THE BLOG
12/11/2014 11:36 am ET Updated Feb 09, 2015

12 Tips for the Budding Social Entrepreneur (or How to Avoid the Classic Pitfalls) - Part I

You have a great idea to save the world and you want to launch or have just launched your own organization to get this idea out into the world? You are a budding social entrepreneur (whether you know it or not). My two cents on how to avoid the biggest pitfalls and launching your organization in the right direction...

The first 6 tips here in part I. Next 6 are - obviously -- in part II, available soon.

1. If your great idea is a new shiny product, it's probably not a great idea - focus on what your customers actually need and how to deliver it to them

I apologize to all the solar lantern designers out there, but I don't believe we need yet another new solar lantern, even though some 2.7 billion people live without access to clean energy across the world. What I mean by this is that the biggest issue is usually not the technology itself, it's about getting these lanterns into the hands of the people who need them. That means getting the price of lanterns (or other technologies) down enough so that those who need them can afford them, and creating distribution systems to reach them, ideally employing local entrepreneurs themselves. Or even better, of course, finding already existing low cost local technologies and supporting those that produce them, rather than bringing in a shiny new lantern manufactured in the USA or China.

2. Design your exit strategy from the outset

When you're trying to solve a problem like access to energy, distribution is key, as well as sustainability of your work. Working in a community for 30 years is not a good thing - it means that they - and in fact you - have become dependent on your help. It's more than likely anyway that you'll not be there in 30 years, that you'll only be there in fact for 1-5 years, given your funding may dry up. So what happens when you leave? Does your good work continue without you or even better, expand and take on a life of its own through local entrepreneurs? If your idea is a product of some kind (a tractor, a well, a lantern, etc) - what happens when it breaks down? One of my favorite quotes derived from Victor Hugo'sLes Miserables, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions.": the hell of international aid is filled with solar lanterns, play pumps and baby warmers left on shelves unsold, or in fields broken down.

3. Don't take a post-colonialist attitude - please

Related to this, don't assume that because you are bright, well-educated, and have some momentum, you know better than the people you are trying to help, whether that's in the US or across the world. This should be soooooooo obvious and yet I still often see this. The word 'beneficiary' should be banned from our language, as well as the word 'empower'. If you're reading this, it's more than likely that you're an outsider from the community you're trying to help - even if you're from that country. That does not mean you should not help - on the contrary, people with the means - almost any means - morally should in my view, but with deep understanding, empathy, and listening.

4. Actually, assume you really know almost nothing

Start with your customer (not 'beneficiary'). Understand what they really need. Think through the unintended consequences of your work. Design your work around them. How can you exit?

5. Quick iteration and failure is part of the process

I went to a Lean Impact event a few months ago, which is trying to apply Eric Ries's Lean Startup concept to the social impact field - essentially fail fast, iterate often, create as quickly as possible a minimal viable product and test and re-test it with your customers. I like the concept a lot - especially when you contrast it to a typical project which may last 3-5 years and you only know if it works when you do the evaluation at the end (and then you realize you did not do a good baseline). See my previous post on failure here.

6. Measure the right things - i.e. outcomes and your agency towards it

I could write a 10 part series on the need for better metrics in social impact. If you have bad, too few, too many or no metrics in place, it's probably because you have a bad strategy or what, in development, we call 'theory of change'. Two key pieces of advice here:
a) Do a baseline with a control group. You can't see the impact you've had as opposed to what might have happened without your agency if you don't know where you've started from and then it's clearly too late, cf Jeff Sach's Millenium Villages.
b) Design your Monitoring and Evaluation strategy from the very beginning so that the costs and measurement is integrated into the project, not an ad hoc.

Next 6 tips coming soon in part II.