Why I’m Changing Industries

I’m trying to optimize on meaning

For the last year I’ve focused on how I could bring the meaning to my professional life that I sought in my personal life. There was a 4 year period after college where I expected I’d never work outside the non-profit sector. Yet after working for a number of non-profits, including a year working in Bangladesh in 1995 for International Development Exchange, I became disillusioned with the effectiveness and management of non-profits both small (too many dreams, not enough reality) and big (more concerned about keeping their cushy jobs than the people they were serving). While I was spending my days trying to find a single development organization I wanted to work for next, I spent my nights making web pages, and I was quite relieved when the Internet swept me up to my first tech job in 1996.

That’s me in 1995 meeting with an IDEX-funded women’s community group. Sadly most overseas-funded projects didn’t work out nearly as well

Later, as professionally satisfying and enriching starting and growing Dogster, Inc was, I always felt a big gap between my day-to-day and my actual life vision. Since last summer I’ve put great attention on the quickly blurring line between for-profits and non-profits. High-margin for-profit businesses (eg Kickstarter, Etsy, WarbyParker) were providing great community and societal benefit while still taking on investors (and possibly going public). The Benefit Corporation movement had led to legal inclusion in California, New York, Delaware and a dozen other states and countries. Meanwhile a new generation of non-profits are behaving more like lean-startups and putting more raised money to cause than their peers have for decades. CharityWater, DonorsChoose, Kiva, Samasource, MadeInAFreeWorld are just a couple examples of orgs that don’t rely on foundations for their annual revenue and thus are able to work on what they determine, instead of being reliant on the whims of the big funding foundations.

I’ve also been fascinated with all the different models of loans and crowdfunding that were now possible: Kiva, Prosper, Lending Club, Mosaic, Pave, Ripple, Social Impact Bonds, CrowdTilt, the list goes on and on. And at the same time I’ve been astounded at how (since 2008 great recession) the average person is much more open to considering quick, small donations for causes without a concern of their ROI or tax write-off. Whether for a water well, part of a group loan to an individual, a classroom improvement, a political cause, a legal defense, an art project, etc people are giving $25 because they can and they simply think it should be done.

I had already come to three personal realizations since the sale of Dogster, Inc that were leading my quest: A) my serious but fun business required 10 years full years of my life, and I don’t have all that many more decades left. Thus anything I start next I have to be prepared to require 20+ years to successfully complete. B) if I only focus on financial optimization now I’ll continue working on what my current industries highly value, but I have limited passion for (such as advertising, publishing, seo, social media). So I decided I need to optimize my for meaning with a strong requirement of financial opportunity. C) I prefer to avoid competition, to work on what people don’t understand, to go where investors aren’t because I’m not the guy to slug it out in a 10-company winner takes all cage fight. B-Corps and cause-oriented profits are unknown to most MBAs and don’t fit well in the current VC fund models. So this will give me a 5 to 10 year head start before MBA’s are using case studies to pitch new businesses and VC have dedicated social impact funds (DBL Investors, Leap Frog and SJF Ventures already manage high-return impact funds.)

So I set out to learn as much as I could. I ended up having 54 meetings with mentors, peers, cold-call self-introductions and all the people they introduced me to. I learned that there are two business types that can serve social impact. Platforms and direct support. I learned that the causes that drive me the most are poverty reduction and education improvement, domestic or global, because I see both as the best way to create a more thriving global society and economy.

In the end it was clear that cause-oriented for-profit is how I could meet my personal desires for innovation and upside, along with meaning and purpose. Profit with purpose is not an oxymoron, in fact it’s helping many businesses succeed. Patagonia, Etsy, Change.org, WarbyParker, SOMAFilters, Ben & Jerry’s, Honest Tea, and Inventure, the company I am joining today, are all examples of business that are thriving because of their mission not in spite of it.

To learn about what Inventure is and does you’ll have to read my next post, Why I’m Joining Inventure.

I’ve written previously about How the Tech Industry Should Think About Benefit Corporations.

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