Taking the plunge into the unpredictable world of social enterprise is not for the faint hearted. There are constant challenges to overcome, funds to raise and no shortage of doubters to convince – not least self-doubts. But the rewards, both for yourself and the people or situation you’re trying to help, have the potential to be vast. For that reason they’re worth the fight.
1. Find your passion
Life is too short to be working in the wrong place, says Álvaro Vásquez of Bioestibas, who use plant stems to make ecological palettes preventing deforestation and greenhouse gases. “You should invest time and effort to discover and tackle new opportunities. Entrepreneurship is a continuous learning curve to acquire new knowledge and skills, to grow as a person and to find fulfilment through overcoming everyday challenges.”
Before diving head first into a project, Factelier’s Toshio Yamada insists your work should be your passion. “Follow your thoughts, have passion and act,” he says. “Consider your work as a personal affair, concentrate on your passion. If you cannot commit yourself to that it is better not to start a company.” Factelier sell Japanese clothes online directly from rural factories to consumers internationally.
Think of the “Three Ps” says Dr Son Preminger, founder of Intendu. “Be passionate, persistent and patient.” Intendu are a brain training platform that uses video games to aid patients’ recovery.
B Y T upcycle unwanted fabrics and transform them into luxury apparel and accessories. Their founder Michelle Bang insists you should view each challenge as an opportunity. “As a social entrepreneur, you will have a multitude of problems to solve daily. You can either be overwhelmed by this, or be excited by the challenge and the opportunities they present.”
Sun Concept build solar electric boats for the working community. Founder Nuno Gaspar de Oliveira believes knowing you’re doing something positive for other people will provide you with the passion and motivation to persevere. “Imagine how your business can create shared value, not just good products or services, but something that positively benefits the planet we’re all living in.”
2. Know your audience
“Focus on delighting your first 100 customers,” says Tessa Cook of OLIO. “That ensures you’re obsessed with the user and building a product they’ll be happy with – both of which are essential. Understanding your audience also helps you know if there’s a genuine problem that needs addressing and if it’s your problem to solve. This will ensure there’s a market big enough for what you’re delivering and help you understand if you have the passion and resilience that’s absolutely essential for any start up.” OLIO connect people to their local community via an app to reduce food waste.
“While you’re getting to know your audience, it’s worth starting small and testing the market with low cost investment,” says Robin Jun Lu of First Respond, who are making mutual assistance a social norm through first aid training courses.
Siam Organic empower small scale farmers to grow rice using certified organic farming methods. Founder “Neil” Peetachai Dejkraisak underlines the importance of good communication to your audience. “To understand what you’re creating, both from a commercial and social standpoint, be clear about how to communicate your values to your customers. Be innovative, take risks, stay humble and never give up.”
Your investors are also your audience and knowing how to appeal to them is crucial, says Mark Istvan of NowTechnologies, who enable wheelchair users to interact with computers to better integrate into society. “Money is only a means but an essential means of realising a dream.”
3. Welcome Support
Whatever you do, don’t do it alone, says Alejandro Malgor of Xinca, the startup who are upcycling waste materials into premium footwear. “Don’t work alone, work with a team.”
Sea Harmony create vertical muscle-farming reefs to restore marine ecosystems. Founder Kornelia Dimitrova says: “A good idea is not enough. You need the right team behind you and the right mentors with you.”
Choose who you surround yourself with wisely, says Liang Wu of Green City Solutions, who use special moss cultures to create “CityTrees” that eat air pollution. “They will be your family for the next few years and the wrong characters can often be the reason why a good idea still fails. Get experienced entrepreneurs to give you feedback on your business model. They can help you avoid common mistakes that a lot of startups encounter.”
Ernesto Rodriguez-Leal of WeaRobot agrees. “Surround yourself with a team that shares your values,” he says. “Find people that will fall in love with the problem, understand your customers and validate your idea. And learn to share. It’s better to have 1% of something than 100% of nothing.” WeaRobot are building affordable exoskeletons to support movement and rehabilitation.
4. Be Persistent
If it was easy, everyone would be doing it, warns Judith Joan-Walker of African Clean Energy, manufacturers of a clean energy device for safe cooking that also produces solar energy. “So don’t think it will be easy, but always believe it is possible.”
“Your business can only have a positive impact on society if it’s a successful one,” says Daniel Vach of SENS Foods. “So you need to be persistent, diligent and consistent. Do your market research and have your finances in order. Once you’re up and running you can then focus your energy on making a difference.” SENS Foods offer healthy and sustainable protein bars using cricket flour.
“Never give up,” says Khaled Al Mezayen of SoWat, who produce transportable systems that turn any source of fresh water into clean drinking water. “Be patient and do your best, because you can change the world.”
5. Just do it
“There’s no perfect time to start it, so get going as soon as you can,” says James Steere of iDrop Water, the in-store vending machines that purify and sell drinking water. “Social entrepreneurship is about finding and growing a network of supportive people and businesses that share your passion and objectives. And nothing galvanises support like action. My favorite saying from an entrepreneurship lecturer at business school was, ‘If you’re not embarrassed by your first commercial prototype, you haven’t launched it fast enough’.”
“What are you waiting for?” asks Michaël van Cutsem of Beeodiversity, who analyse pollen to reduce pollution and increase biodiversity. “It’s a fabulous experience that will make you proud and give meaning to your life. Believe in what you’re doing and stick to your beliefs.”