Superhero Canvas — the social business canvas for superheroes

At CAST we’ve been using a social business canvas for a while now. It’s also called the Superhero canvas. Because social entrepreneurs are (some of) the people who are going to save the world. Also because running a social venture is hard and if you don’t genuinely think you’re going to save the world, you’d probably never get started. ;-)

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A lot of organisations we work with use business canvases, often the lean canvas. However, while very useful, these business canvases aren’t totally suitable for social businesses and often miss key areas that are important in developing social businesses. For example, they miss the ability to distinguish between who is paying and who is benefiting, which can often be different in social enterprise. They also miss other key areas, for example, they don’t take account of partnerships or the macro political environment which can impact social ventures so significantly.

So to help capture these areas and fuse them with more traditional business canvases, we present you our social business canvas v1.0.

Here’s a quick tour of the different sections:

Value Proposition

This column contains your social and user and financial value propositions — it clarifies the problems you’re solving, and who’s paying for them to be solved.

Social value

Every super hero has a nemesis, something that they are fighting against in the world. Here’s where you identify yours.

What is the social problem you are addressing? It’s vital to clearly identify this as early as possible to refine your activities. What social or environmental change will the product or service create? E.g. reduced landfill, increased employment, reduction in anxiety? As well as writing the problem, in this box you identify one key SMART metric to track if and how people are benefiting from your intervention (remember this is lean approach so you need an actionable metric — see more here. If you really want to geek out and understand lean social metrics go here)

User value

Ok, superheroes didn’t have to worry about user acquisition, but if people aren’t using your product or service you, by definition, will never have any social impact. Thinking about who you are targeting and why people would choose to use your product or service is rarely done enough in the social sector. Remember this may be two different sets of users. The end service user and the paying customer e.g. if you building an educational product, the end user might be a child using an app, but the paying customer is might be the teacher (of head of department) seeing dashboards and the data from the apps use.


  • Who the key users are. What age, gender, background, skill level do they have? Here it’s useful to think about user segmentation and use tools like personas.
  • What problem are you solving for them? This almost certainly isn’t the social problem you are targeting. Any successful product solves a specific, often very personal, problem for its users. Social business is about finding ways to address user and social problems together. Maybe it’s saving money, seeing their children more, improving their health.
  • Find one key actionable metric for tracking users (e.g. sign ups. This will change over time, for more on user metrics see here)

Financial Value

Superheroes rarely have to worry about being paid, but you do. Customer proposition and segmentation is vital for the sustainability of your business.


Who pays for the service? The users directly or, if not, who has accountability for the social problem you are addressing?

Why would they pay for this? This is vital — what problem is it solving for them? Too often people start by saying they are selling to ‘schools’ or the ‘NHS’ without actually understanding which specific problem it is addressing and which department or team they are targeting. For example, a digital appointment system in hospitals might save the hospital money by reducing missed appointments.

How do they pay? Is this a software as a service, costed by client? How has this been tested with the client, have you tested a price point, is there a precedent for this kind of purchasing?

Financial value spans both the value proposition column and practicalities column, as it’s a combination of them both.

Key Practicalities

This column looks at what you actually do, and what you need to do it.

Key activities

How do you save the world? What are the key activities you do, e.g. run an online community, deliver a service in schools. It’s important here to clear about the boundaries between what you’re doing and what others do to avoid mission creep and maximise your understanding of where you sit in the value chain. Unless you have rich backers you are likely to have zero income right now, so keep it really focused on what you have to do, not what you’d like to do.

Key Resources

Bruce Wayne had the Batmobile and a fancy utility belt. What do you need to deliver your key activities? (Note that’s different to what you want! Remember all superheros and good business people excel at improvising with what they have.) So, as well as looking at what you need, take an audit of what skills and networks you have already. Identifying what is missing is important information to inform you when building strategic partnerships, finding advisors and board members, or hiring new team members.

Your Uniqueness

What makes you special. Every strength is also a weakness, and vice versa. Here’s where you take a cold hard look at both of these areas — and the implications of this for what your model costs.

Competitive advantage

Your super power. This is important. What do you have that no one else has? When someone turns around to you and says we’ve got 100 other good grant applications or people bidding for the contract, what’s the unique thing that you can offer that is better than everyone else? Every good investor I’ve ever met asks a version of this question. This question should also tell you where your IP is likely to sit. Unless you’re operating an open source business model, knowing this is vital to securing investment.

Risk and threats

Your kryptonite. Social entrepreneurs are notoriously bad at seeing this. They probably have to be that way, otherwise they’d never start. But it’s really important to understand your weaknesses and what broader threats are in the wider environment. Do you lack in-house tech expertise? Domain knowledge? What if government policy shifts in your area? What if a rich competitor sees your model and steals it? What if you don’t get the users or sales you predict? (This will happen, it always happens).

Cost Structure

It’s crucial to really drive into the core costs of your business from the start. These will stop any delusions and sharpen your decision making. What are the fixed and variable costs, what can be reduced when operating at scale? What’s your answer to one of the core questions every investor asks — how long will it take to break even? You can’t know this without identifying costs. This will put a reality check on what are key activities and identify where partners can help you deliver your work without you needing to do everything yourself. Remember successful businesses don’t do everything themselves. They find their niche in a value chain (e.g. Uber doesn’t own cars, but it owns the connection between people and other people’s cars).

Your Delivery

How do you actually get your product to people? It’s pointless making something unless people use it. This column covers both who and how you get your product to your customers and users.


How will people know about you? How will they hear about your great deeds and get involved? Sadly we don’t all have Lois Lane and the Daily Planet distribution network in our corner, so consider your channels. How will you reach your clients AND customers. Online marketing? Through other organisations? Referrals and personal networks? This is especially important if you’re working with at risk or hard to reach groups, who by their definition are difficult user group to grow. Don’t underestimate how hard it is to get people to listen to you, it’s a very, very noisy world and you’re competing with organisations that have multi-million pound budgets. Equally large incumbent organisations are notoriously difficult to engage (like the NHS or academy chains). If you’re planning to sell to these, what (or who) is your route in?


Who are you allies? Even superheroes need friends and networks. Identify the partnerships that are important and their role. This could be anything from enabling you to access hard to reach groups through to partnering with organisations that will help you scale. Identify these early, partnerships are relationships and it takes time to build these.

Superhero Story

Lastly, summarise all this thinking with the final box. Your superhero story. In one sentence write what your nemesis and how you will defeat it. It’s a mission statement. I have this written on my wall. It helps on difficult days. (Oh and if want an actual superhero name, the web will furnish you :)

So there you have it. Completing this canvas will give you a top level view of your social business and identify crucial areas or strength and weakness. It’s licensed under creative commons so use it, share it, and let us know about your experience.

Go be a superhero. But know what kind of superhero you are first.

Director of, making social tech happen

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