England’s Queen Elizabeth II is renowned for her devotion to the Commonwealth. In describing her commitment, she once shared that she considered it her duty to walk at the pace of the slowest man. Certainly, Her Majesty’s words were not meant to convey that England should give up its role as a world leader, or that the progress of the country should slow, but rather that it should embrace a mindset of solidarity and fellowship based on common responsibilities, interest, and a commitment to leave no man behind. For those of us who self-identify as part of the movement to redefine business, the notion of walking at the pace of the slowest man serves as a wonderful metaphor.
At a time when the business world places speed, agility, and responsiveness at the heart of success, it’s not hard for any business, let alone one that is committed to doing good, to feel that they are already behind. In an environment dominated by 737 businesses that own 80% of the global network of wealth, being outpaced and outspent are valid concerns. The convoluted landscape of modern industry is daunting, and the cutthroat competition that often accompanies today’s emphasis on rapid growth can lead to the exclusion of true social entrepreneurial ventures. While I am a fan of complexity, and a student of adaptive systems and the disruptive influence of technology, I am most interested in how these modern phenomena can be leveraged in the best interest of those who are striving to marry purpose with profit.
In 2012, Ben Thornley optimistically published “The Facts on U.S. Social Enterprise,” which shed light on the numbers and (more important) the developmental stages of social businesses in America. At that time, approximately 40% of social businesses had fewer than 5 employees, and just 8% had more than 100. 45% of social businesses had less than $250K in annual revenue.
While exact numbers on the current state of social enterprise are hard to come by, B Lab estimated that there were 30,000 social businesses in the United States in 2009. They now estimate the number to be in the range of 400,000, so it’s safe to say that the sector continues to grow. One aspect of this growth is demonstrated by the surging popularity of impact investing. Instances like Bain Capital’s sizable investment in TOMS Shoes positively indicate that even traditional capital sees the upsides to marrying profit with purpose.
Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to get to know hundreds of entrepreneurs who have started for-profit businesses with the intent of creating positive social impact. I’ve celebrated their successes, and been a confidant during hard times. From this experience, I know that it’s no stretch to say that running a business is tough, period (no secret there). When you add the burden of demonstrating that what you are doing makes a positive contribution to society (when the only standards are those of unregulated third parties), the challenges multiply.
Over the course of the past few years, the critical question has shifted from “how do I start a business that can create social value?” to “how can I maintain and grow a business that’s designed to create social value, year after year?” Ben Thornley was right to be enthusiastic about potential growth for social businesses, but now that we find ourselves in the thick of that growth, we must prepare ourselves for the demands that come with it. Our future may be boundless, but only if we think equally in terms of expansion, innovation, and sustainability.
Entrepreneurs need help to move fast, minimize their costs, and access skills and resources that would otherwise be difficult (if not impossible) to come by. They need fewer choices and, at the same time, more sources that they can trust and rely on over and over again. To that end, COMMON exists to help businesses poised to generate social value through their operations succeed. Like Queen Elizabeth, COMMON is committed to everyone’s best interests, and staying present to the need to walk together at the pace of the slowest man.