for a year into business or a couple of years. Just start using it to plan ahead, understanding the basics of how/when/why money moves in and out of your bank is crucial. And it just allows you to put a bit of an expansion plan against your ideas and just settle any potential anxiety for future plans. You can start looking at funding and how that could be sort of incorporated into all these things. So, yeah, cash flow and making sure you get the right legal structure are probably the two things which we could have been better at, for sure, and we’re still learning now. And, get really good at telling your story in all sorts of situations!
What’s one thing everyone could do to help the Pollination health of the UK and their local ecosystem?
There’s lots of things people can do for free.
The first thing is to definitely be accountable for the area you live in. Think global, but act local. Like, what are the big problems in the world, but what can I do where I live? Because that’s the problem, is extrapolating these problems out from the macro, which are hard to put down on paper, where you start, whereas if you just go, you know what, I’m just going to do a litter pick with my neighbour and we’re going to go around the park and do that. There’s free apps you can download, like iNaturalist, which is a citizen science community, where you can learn about plants, you can take a photo of it and then the community will help identify it. You can start learning about where you live and what the biodiversity of that area is. You can get involved in volunteer projects where people have already created the infrastructure for you to be engaged in environmental projects as well. Then if you do want to go the extra step, I reckon growing your own food is a really good way to understand the processes of where things come from.
If you want to help insects, which then will feed mammals and birds, you can plant wildflowers and that will attract them to it. So there’s a lot of things out there, but I think just knowing what’s going on locally by looking out for events or projects or people that you know might have ideas of what’s going on in Plymouth.
Matt and I had an allotment about five years ago. I just don’t think we really understood what we were trying to achieve because it was a massive strip of land and we were like, we only want to grow some tomatoes. Owning an allotment is hard graft. And I think you need to have a very systematic schedule of how you would get the most out of it if you want it.
Photographer: Chris Parkes
What challenges does the local environment face in terms of pollination?
Industrial farming, change of land use, pesticides, ecological crisis. Industrial farming has massively contributed to the change in the landscape in which pollinators would thrive. So there’s a stat that goes around a lot – We’ve lost 98% of our wildflower meadows since World War II. We’ve lost all of that because of intensification of land uses. And imagine all the chemicals that are getting used on that change of land use as well. But things are changing now. I think it’s the environmental land management scheme, Agri-Epi Farms, and biodiversity net gain coming in, which is going to get housing developers and landowners to mitigate their development practices and increase the biodiversity by 10% minimum. The conversation about the environment is becoming more and more apparent in society, and there are amazing projects and people out there doing great things to stop our climate and ecological crisis.
What keeps you in Plymouth?
Yeah, it’s a lovely question, because the reason why I decided to make some initial roots in Plymouth was actually funnily through George at the Hutong Cafe. When those guys first set up, George was aware that I’d worked in hospitality before Pollenize was even a thing. So he came to me and said, do you want to come and work for us? They were just about to get started with coffee and delicious food, and I thought that sounded like fun. He said he’d teach me how to make coffee, and asked what my plans were. I just said I want to be in Plymouth, I really like it here. He agreed and loved it here too. We both had lots of nice chats about it, just celebrating where you live and just being really proud of what’s happened/happening in Plymouth. And also Jack, who is one of the co-owners at the Hutong, he very much helped lots of the conversations I had in my head about Pollenize whilst I was working, I’d chat them through with him a little bit and he really helped me rationalise what I was thinking and what the potential of Pollenize was. Much later down the line, he became a non-executive director of Pollenize. So. everything’s come full circle. It was very much having a chat after finishing Uni and just realising that I wanted to make some routes where I live, just because I really love the city, I love all the things around it that you can do.
Check out Pollenize:
Website > https://www.pollenize.org.uk/
Instagram > https://www.instagram.com/pollenizeplymouth/
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