Impact Labs
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Impact Labs

Ideas vs. Execution in the Social Impact Arena

I often encounter a very stubborn and very inaccurate notion from silicon valley higher-ups and entrepreneurial thought leaders in the startup world.

The notion is that ideas don’t matter, execution does.

While I think this concept has merit, I find it misleading and frustrating.

If we’re purely talking about success in turning profits and acquiring users, then yes: ideas don’t matter. You can have the best idea in the world, but if you can’t hustle it up and hack it out, then the idea is worthless. But of course, this definition of success is woefully myopic and downright harmful to society.

We can look at a company like Juul for instance, which is single-handedly responsible for re-addicting my generation to nicotine. Juul is doing well, but they’re not doing good. There’s nothing particularly novel about Juul’s E-cigs, they simply executed very tactfully and became the dominant player in the market. They’re now on every street corner bodega I pass in New York City, and they’ve raised over $13B thus far.

The worst part? They claim to be a social impact company because they’re ostensibly ameliorating climate change by “reducing combustion from traditional cigarettes.” I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I read a sentence like that.

But for many people, Juul is paradigmatic of a successful company. They’re generating profits and hooking new users; Crunchbase calls them a unicorn. They executed, never minding that the idea was literally toxic.

People say ideas are cheap. This is technically true in that it costs nothing to have an idea or share an idea or steal an idea. But I’m going to argue that good ideas are priceless.

I can have 30 ideas for a startup before I sit down for breakfast each morning, but I can rack my brain for hours and still not come up with a genuinely valuable idea that will create a positive social impact.

Sure, I can rattle off tons of causes and challenges that people face (lack of access to clean drinking water, poor healthcare facilities, unequal educational opportunities, global violence against women), but thinking of a truly innovative and original solution — let alone one that can also turn a profit and not be permanently reliant on philanthropy — is extremely difficult to imagine.

There are lots of reasons for why it’s so difficult to devise a social startup that addresses any of these global challenges.

First, many of the most dire problems we face this century are not solvable by individuals: they require collective action and governmental support. Meanwhile, starting a for-profit company is famously individualistic and very easy to do on your own or with a small team.

Second, there is a pervasive and unhelpful sentiment that anyone who works at a non-profit can relate to: the feeling that if the work is so noble and necessary, why should anyone profit from it? Social entrepreneurs entering the impact sector may guilt themselves into believing that they’re unworthy of earning a competitive salary, and so they stop short once they come across an idea that does good work for the world and can comfortably survive as a non-profit.

Third, the most significant challenges (poverty, disease, malnutrition), are not commonplace in wealthy nations, and so the entrepreneurs in places like Silicon Valley are not facing these challenges themselves. This has the unfortunate double effect of narrowing the entrepreneur’s focus while simultaneously blinding the entrepreneur to the nuances of the problem (which almost always leads to half-baked ideas that fail to account for cultural differences and negative externalities).

Taken together, these reasons make it very difficult to come up with an idea that can truly make a difference.

But it doesn’t have to be like this.

While there are definitely systemic factors that lead to the imbalance between ordinary profit-driven startups and social impact-driven startups, there are two antidotes that can reverse this trend.

The first is ample research. The deeper you dive into a chosen field, the more fertile ground you’ll find for entrepreneurship. To that end, it is absolutely vital to read as many books and articles as possible about a specific cause area, speak to experts in the field, and prioritize a way to witness firsthand the lived experiences you’re trying to address. Information is an ally, and having domain expertise and the voracious willingness to learn even more about an issue is the strongest impetus to action.

The second is pure imagination. It takes audacity and courage to build a startup, but it takes just as much creativity and outside-the-box thinking to imagine those solutions in the first place. Most often, social startups stitch together technological advancements and apply them in new ways to old problems.

Consider the story of Zipline, which uses autonomous aircraft to deliver blood and vaccines to remote regions of Rwanda. This is a for-profit, for-good company that is leveraging technology for the good of the world. Watch their (amazing!) TED talk here:

Ultimately, there’s no getting around the fact that designing creative technical solutions to sticky, entrenched challenges is difficult. But it is precisely this difficulty that makes pursuing a social startup such a laudable goal.

And while today we may judge startups based on their ability to produce revenue, we may soon see a day when startups are judged by their impact instead.

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