The Social Entrepreneurship Leap with Matthew Abrams
That moment when a budding social entrepreneur is on the cusp of starting a potentially world-changing venture is equal parts thrilling and terrifying. I quickly saw for myself how important it is to learn from those who have been there, and one of the social entrepreneurs to whom I’ve always looked up is Matthew Abrams.
Matthew is the co-founder of Mycelium; an intergenerational learning program for social change agents. This summer they’re hosting the Startup Venture Journey, a 3-month program which supports social entrepreneurs with skill development, mentorship, connections to industry pros and the community needed to take their startup ventures to the next level.
He clearly knows what it takes to transform an idea to impact, so I sat down with him to ask him a few questions about his social entrepreneurial journey and what lessons he can share with fellow changemakers.
Q: If a reader is considering starting a social enterprise and wanted to know what the process was like, what would you say?
Of course this process is different for everyone, yet there is an archetypal story that is not only true for many, but was true for me as well.
When the vision of the social enterprise is let out of the feather-coated bubble wrap of the entrepreneur’s heart and mind and into the world, it’s like releasing a dove from a cage. It’s guided by wide eyes and a full heart and nothing can stop it from soaring. However, the pragmatism needed for creation is often overshadowed by passion and the pragmatism never leaves the cage. A hard lesson that many startup social entrepreneurs learn is that a successful venture is not viable on passion alone. Often comes the (humbling) moment when the venture hits some strong weather and needs to return back to the cage and weave pragmatism back in. This can be an incredibly painful phase because many of the values, virtues and passion of the entrepreneur are enmeshed with the enterprise and it can feel like a personal failure. However, to determine if the venture is worth pursuing, passion and pragmatism must find a way to co-exist. The earlier, the better.
Q: What are the most common barriers getting in the way of changemakers getting started?
The short answer is resistance. In a great book called The War of Art, the author, Steven Pressfield says, “Most of us have two lives. The life we live and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands resistance.” The changemaker’s true work on this planet is to discover this life within us and then live it. There is so much magnetic chatter from friends, family, society, etc. telling us that we should be more responsible, conservative, financially secure, pragmatic, etc. The changemaker’s primary barrier is slaying those dragons and saying yes to the life they are on this planet to live. Everything after that — funding, building a team, finding mentors, business modeling, etc. — are simply hurdles that can be overcome so long as purpose, perseverance and common sense are there.
Q: If someone is reading this right now with an idea they want to transform into action, what are a couple of things they can do right now to get going?
There are four things every startup social entrepreneur should do which shouldn’t take more than a couple weeks to complete.
First, make a one page PDF that answers the following questions: Who does your venture serve? What pain does it alleviate for them? How does it alleviate this pain? How will your customers find out about your product or service? How will the venture make money while also making the world better?
Once that’s complete, identify 3–5 key advisors who are successful entrepreneurs and share your one pager with them. With an open heart and mind, listen to their feedback and integrate when relevant.
Next, write down the underlying assumptions you’re holding that must be true for the venture to deliver both social and financial profit.
Lastly, design and run experiments to test these core assumptions. In the testing phase, specificity and measurability are key to focus on. Once these experiments are conducted, you should know which of your core assumptions are accurate and which ones need to be revisited. Following these steps early on can save a ton of time and resources down the road.
Q: How can a budding social entrepreneur know when an idea is truly worth pursuing and when it’s one to let go of?
I once asked a US Army general how he makes decisions about war. I said, “The buck stops with you. There are times where you need to make impossible decisions of sending young men into battle and you know some of them aren’t going to come back. How do you make that decision?”
While the stakes aren’t as high when determining whether to pivot, fold or push on, his answer is relevant just the same. He said, “I surround myself with the smartest, most experienced people I know and I gather all the relevant intel I can find. Then I spend some time listening to what my heart is saying. Once I’ve tuned in with my heart and my mind, I take a breath, listen to my gut and I do that.
There is no science in answering this question, but the head, heart and gut should all be consulted.
Q: Why is it important to find a community of changemakers on one’s social entrepreneurial journey?
I spent 6 months traveling around Central America. I knew I wanted to learn spanish, but I was resistant to speak to others until I had a decent handle on the language. I would study grammar and verbs on my own. Eventually when I felt courageous enough to begin communicating, I realized so much of what I was learning wasn’t building the necessary muscles of communication. The “real” learning happened when I was able to use the language connect with people. The same is true with startups. We need the ideas in our hearts and minds to meet the world. It needs to go through the awkward phase where people look at you with side-eyes and say, “I really have no idea what you’re talking about.” Or, “People won’t spend that much for so and such.” Or conversely, things like, “Oh! Have you thought about the uses of that service for athletes?” Bouncing around ideas regarding funding, prototype ideas, business models, etc. are critical to kick around in an incubated space before taking them to potential team members, investors and customers.
Also critical are the human connections and networks of access that become exponentially illuminated when a cohort is open to sharing and connecting their human capital.
Q: How does designing one’s life go hand-in-hand with creating one’s social enterprise?
So often, self-care and life design are left out of the conversation about social entrepreneurship. The inventor and entrepreneur Lori Greiner said, “Entrepreneurs are willing to work 80 hours a week to avoid working 40”. This very American sentiment certainly sounds romantic, yet it runs counter not only to innovation and productivity, but to human nature as well. Research demonstrates that hours worked over 40/week dramatically decrease productive output. Conversely, humans need to resource, especially social entrepreneurs who have their heart and soul in the work. We literally need to plug back into that thing that gave us the energy to create in the first place.
It’s the walks in nature, dinner with friends, journaling, yoga, etc. that often summon the muse to bring to unlock doors that yield breakthroughs to the next level of insight and creation. When we can design our lives to honor the seasonality of innovation, production, reflection and pause, we will continue to not only grow our ventures, but to grow as humans, which, at the end of the day, is the point behind all of this, right?
I hope you’re inspired and ready to take action on your own changemaker adventures! If you’d like to receive more tips and advice on the leadership it takes to create a better world, I hope you’ll joinThe Changemaker Toolkit — a weekly email newsletter I send out crafted specifically for people just like you!