So you want to be a social entrepreneur? Consider this before that big leap

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You have been bitten by the social entrepreneurship bug and are itching to save the world and are ready to give up a well-paying corporate job without batting an eyelid.  This maybe a good starting point. But before you embark on that journey, be prepared for what’s ahead. For its very easy to end up doing the wrong thing with the spirit of wanting to do something good. Here’s a checklist that you might want to consider before you take that big leap.

Doing it for the right reasons:

About giving back to society and saving the world. Here’s a piece of advice. Don’t. The world doesn’t need another misinformed savior who thinks its his or her job to save the world. Altruism is good if you making a donation, running a marathon for a cause or volunteering for cause. Being a social entrepreneur requires different motivations and desires, and ideally it should be because you have identified a serious problem that needs solving, and have chanced upon the solution.

Most social entrepreneurs jump headlong into social entrepreneurship because they have an itch to scratch that has been bothering them for a long time. Their decision is not a swift one based an emotion, some new passion a quarter-life or mid-life crisis. They have usually have given it a lot of thought, understand the problem they want to solve and perhaps even have a viable solution in their mind.

Assess all risks:

Now that you have made up your mind, its time to assess the risks involved, at least the known ones, because nobody can be fully prepared for the long winding road of entrepreneurship. The risks are many: reduced finances, lack of support from family and friends, reputation at stake, start-up failure, inability to solve the problem effectively and so on.

Since social entrepreneurship won’t make you a millionaire overnight or a after a few grueling years, your finances are going to take a hit, be prepared for that. Have a contingency plan, and make sure that you have kept your loved ones in the loop, their support will play a key role between success and failure. You maybe convinced of the venture, but letting friends and family see the vision is also important, because they maybe the ones who are your first investors and biggest cheerleaders. Also, be ready for the social enterprise failing, if that happens, don’t consider this as a personal failure, its just a lesson learned. Assessing all risks will reduce nasty surprises en-route.

Make sure you have entrepreneurial chops:

Having the passion, insight and the ability to nail down the problem maybe enough. Most social entrepreneurs are usually first-time entrepreneurs and may not have completely assessed their ability to execute on their grand vision. You may have the heart for the venture, but with having the head and entrepreneurial chops, you might be going into a gunfight with a knife in your hand.

Remember that social entrepreneurship involves using commercial strategies to solve a social problem. That means having some kind of management acumen and the ability to plan and execute. If you don’t have the skills, fret not, many social business incubators in India and overseas will help you learn them. Just be aware of what you can and cannot do. That could make all the difference.

Be prepared to collaborate and build a team:

Here’s a theory. One of the biggest reasons many great non-profits did not fulfill their potential is because they were unable to do succession- planning, build second level management and inability to build a complete team. A lot of social enterprises begin with the vision of a single founder. Now this is great for a start, but to keep the engine running will require a complete team. Ideally a second or third co-founder and highly competent top level team. This leaves the founder or founders with task of focusing on strategy and revisiting the vision, if required.

Collaboration is another very important aspect that determines the success and survival instincts of a social enterprise. Leaning on others who are more competent in certain areas ensures that social enterprises don’t attempt at doing everything themselves or be absorbed in activities that involve reinventing the wheel. Collaboration is not giving up power, but tapping the strength of other individuals and institutions, helping realize the goals of the organization faster and more efficiently.

 Patience and the ability to stick around for the long-haul will make all the difference:

It is always darkest before dawn. In the world of social enterprise, the darkness before the dawn is a long period, the reason being that, unlike start-ups targeting traditional sectors the gestation period for social enterprises is longer. Most of them are strapped for resources, lack talent, are in need of funding and find it hard to balance social impact and commercial gain.

The key here is to understand that there is no overnight success with social entrepreneurs. You don’t build an app, grow an audience with a two-member team and then cut a deal with Google or Facebook for a billion dollars. Success with social enterprise takes long years, and even then it does not come with a billion dollar exit.

But for those who wait, saving the world, does not remain a pipe-dream, it is a step closer to sweet reality.

You are ready

Note: This is the second article in a social enterprise toolkit series that SocialStory is doing. It is designed to be useful for the  first-time social entrepreneur, or for anybody interested in this space. Here’s the first article.

About the author

Journalist with a keen interest in all things social entrepreneurship.

4 thoughts on “So you want to be a social entrepreneur? Consider this before that big leap

  1. A good attempt, Nelson. I generally don't write posts or respond to those I may read. Mainly for lack of the time these things demand. But I came across this post as I was looking through entrepreneurship blogs in India as a research interest. So, I am a serious reader. I also research in the area of social venturing.

    I regret to say that your post makes little sense. If you wrote it to put out there just another journalistic 'piece' I wouldn't comment as journalistic 'pieces' come and go. But your piece shows the confusion about the field of activity in the extreme when, for instance, you seem to suggest that social ventures are started to "cut a deal … for a billion dollars". Have you ever spoken to anyone running a social venture? You say "most social entrepreneurs jump headlong …. because they have an itch… for a long time" – something that seems to have just occurred to you. It is poorly conceived, hollow on factual support and researched data, and amazingly offhand. Please look up the life histories of Muhammad Yunus or Victoria Hale or Stan Thekaekara, all from your part of the world. This activity, better called social cause venturing rather than by the popular but misleading name 'social entrepreneurship', is serious work that has the seed of what the world needs to learn today, ie, it is redistribution of te increasingly concentrated wealth, it is to empower the under-privileged. It is not a vehicle to cut deals for a billion dollars for the sponsor (whom you call 'entrepreneur' and perpetuate the confusion). If you have the power of the pen, please stop misguiding the youth of India and use it to rebuild the society that is in serious need of repair.

    Good luck.

    I wish I could just post this as a response to your post, but it seems I have to post it through facebook.

  2. Hi Sanjay,

    Appreciate you taking the time to respond.
    First: I don't suggest that social enterprises start to cut a billion dollar deal. I quote, "You don’t build an app, grow an audience with a two-member team and then cut a deal with Google or Facebook for a billion dollars." I'm trying to say that if you want to cut build an app and cut a deal for a billion dollars, social entrepreneurship is not your cuppa. Furthermore, I add, "Success with social enterprise takes long years, and even then it does not come with a billion dollar exit." What I'm trying to say is that success with social entrepreneurship isn't a billion dollar exit. Its much more.
    Secondly: I say: "most social entrepreneurs jump headlong …. because they have an itch… for a long time" This isn't based on what just occurred to me, most social entrepreneurs, Muhammad Yunus included, have thought long and hard about the problem they are trying to solve, and it isn't just a knee jerk reaction (though this too seems a possibility).

    Please read the blog post again. If you still arrive at the same conclusion. I might have to rethink the way I word my articles in the future.

  3. Thanks for responding to clarify. Yes, unfortunately a lot of what you say needs clarification. 'Success', 'dollars', knives etc derail the discourse in this domain – they don't belong and sneak in because we are too used to those concepts in the dog-eat-dog world of business. We know no other language, and hence confound the issue, particularly used casually (without meaning to?). You ar e not alone, though. Many scholars have added to the conflation things by talking of this activity in terms of opportunity, competition, innovation, etc. Yes, you need to delve deeper into the lives of some of the social value creators (again, Steve Jobs and Apple have arguably created social value but that is NOT what we are talking about – it is creating social value for those who cannot pay for it in return, that is the empowerment that this activity is engaged in) in order to understand their journey and then wouldn't say things like Yunus' effort could have been knee-jerk! Now, to flag up the reverse confusion, even commercial entrepreneurial successes are never made overnight, despite what media hype would have us believe. Please be careful (and test the depth of your understanding) before throwing advice that can mislead some of the youth many more of whom are considering social venture activity today.

    Thanks for your invite to hook up on email. I hesitate as I know I will not have the time and will disappoint.

    Best wishes to you

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