AVANTUS Employment Center is a centre for disabled persons (with 30 to 70 per cent working abilities). It currently employs 10 people who iron socks and make monkeys, dogs and cats for children from unusable socks, with a certificate of safe toys and ecology. The toys, produced in cooperation with a Slovenian sock manufacturer, are sold freely on the market.
Matjan Cojhter is the general manager and founder of AVANTUS Employment Center, and an active participant in ultra-marathons.
What is the social innovation AVANTUS about?
The social innovation can be summarised in one single line: ‘Turning non-useful socks into toys.’ Employees in our company – persons with different disabilities – produce hand-made toys (monkeys, dogs, cats). The socks used are those considered not fit for sale, which would otherwise have been thrown away.
The people working on the toys, due to their disability, need a special work environment in which the requisites with regard to work results and production are lower. Through their activity they are learning new skills, and in providing them with a full-time job, their personal realisation and self-esteem increases. At the same time they gain awareness about contributing to society.
The most important aspect is their social inclusion; we have observed even better health, a reduction in mental problems and better relationships with their families.
Why did you (or your partners) start this social innovation?
The company, when created, was searching for activities that could constitute a learning method but be enjoyable at the same time for our beneficiaries. We started out with some wood products, but wood-related waste is not easy to obtain in the region, and obtaining the required amounts became too big a problem. Moreover, the process required special treatment, a knowledge which no one in the company possessed.
In the middle of the process of brainstorming and thinking of a suitable activity and product, we met Andrej, who commented that his company was producing socks for the European market and that he needed support with the logistical side of the business. To which we said a big ‘YES’. The next day he brought a load of boxes full of socks. As we checked the socks, we noticed that a considerable number of them had mistakes and were therefore not considered fit for sale. When asking what to do with them, Andrej said we could throw them away. But…we did not. One of the women working for the company tried making a toy monkey out of the socks, and so it all started.
How did you come up with the idea? Was a creative or collaborative process involved?
This idea actually started in a small group, when trying to find a use for socks with mistakes and not suitable for selling. The group played around and made lots of (funny) mistakes, until finally the monkey was born. It was a real creative process, with trial and error.
What were you afraid of at the beginning and how (if at all) did you overcome your fear?
We were afraid mainly of being just another toy for kids and not being able to offer something special. When starting to sell the toys, step by step and piece by piece, we found that after two months we were selling 20 monkeys per day. This overcame our fear of not being able to offer something different, and we are not afraid any more; in fact, we do not have time for it.
What were the beginnings of the social innovation? (i.e. how did you build your initiative, business, NGO from zero?)
Looking back we can say it was fun. We had a mission, we had a plan, but we did not have soul and passion in our work. We worked hard but were not satisfied with the initial phases of the company and were missing something: a product which differentiated us from others.
How did you attract public attention to the issue you wanted to tackle and make others believe in your purpose and potential?
When starting with the social innovation we attracted public attention through the use of social media, but soon after we realised it was not enough. More was needed, so we started visiting trade fairs and directly contacted kindergartens and schools. We also became a donor for the children’s section of the hospital in our hometown, Maribor.
How did you make sure that your idea actually fits the needs of the users?
Children today have a lot of plastic toys and many toys focusing on learning and addressing the intellectual part of their brains. However, they also need toys for cuddling, to address and mobilise the emotional part of their brains. We were not sure in the beginning whether this would appeal to children, but our customers took away this doubt.
Apart from the toy in itself, the fact that the toys are made in a social enterprise, by people who are otherwise excluded from the labour market, and using a ‘waste’ product, is a combination which appeals to our customers.
How did you raise the money for your idea and what is your advice for others considering DIY fundraising?
Our advice is to do it step by step. At the start we were not able to obtain a loan from a bank, so we could only enter the business slowly. We have to state that we had a lot of good business partners who allowed for longer payment terms or discounts and who gave us some of the materials we needed for free. In this sense you should be careful with whom you are working and doing business, and who you trust.
Right now we do not need any loans, but if we were able to access them and had the funds to pay for them, then running the business could become easier.
How did you scale your social innovation and what tips for scaling could you share?
In the first phases we did not consider scaling – we were merely satisfied with our status. However, after half a year working on the toys, we decided to step up to a bigger project: ‘Social Activation for long-term unemployed people.’ We realised we had a product which could be presented as a social innovation and help people (with or without disabilities) get back to work and have a full-time job, while at the same time learning new social skills, become independent and increase their self-esteem. All with the aim of increasing their social inclusion.
At the same time we continue to take care of the environment, using ‘waste’ (socks which cannot be sold) and disposing of the boxes in an environmentally friendly way.
How do you change the whole system?
We want to provide employment opportunities for those who are at risk of social exclusion in our region. We do not pretend to be changing the whole system, we’re just contributing to making our region a better place.
What would be the one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring social innovator, a member of the Social Innovation Academy?
Don’t be afraid! Jump in!
Interviewed by Manon van Leeuwen
Matjan Cojhter. General manager and founder of AVANTUS Employment Center. He has worked as the general manager of a home for the elderly and as a security advisor at Nova KBM bank and has a Master’s degree in Criminal Justice and Security from the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Maribor. He is also Vice-President of Maribor Football Association and a member of the volunteer Fire Department Starše. He participates in ultra-marathons.
Facebook: @Zaposlitveni.center.AVANTUS | Twitter: @MatjanC
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