Advice for new social entrepreneurs — Part 1
Whether you’re brainstorming ideas, building your business plan or assembling your board, we’ve got advice for you.
Today, hundreds of colleges offer courses in social entrepreneurship, equipping the next generation of social entrepreneurs with the tools they need to use the market as a force for good. Many of us didn’t have the luxury of a college degree in social entrepreneurship, but luckily we can tap into the wisdom of established entrepreneurs. In this three-part series, we bring you advice from nearly a hundred interviews with successful entrepreneurs in the social impact space. Whether you’re brainstorming ideas, building your business plan or assembling your board, we’ve got some advice for you.
1. Set realistic expectations
Be patient with yourself and understand that building a social enterprise can be a long process. Focus on small, manageable tasks rather than big-picture goals.
- “We thought it would take two years to get up and running, and instead it’s taken eight. Budget for everything to take at least twice as long as you’d expect.” — Jacob Malthouse, Co-founder and Director at Big Room Inc.
- “If I could do everything over again, I would have had more realistic expectations. Everybody always says ‘It’s going to take you three to five years to start turning a profit,’ but in the social impact world, it’s really more like five to seven. You always think that you’re going to be the exception to that rule. I felt like we’d take off right away. Not being realistic with your expectations can be very discouraging. I would tell myself — not that you don’t want to dream big — but you have to allow yourself that time to get there and know that it’s not something that’s going to come overnight.” — Bethany Tran, CEO of Root Collective
- “Take baby steps. If you focus on the five year plan all the time, you’ll get overwhelmed. We take tiny steps that add up.” -Grace Theisen, Co-founder of Songs Against Slavery
- “If we could be 100% renewable energy and off the grid, we would totally do that. If we could be 100% organic, we would do that. But there are real limitations. There are big systems that tiny New Belgium can’t take on alone. But we don’t just throw up our hands and say ‘we can’t do it!’ We are working at the national and international level to push forward progress. Challenges of time and money are real and there are longer-term solutions that require a lot of collaboration. We have to take baby steps to work toward the big goal” — Katie Wallace, Director of Sustainability at New Belgium Brewing
2. Use your resources
Many social entrepreneurs aren’t management or finance experts, and that’s okay.
- “Generally, there are tons of free resources. Reach out and access them. The information is available.” — Rhodes Perry, Founder of Rhodes Perry Consulting
- “I wish that I had learned more about the financial aspects of owning a company and paying the bills. Figure out some ways — whether it’s college courses or an incubator — figure out how to manage your finances, because learning on the job is really frustrating.” — Alexander Williams, Owner of Blue Earth
If joining an incubator or enrolling in a masters’ program isn’t an option, no sweat. Anyone can access the Social Enterprise Alliance Knowledge Center, a growing collection of resources for social entrepreneurs. Coursera, an online education platform, offers free college classes on business management, accounting and even social entrepreneurship. You can take them at your own pace and even audit courses — homework optional!
3. Focus on the business model
Whether you’re a for-profit or a nonprofit, you need a strong business model. You have to understand your market, your competitors and your product. This was the most consistent advice our social entrepreneurs offered: be a good businessperson. Then everything else will fall into place.
- “Focus on building your business. Whether you have a product or a service, focus on that first. You can know in your heart that your product or service does good, and that’s nice, but you need to focus on the business first.” — Christopher Brechlin, Founder of Blueprint for Impact
- “Work on your business model, because if you don’t have a successful business, you won’t do any good.” — Paul Millman, Owner of Chroma
- “If I could do everything over again, I would have spent more time being a good business person, understanding what that meant, instead of an idealist who is out trying to change the world. It’s not that I wouldn’t still try to change the world, but I would have focused more on the business side” — Robb Shurr, Co-founder and CEO of Walden Hyde
Stay tuned for next week’s post, where we’ll share even more lessons from the pioneers of the social impact sector. In the meantime, what are your best pieces of advice for social entrepreneurs? Let us know in the comments below.
Can’t wait until next week? Visit Social Enterprise Alliance’s Knowledge Center for additional resources.