Most entrepreneurs daydream. Perhaps you are driving, taking a train out of town or strolling through the city, and you let your mind wander. You think about your life, the world, something funny that happened recently. You eventually get to ponder long-term plans for your business. Then, you notice something in a shop and think, "that's cool" or "it would be better if..." Out of nowhere, you are struck by a great idea. In a whirlwind of imagination, you see yourself building a company and culture. Before you know it, you make the cover of Forbes, Fast Company, Wired... As a social entrepreneur, your vision also includes a profound social impact.
At this point, if you are have any experience starting a business, you quickly come back down to earth. You realize, for better or for worse, the practical challenges which must be overcome to execute your idea. If you have no experience, and especially if your passion is social enterprise, then you could be in trouble. One the other hand, we shouldn't allow experience to choke off our inspirations.
Today's growing culture of social entrepreneurship is a positive thing. It is good that younger generations want more from business. Expecting your work to be meaningful and to make a real difference is a hopeful trend. A growing enthusiasm for social entrepreneurship can only lead to a better business culture overall. But new social entrepreneurs must also understand the fundamentals of business if they hope to realize their vision. Just as older business people might dismiss youthful idealism, the next wave of social entrepreneurs must embrace a degree of pragmatism. Dreams and practice need each other. In fact, the coming together of the two might be a perfect analogy for social entrepreneurism.
"Ok," you might be wondering, "that sounds reasonable, but what exactly does this mean... in terms of practice?" Sure, there are plenty of books with important information that can help you, but as an entrepreneur you don't have time to wade through all the information out there! Here's a quick list of things I wish I knew when I started out. Some of the points below may sound obvious, but most social enterprises fail because they get the basics wrong.
First, never forget you are running a business. Yes, you want to change the world, but you can't make a positive impact if you run out of money. You must manage your finances. Spending comes naturally to everyone. Planning for a return on investment (ROI) takes discipline and effort. Master the art of bootstrapping -- get things going without taking on debt or blowing your savings. Resourcefulness requires imagination. We like to think that leaps of growth arrive like bolts of lightening, but progress is usually incremental and hard won; a consequence of internalizing examples of people who have successfully bootstrapped their own social enterprises.
Focus, focus, focus. Because social entrepreneurs tend to be "big picture" people who are often inspired to solve problems on a global scale, they can sometimes lose sight of the details. So be aware of details, details, details. Your path to profitability while doing the right thing often means you need to be even more careful about margins, suppliers, costs, pricing, market fluctuations, political and security conditions--the list can seem endless. One missed detail can compromise months of work. Social entrepreneurs often have LESS room for mistakes because they may be operating with fewer resources.
Don't forget about quality! Quality is extremely important. People care deeply that the products they buy truly satisfy their needs. Achieving quality is a practical and existential goal. It is a task that can always be improved upon. A real commitment to excellence is something people recognize and appreciate. In the end, the credibility and success of your greater missions depends on the quality of your product.
Self-righteousness is the enemy of customer service. When you do encounter difficult people, don't be defensive when it comes to customer service. Do whatever you need to make them happy. Don't be policy-driven, condescending, or self-righteous. There is a lot to be said for humility and patience. Customer service is not about an individual customer, it is an investment in a relationship with the community as a whole. Consistency is important.
Work to be exemplary. Small business owners are often told to delegate in order to expand, but all of the above points recommend a hands-on approach to business because there is no better way of setting an example for customers and employees alike. A social entrepreneur is, in many ways, a role model and teacher. She must demonstrate how business can transform individuals and communities. People care less about righteous speech than care about action. Though delegation is necessary, of course, never hesitate to roll up your sleeves and lead by example. Customers and employees will be inspired.
These are only a few ideas, but they should get you started. Never compromise your dreams, but without firm grounding, social entrepreneurs can easily get lost in them.