When I started working on Social Venturers in October 2018, I had about 20 contacts to talk to and an idea of how I wanted to go about it. I knew I would apply the Lean Startup Method best I could with an initial focus on customer discovery and as many experiments as possible to figure out what creates value for passionate yet overworked ecosystem builders for social change. That much I knew.
The Discovery Phase officially started in January 2019 with my very first interview with Kristina Notz of Social Entrepreneurship Akademie in Munich, Germany. 24 more followed over the course of the year, not all made it to publication.
I outlined my approach in my first logbook and have since refined the key questions that guide this exploration. My goal for the Discovery Phase was threefold:
- Deep understanding of the pain points of Social Venturers both personally and professionally.
- A solid definition of what entrepreneurial ecosystem building is.
- Ideas for minimum viable products to test in Phase 2.
Looking back on 2019, I am proud to tell you that I did, in fact, achieve all three! To gain a deeper appreciation of the challenges that Social Venturers face in their day-to-day responsibilities (see 1), I first needed to understand what it is these roles and responsibilities are:
Archetypes of Social Venturers
Depending on their role within their organization, who vary from 1 to 50+ team members, I have recognized particular patterns of thought, concern and motivation of ecosystem builders for social change. If we think of Social Venturers as pioneers who explore the world of social change through entrepreneurship, the 2019 interviewees fall into these three broad categories:
Solopreneurs and those leading micro-businesses do not only deliver products and services to purpose-driven entrepreneurs and ecosystems, but run their own business operations to do so. Marketing their services while building genuine relationships within the ecosystems can present challenges. These lone wolves have to kill what they eat – they alone are responsible for client acquisition and constantly generating new leads. Beyond ensuring their businesses thrive, their unique challenges revolve around staying motivated in the game, not overworking themselves, staying accountable and knowing when and how to ask for help.
The majority of Social Venturers interviewed in 2019 were organizational leaders. In most cases, they are the face of their organization with a heavy fundraising responsibility. Frequently they answer to a Board of Directors, manage external stakeholder relationships (partners, funders, mentors, sponsors), as well as the internal team ensuring their staff’s growth, happiness and balanced workloads. More often than not, the captains are called in to put out fires, ensure that mission and strategy align and are burdened with bureaucratic and administrative tasks or at least oversight.
I came across a number of Social Venturers who have grown into a role of Big Thinkers and visionaries. They are rarely responsible for the nitty gritty day-to-day operations of their organization. Instead, they spend most of their efforts in guiding and informing the big picture of the field informed by their year- if not decade-long experiences with this work and an intrinsic desire to tackle root causes at a large scale. These cartographers are particularly well suited to develop strategic partnerships across sectors and with government as well as guiding the market through thought leadership.
What is the hardest part about this work?
What Social Venturers struggle with on the day-to-day heavily depends on their role and responsibilities in their organization, their personal strengths and preferences, and social context (country, family, culture). Some challenges apply predominantly to a specific archetype while others apply across the board. Note that these challenges are of either personal or professional nature:
Pain points specific to archetypes
- Sole responsibility for your livelihood, constant need to “hustle” and stay motivated as a solopreneur (Lone rangers)
- Asking for support and delegation of responsibilities (in particular among Captains)
- Team management: leadership, growth and continuous professional development, letting go of people (Captains)
- Succession planning (Captains)
- Growing a healthy organization under resource scarcity (Captains)
- Administrative responsibilities: cashflow, grant proposals and reporting, contracts (Lone Rangers & Captains)
- Lack of sales and business development skills and knowledge (Lone rangers & Captains)
- Slow-moving large scale social change: We are not changing the system fast enough, our time is running out (in particular among the Cartographers)
General pain points
- Overcommitment and unrealistically high workload
- General public’s lack of understanding about the emerging fields of social entrepreneurship, social innovation and ecosystem building
- Grasp of one’s own impact: Am I solving the right problems? How do I know I’m making a difference?
- Quality control: How do you stay true to your values and deliver high quality outputs?
* This list is not exhaustive but notes the most common challenges mentioned in interviews.
A solid understanding of the challenges Social Venturers face and a deep desire to help overcome them are the foundation for the experiments we are launching in 2020 (see Experimentation Phase: 2020 below).
A solid definition of Ecosystem building for social change
I have always agreed with the definition of ecosystem building put forward by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
But I also felt the desire to learn more about how other people and institutions were approaching the topic so I went on a deep dive of different schools of thought in Ecosystem Building 101. And because I don’t think that frameworks and models do the topic justice, I worked out a very practical example that highlights the aspects of culture and collaboration that differentiate ecosystem building from approaches like community building or economic development.
To date, the biggest difference I have found due to the social impact lens is the motivation that drives purpose-driven entrepreneurs and those who are intentionally nurturing the entrepreneurial community around them: creating healthy, happy, diverse and just communities leveraging the power of entrepreneurship. Like the Zebras Unite movement, the ecosystem builders I interviewed in 2019 strive to help build an environment in which founders build companies that make a profit AND do good. They lead with a mindset that goes beyond IPOs and hockey-stick growth. Ecosystem builders for social change (or Social Venturers as we call them) value cooperation over competition (see Community over Competition: An ecosystem builders’s mindset), sustainable growth and shared resources (read more about our values in our Manifesto).
Experimentation Phase: 2020
With a deeper understanding of the jobs Social Venturers are trying to do and the challenges they encounter in getting them done, I have come up with a first set of experiments to test what we can do for each other to help us succeed in leading more fulfilling lives and purpose-driven careers without sacrificing one for the other.
Mid-week pick me up
In the middle of the week, do you ever find yourself exhausted and drained? Do you ever crave a little inspiration, a pat on the shoulder or gentle reminder that what you’re doing is awesome?
Sign up for our mid-week pick-me-up and we’ll send good vibes your way:
We have collected the best podcast episodes, blogposts and articles to sweeten your commute. Keen on Ted talks and books to stay up to date with the world of social impact? We got you covered! Voice messages? Sure, why not! We’ll keep inspirational quotes to a minimum, but hey, a little inspiration has never hurt nobody!
Monthly Fireside Chats
Do you ever wish you had access to a curated group of experts with a deep understanding of impact-specific topics such as impact assessment & metrics, reporting, strategy and goal setting, social media, leadership & succession planning, etc.? Then we’ve got something for you!
Once a month, we sit down with an imaginary (or not so imaginary) drink in front of an imaginary (or not so imaginary) fire to put the really hard questions on the table.
These monthly conversations focus on specific topics and are held in an intimate setting of two to four other social impact professionals. We dive deep. We ask questions and walk away with tangible results and next steps.
What’s the single biggest reason for not accomplishing our goals? We don’t keep promises to ourselves. We let other people’s priorities become more important than our own. Have you had enough of it yet?
Excellent! Let’s start this decade with something YOU want to work on! If you are tackling a big – or not so big – project in 2020 and are in need of people who GET IT, ask the right questions and hold you accountable, this is for you!
Over the course of six months, we’ll get together virtually on the last Wednesday to update the group on our progress, discuss obstacles and ways to move forward. Once the hour is over, everyone is back at their desks doing the work.
The next decade of social impact
Customer discovery never ends. The Discovery Phase will continue as long as Social Venturers exists. And I couldn’t be more excited to meet the next round of Social Venturers in 2020! With 25 interviews under my belt, I am committed to finding more diverse ecosystem builders who are dedicated to putting purpose-driven founders first and making a difference in their community through the power of entrepreneurship. If you know someone who we should talk to, please nominate them here!