How to start your own impact venture?
My life partner is not an adventure seeker, he does not join me for whitewater rafting, rappelling or jumping out of planes. He almost considers canoeing an extreme sport.
When I tease him playfully about not liking adventure, leaving me to have fun all alone, he will answer by saying, “I have done the biggest adventure of all which is to start my own business. Can you think of a bigger adventure and risk?”. In fact, he has started several so far and I am quite positive there are more to come.
To start something on your own or something new it’s not easy. It takes courage and some may even say you have to be a little crazy. Do you have a passion and an idea to solve social issues, but do not know how to implement them?
Social entrepreneurs are driven by a deeper purpose, one beyond profit. They aim to solve social issues through innovative solutions that challenge the status quo and create a bigger impact.
We will focus on a few steps that we believe are important when you decide to embark on this adventure. We will also share our story along the way.
1. Choose a social issue that you are passionate about and get to know it well.
Most social entrepreneurs are passionate and inspired about something. I remember my first contact with social entrepreneurship. It was when I met Pedro Teiga, who is a wild defender of rivers and sustainable practices. I assure you that I have never had a conversation with him that was not related to rivers. That’s dedication.
Naturally, social issues should also be a challenge for a group of people. The more people can relate to it, the bigger audience you will have. A great way to validate this is to find people who will benefit from solving an issue. Then understand the key factors that matter to them.
At SPEAK, we fight social exclusion of newcomers in new cities. The founders had all lived abroad and felt the challenges of having to adapt to a new city, learning a new language and meeting new people. Also, the team understood that those challenges must be much tougher on people who are forced to move to a new country.
Our team is passionate about different cultures and believes in the power of diversity. We believe the challenges of our time don’t respect boundaries. Solving them requires the engagement of all humanity in its full diversity.
At SPEAK, we understand that if someone voluntarily moves, and is faced with these challenges, those who were in more complicated situations or are forced to move, would face these challenges even more so. We saw the problem and tried to create a solution. Learning a language and having an opportunity to meet new people is needed by everyone, to a different degree, regardless of culture, age, gender and economic status.
2. Surround yourself with great people who can help you grow.
This takes time, and it’s not something that can be easily achieved. Your team will be with you on an exciting but rather tough journey. Building a team can be tough, especially if you don’t have the financial incentive, this group needs to be moved by something different – by the belief in your mission, in you and your passion!
The ideal situation is to get people who have skills that complement yours and the project, helping it grow. It is better not to hire at all than hire poorly. Poor hiring can be time-consuming as well as extremely exhausting. Only hire those who believe in what you do too.
At the beginning you will have a small team and will need a so-called “jack of all trades”. You need those who are willing to fill in an application for fundraising and a budget in the morning, at lunch they must think of creative ways to involve partners and later they should be able to interview potential clients to better understand how you can improve your service/ product differentiating it from existing companies.
In later stages, you will need people who will be more detail-oriented, people who will be ready to add improvements in an incremental way. This is a different job and you will need people who have these skills.
At the beginning, SPEAK needed to test the solutions, understand the problems and the team was focused on solving and getting financing for those first few years. Now it’s all about improving the methodology and its impact, building a great product to serve its users, improve operations by making them more automated and giving support to the SPEAK City founders, to help build their communities.
3. How can you make your business sustainable.
Social enterprises are businesses, therefore, they have to sell a product or service to obtain funding, which creates an impactful change and thereby allows it to scale its impact. Without profits, it is impossible to be sustainable as a business in the long term.
A few key things to remember are: think about who your clients are, those paying for your service, and who will benefit from your solution? Consider what services you are offering and how much people are willing to pay for it.
By preparing a business plan, you will create an overview of the business and see what aspects are missing. It will also help give you an idea of potential investors (foundations, companies, etc..) as well as help you understand where you want to be in 5 years and what your company’s vision is.
You will need to understand how to fund your social venture. If you don’t have any funds to start, it doesn’t mean you can’t. There are a few organisations that are willing to give you some investment capital to get your project started. Finding this all depends on what sector of the market you occupy and the country you are based in.
When SPEAK started in Portugal in 2014 the market, in terms of social entrepreneurship, was underdeveloped and options were scarce for getting grants. Most of them were philanthropic and, with the help of some well-established organisations such as EDP Foundation and Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, SPEAK was able to raise startup capital.
In recent years, the social entrepreneurship market saw a growth. This allowed SPEAK to gain funding from the Government, who also helped with growth strategies. Additionally, SPEAK also gained some grants from other organizations, local and domestic, such as Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation who supported SPEAK throughout its entire journey. Also Fondazione CRT, an Italian Foundation and a private fund, Fundo Bem Comum.
4. Understand the legal structures.
Understanding the legal structure for your social enterprise is of key importance. Legal forms for social enterprises can seem confusing and vary depending on the country. How you set up your social enterprise affects many things, including the funding one can receive as well as from whom the enterprise can receive this funding. One must, for example, take into account the source of funding, does the government support companies or only NGOs? This affects things such as your salary and personal liability, in the case of your business failing.
My suggestion is to find someone who can help you along the way. SPEAK was started as an association, however, this did not fit well the goals in terms of growth and therefore we started a social enterprise. SPEAK was lucky enough to have Vieira de Almeida, one of the top law firms in Portugal, who have helped us every step of the way, from day one.
Regardless, before you decide upon a legal structure for your business, do your research, and speak to other entrepreneurs about their experience. Make sure you understand the impact of the decisions made by others, and how they will theoretically affect your business.
5. Get mentorship and surround yourself with people who believe in the project.
Look for people who want to help you. Social entrepreneurs are a rare breed of humans, and many will be happy to help you get started. They will be thrilled to share the secrets of the triad to ensure you avoid some of the mistakes they may have already made.
If you are planning to speak with someone specific, come prepared as this will ensure you save time for all parties involved.
At the same time, you can also look for a mentor. This is a person who believes in you and your vision. Probably, it has more experience in the field, allowing them to provide sound business advice, support and even a new network of people who can help. If you don’t have direct contacts or don’t know anyone related to the market you are planning on entering, you can start sharing your idea with friends and do some research. LinkedIn, for example, is a great tool to get in touch with experienced professionals in many different areas.
At SPEAK, Hugo — co-founder and CEO — always could get people to believe in his vision and get people to be on his side. He has an incredible ability to make you want to help and engage others in specific issues of the project. Also, most of the team members at SPEAK, meet with others who are experienced in their field of work.
6. It’s all about the impact.
Anyone who wants to start a social venture should aim to make their end goal all about the impact that they can create! Measuring your impact can be tricky, time-consuming and depends a lot on the nature of your project. If your project is to help people find a job, then the outcome is quite simple to measure, namely the percentage of people who can find a job. The impact is, however, much more complex to measure. It has to do with the impact on people’s lives after finding employment.
We at SPEAK don’t have the solutions all figured out, but we measure our impact in three main ways: 1) language learning; 2) the number of friends people meet at SPEAK and; 3) a sense of feeling connected. Last year’s impact assessment shows that 73% of newcomers made friends through SPEAK and 72% met their friends at least once a month outside of SPEAK. Newcomers evaluated a feeling of an increased sense of connection with a 4.3/5.
SPEAK’s aims to scale its impact and be present in every city that needs a community-based solution to solve the social exclusion of newcomers. The growth model adopted is similar to a Social Franchising. SPEAK shares the brand, tools and knowledge and provides support to the SPEAK founders in exchange for a starting fee and a small royalty on revenues.
If you are passionate about diversity and committed to making your city more inclusive, you can start your own SPEAK chapter.
You don’t need to be a business or an entrepreneurship expert. If you have a passion and an idea that may help solve a social problem, make sure you balance the risks of implementing your project and that you surround yourself with people who have the expertise you need and don’t have and can help you on this journey.