Words for change

By Hector Sharp in conversation with Matthew Taylor | 13 Oct 15
Jonathan Gilmour
Matthew Taylor is a 27-year-old social entrepreneur, literature lover and solicitor from Melbourne. He is the co-founder of Metamorphosis (MET). MET is a social enterprise that supports literacy and numeracy development for children in Australia, by raising money through the sale of fashion products and accessories. Right Now Editor Hector Sharp grabbed a coffee with Matthew to quiz him about the recent launch of his social enterprise. Social enterprises use the power of the marketplace to solve the most pressing societal problems.

Right Now: Who are you (MET)?

Matthew Taylor: MET is a social enterprise based in Melbourne, which I co-founded with a close friend of mine, Jack Lang. MET designs and markets artful fashion and accessories that celebrate language, ideas and creative expression. The purpose is to enrich our lives and create a world of opportunity for those in need.

Our business and profits are dedicated to raising literacy and numeracy standards to give all children the best start in life. We have chosen those basic skills because they are the foundation for life-long learning and they are essential to an individual’s development and wellbeing. Literacy, in particular, has long been recognised as a fundamental human right, and both numeracy and literacy are implicit in the right to education.

Within Australia, the opportunity for a first-class education is not available to everyone. We advocate not only for excellence in childhood education but also for universal access and equity. The personal and social cost of missing literacy and numeracy skills is life-altering; not only does it inflict harm on the individual themselves but also on the community as a whole. Australia has had a government-driven literacy and numeracy policy (“Closing the Gap”) since 2008, but we have not made headway on this issue. This failure highlights the role that non-governmental organisations can play in tackling this issue and providing real, tangible outcomes. 

What’s in a name, why Metamorphosis?

Metamorphosis, or MET as we like to call it, is a word that defines the heart and spirit of our social enterprise. That is because the primary purpose of our business is to create a complete change in circumstances. As they are fundamental building blocks for life-long learning and self-determination, addressing literacy and numeracy problems at childhood can positively change the trajectory of someone’s entire life; a metamorphosis, if you will.

What is MET’s story so far?

Late in 2014, I was forced to rest and recover from illness. During that month, I devoted my time to more artistic pursuits. I began reworking some of my favourite lines from literature, which is an exercise that often prompts my own creative writing. I discovered that particular sentences, when framed and presented in a unique way, have the potential to actively engage a reader’s mind. I found that manipulating these sentences could encourage people to investigate and explore the concepts behind and beyond the text. That discovery laid the foundation of MET’s unique design concept, which was then refined over several months while Jack helped investigate whether that concept could become a commercially viable business.

How did you go from the business to a social enterprise?

Understanding that our products are designed to celebrate and promote active participation in artistic and cultural life, we realised that there was a strong alignment between the values underpinning our business and products, and the promise that lies at the heart of the human rights movement, which is all about moving towards the greatest fulfilment of human potential. In particular, being passionate about education, we were and still are acutely aware of a systemic problem that prevents millions of people from actively participating in our society, namely illiteracy and innumeracy. It was this alignment between our business and the charitable cause that compelled us to explore the social enterprise sector and see whether our business could be used as a vehicle to create positive change in our community, rather than merely serving as a source of private gain.

Your first series of products is the Literature Series, which includes five T-shirts inspired by timeless literary classics. How do you choose your authors/books to base your designs on?

Obviously we have favourite authors; Jack and I hold similar and different opinions on this point. However, deciding on the authors and books for our Literature Series of quotable T-shirts was very difficult; we had to choose inarguably timeless literary classics, but they also needed to have a broader public appeal or recent popularity. We looked for novels that not only appeal to the literary fiction market, but may also appeal to readers that ordinarily participate in the mainstream fiction market and want to challenge themselves or find out what all the fuss is about.

“Rather than competing against traditional charities for a share of charitable donations, social enterprises aim to supplement those donations by creating new avenues for achieving social impact through trade.”

At the end of the day, it was our design concept that constrained us and helped to narrow the field. And because it is our first series of products, we wanted to play with famous opening lines of literature, which further narrowed our options. We settled on five opening lines that fitted our design concept. They are from Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice, F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, and J D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.

How do you differentiate your products from other social enterprises’ products in Melbourne?

Social enterprises in Melbourne tend to offer products that are not differentiated (functionally speaking) from other products in the market. For example, brands like Thankyou Water, Who Gives a Crap and Streat offer choices to the consumer between almost identical products, the important exception being that one product does a social good and the others do not. These are effective in the way that they direct money to charitable causes that wouldn’t otherwise flow to charity. Rather than competing against traditional charities for a share of charitable donations, social enterprises aim to supplement those donations by creating new avenues for achieving social impact through trade. Their products don’t need to be differentiated from their competitors’ products to achieve this. Our products, however, are differentiated from similar products in the market because of their cultural and artistic dimension. In addition to raising money to support literacy and numeracy development, each MET product also has a cultural function or purpose of its own: to encourage us to actively engage in, and curiously explore, cultural and artistic life. In that way, MET products are also somewhat different from products of other well-known social enterprises in Melbourne.

What are your social and business goals?

Our short-term business goals are the same as many social enterprises. We aim to make a profit and use those profits to solve a social problem. Our immediate goal is to become commercially viable and profitable. Therefore, we need to make consumers aware of our products and our social purpose. We think our customers will be, unsurprisingly, lovers of language and literature. However, there is also a far broader market comprising the reading public and consumers of other cultural products such as art and music. We think that the way our products work will be attractive to anyone with an inquisitive mind.

We are initially focused on growth; put simply, the bigger the business, the bigger the vehicle for tackling the social problem. We want to produce products that people want irrespective of the social cause. The social cause then adds an extra layer of beauty to the business, and we think people are going to respond to this.

How do you envision a process of change in literacy and numeracy skills in Australia and what role will MET play in that process?

Our role is mainly through our partnership with the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation (“ALNF”), which is a charitable foundation in Australia with significant expertise in this area. The reason we decided to partner with the ALNF is because they develop specialist resources and implement best-practice solutions at over 100 locations across Australia. They have achieved significant positive impact in some of the most marginalised communities in Australia. They are not just throwing money at a complex social problem. Rather, the ALNF has an approach that we entirely endorse, which is a “whole of community” approach. In Indigenous communities, for example, this approach engages the child, their family, educators, social workers and Indigenous elders to create an environment that is conducive to learning. We were particularly impressed by the ALNF’s development of Indigenous first language resources that enable children to acquire literacy skills and explore their own culture.

What are the next steps for MET?

We launched our crowdfunding campaign on Wednesday 7 October. This is a 40-day campaign, and we aim to raise $10,000 or more from the public to fund our start-up. People can donate to help launch our social enterprise and, at the same time, pick up one of our Literature Series T-shirts and other great rewards. You can access the campaign directly on the Pozible website at http://pozi.be/met. We want to continue the conversation online and are active on our Facebook page and Instagram (@MET_createchange).