“F**k that was innovative!”

Charles Maisel, founder of Innovation Shack

“NGOs are easy to set up and hard to kill off. That’s the definition of a cockroach. You see so many of them doing the same old thing, it makes me want to vomit! God, would one of you think of a fresh approach for doing something?” Meet Charles Maisel. As controversial as he is kind hearted, this is one man whose view point shakes up conventional charity thinking.

The beginning of Charles’s career looks like another great story of bright student done good. Charles’s first endeavour after graduating was to set up the award-winning charity, Men on the Side of the Road, in 1999. The organisation, still going strong, provides men (and now women) who would otherwise be standing on the side of the road touting for work, with regular and suitable job opportunities across South Africa such as gardening, painting, taxi driving and maintenance work.  A storming success, Men on the Side of the Road now provides 200,000 jobs per year, making a sizeable impact on the millions of unemployed.[1]

For Charles, however, becoming coined ‘the guy who does unemployment’ was boring. Aware of what works for him and, more importantly, what doesn’t, he confesses that he hates managing people, can’t sit in meetings and doesn’t want to be ‘the face’ of an organisation. Charles’s job criteria are simple: want to come up with new ideas, have fun and not work very much.” Charles proves that you can live this boyish dream and still make money.

Entirely out of keeping with your archetypal charity worker, self-deprecating is about the last word we’d use to describe Charles. He’s not modest about what he achieved and he believed then (and still does) that his creative genius deserved reward. What’s more, Charles wanted something in return that would allow him to live his dream of kicking off more groundbreaking initiatives. So, before moving on in 2003 Charles requested a monthly royalty fee for having founded the organisation. This ‘founders fee’, as he calls it, still hits his bank balance every month.

Eight years later, Charles is now making money out of the plethora of other organisations he’s since established under his company, Innovation Shack. As advocates of bringing business thinking into the third sector, we were surprised at how uncomfortable we found this concept. Searching for common ground, we felt a mixture of unease and awe when Charles said to us “I have no problem taking the money, no scruples at all.” We inched down off our high horses when he told us that many of his subsequent projects have been businesses and not charities but we spent the rest of the interview flip-flopping between viewpoints – was this morally heinous or total genius?

Early on in our conversations with Charles he made it clear that he dislikes the label ‘social entrepreneur’, preferring instead the title of ‘social artist’. Though possibly verging on pretentious, this description does gain traction when you look closer at his approach. Brought up in a family who ritualistically read the daily paper, Charles uses newspapers for creative inspiration. Every day he skims through multiple papers, looking at headlines, text, adverts and photos, never spending more than five minutes before picking up his next read. His mission throughout is to prompt spin-off thinking about how the problems exposed could be solved. He then sells his solutions, or ‘paintings’ as he likes to call them, for a cash return, just like artists the world over.

To give you an example, in January Charles was struck by an image of people protesting and carrying sticks. An ordinary reader might feel a twinge of fear, but an extraordinary reader like Charles began to think about how the traditional art of stick fighting could be commercialised. A quasi-sport, stick fighting has rules but it’s fast and dangerous. Within weeks Charles had invested his own capital to set up stick-fighting tournaments in the Cape’s townships. Before long they were drawing crowds of thousands of spectators, attracting coverage from the likes of CNN, the BBC, Al Jazeera, ABC and National Public Radio, and of course turning Charles a tidy profit.

As Charles explained more about the innovation technique he’s perfected over the last ten years, he challenged us like a pair of his college students. “What’s so good about newspapers?” We stumbled over our response and he was quick to explain that they’re so powerful because “they’re objective, accessible, current, diverse and world-reaching. They’re like a daily snapshot of all the world’s problems that need to be solved.” When something strikes him, he jumps into overdrive. “I feel new things. If it’s there I get goose bumps and my hair stands on end.” With a backlog of 3000 ideas created in this way, he manages to put one idea into action every month. This officially makes Charles an ideas machine. But how does one person have the capacity to create so many brain waves?

Charles sees it as simple. You just need to look at everyday issues in a different light. He first struck on the power of this approach some years ago when he visited a client who owns a vineyard. Every year his client’s business struggled with the same issue – when the grape growing season was over, his land lost money. Whilst Charles was mulling over the problem, he noticed the mass of fallen vine leaves which covered the ground. “Why don’t you use those?” he asked. Until then, the leaves had been a hindrance not a help, another job for staff to deal with. But since that visit, the vine leaves have been used to produce dolma (a Greek dish of cooked vine leaves stuffed with a filling) and now his client turns a profit throughout all four seasons of the year.

This story is the reason why Charles calls his technique ‘Seeing the Leaves’. His model is far from a kept secret and he doesn’t want it to be: “I will always do my own stuff but I want to inspire people through my technique to come up with as many innovative ideas as possible.” This is why he works as a lecturer at his local university in Cape Town and shares his techniques with students and corporates across the world. He has also recently written a book which is styled like a newspaper and explains his approach to innovation.

We were invited to one of Charles’s classes and it was fascinating to observe. Whilst chewing gum, he made jokes and kept the atmosphere light. Reflecting their lecturer’s relaxed approach, the students openly shared their latest innovations as they ploughed through the newspapers in pairs. Charles greeted each idea with a response that was honest but always supportive.

Just one month prior to our visit, Baden, a student from the run-down township called Lavender Hill, discussed an article with Charles about gangster crime in his local community. Baden, himself an ex-drug user, laughed when Charles asked him, “Is there any lavender in Lavender Hill?” When Charles suggested that they plant one million lavender plants in the township and sell them for profit to national retailers, Baden underestimated the sincerity of his eccentric lecturer.

However, after one email sent to his contacts, Charles was on the radio discussing this very idea – a discussion which garnered a response in which 200,000 cuttings were pledged, and start-up funds donated. Three weeks later, the project was well underway and when we arrived at the primary school where the project has been set up, Baden was rushed off for an interview with CNN. Impressive. Charles stepped back into the shadows to ensure it was Baden who was the centre of attention.

Since returning to the UK we’ve been updated on the progress at Lavender Hill. The project was recently among the main attractions at an exhibition for ‘The Best In Cape Town Small Businesses’ and are on their way to getting their products into stores.

Charles’s involvement in this lavender adventure is typical of his style. He tends to get involved in the start up phase of projects based on his ideas, offering guidance, contacts and often his own capital. Then he agrees his cut, usually just on a hand shake, and takes a back seat. He never takes shares, only monthly payments, as he wants to keep his level of ownership as low as possible. Blaming ownership for a lot of the world’s major crises, he avoids owning anything. His house and business are in his wife’s name and he joked with us that he thinks he only owns his car, boots and surf board. When Charles isn’t spending his time pouring over a newspaper, he’s usually found surfing, hiking or doting over his two boys.

Searching for what makes Charles tick, it became clear that he’s more of an innovation addict than a social soldier. Whether it’s got a social side or not, he admits that he lives off the excitement he instils in others when they stand back and say “f**k that was innovative!”

He also claims that he keeps his emotions well out of his work life. “I have no emotional involvement with anybody – not the staff or the communities,” he said. This, however, we struggled to believe when seeing Charles in action. He brimmed over with pride about Baden at Lavender Hill and when he introduced us to Vuyisile Dyolotana, the ‘Head Gardener’ at the project, Charles’s emotions were totally exposed. Vuyisile was the original ‘man on the side of the road’; the guy who had inspired Charles to set up his first organisation and who’s been a close friend and right hand man ever since.

We also took a trip to Black Umbrellas, another of Charles’s start-ups. Black Umbrellas was set up for black African entrepreneurs and provides work space at affordable rates, as well as mentoring services. As we took a look around the office, everyone greeted Charles as ‘Chief’. Charles had clearly taken time to get to know all the entrepreneurs at Black Umbrellas as, in response, he offered everyone personal encouragement about their business ventures. This was the final bullet in Charles’s emotional armour.  Charles might prefer others to think he has a carefree persona, but he clearly cares a lot.

A man who rules with a confusing mix of head and heart, we would defy anyone not to be fascinated by Charles Maisel. An economics graduate who refuses to vote, an ex-rugby player who collects art, an atheist who believe in Karma and an inventor who’s made a mint. But not all of Charles’s traits are quite this contradictory. One thing is for certain – he’s a man of many ideas and not just one. After setting up Men on the Side of the Road, he could easily have clung to his power and become a Founding Director who refused to leave. But instead he went right to the other end of the spectrum.

During 2011 Charles set himself a mission to set up 12 businesses in 12 months, a goal which the Stick Fighting Tournament and the Lavender Hill project helped him to achieve. For most, this strategy may seem a little too manic. But whatever your viewpoint, the biggest lesson we took from Charles was this: if you’re the kind of person who’s great at dreaming up ideas, then don’t get stuck within one organisation working on one solution; be brave enough to quit, buy yourself a stack of newspapers and let your next idea take hold.

For more info visit:

Charles Maisel’s Blog: www.12businesses.blogspot.com

Seeing the Leaves: www.scribd.com/doc/60031087/Seeing-the-Leaves-A-Newspaper-for-Social-Entrepreneurs

Before going to print on this chapter we were sadly informed that Baden passed away in January 2012 after being in a car accident in South Africa. The team at the Lavender Hill project have planted a lavender garden in his name and a bursary fund from sales of lavender products is currently being set up.

Copyright © Nikki and Rob Wilson 2011