Making sure that that your ideas will work is the first stage of social entrepreneurship.
By Ron Schultz
Part of the Creating Good Work series.
For those of us who dream up new ideas continually, it is tempting to spend a career selling air. But just because ideas are cheap, doesn’t mean they aren’t worth the coin they are minted on.
Pitch After Pitch
Ideas for ideas' sake have fueled the lifetimes of many scholars for millennia, and we’ve built fabulous institutions of higher learning to encourage the practice and house them. But there is little question that there is a disconnection between what scholars refer to as the “ontic” and epistemic and the pragmatic; between our thinking about thinking — how we think — and what we are actually doing.
In the corporate realm, selling ideas is a continual stream of pitch after pitch. In fact, some folks are able to fashion a whole career out of teaching people how to pitch. Selling air to those selling even more air.
Because of the often gaping crevice between idea and action, we get the Latin phrase caveat emptor, or buyer beware — the hallmark of risk adversity. And for good reason, because as Mr. Barnum astutely observed, “there’s a sucker born every minute.” In Barnum’s inference, what’s at stake is usually someone being separated from their money.
Social Enterprise: About Impact
In the social entrepreneurial world, the consequences of selling and buying air can be far greater than “a handful of empty,” and unfortunately the impact much more devastating. This doesn’t imply that fraud or deceit is rampant in the area of human or environmental services, but for those interested in benefiting others, there is no substitute for manifesting intention, and demonstrating success.
Great visions aside, in the realm of helping others, it’s about doing the work.
After the publication of Creating Good Work – The World’s Leading Social Entrepreneurs Show How to Build a Healthy Economy, I became a magnet for those who want to launch social entrepreneurial ideas. There are a lot of good ones out there and there is even more good work actually being done.
But because of the rapid growth in this industry for good, investors and donors have become far more circumspect as to how they let funding flow. They want to see the impact an idea is having. And that’s a good thing.
Build A Foundation Before You Go For Funding
It also requires those with a great starting concept to act before going looking for funding. Getting what you want requires a visible infrastructure to support the information you want to share. This relationship between information (what you want) and infrastructure (what you build to get what you want) is crucial.
As a creative type, I am often loath to actually build the foundation, launch the pilot and do all the work necessary to demonstrate viability. I’d much rather be paid to simply create fabulous air. But I also understand that there is an appropriate ratio between infrastructure and information that must be met. Enough infrastructure, but not too much. Sufficient information, but not overload.
I was recently approached by an entrepreneur with an idea. He had figured out all the pieces he needed, and was trying to sell what he had on that identification process alone. He felt confident that the idea was so good that people should be lining up to launch it.
My counsel was a little different. Put the pieces into motion and record what happens. Provide evidence that what you are doing is not only needed but works. Prototype, pilot, demonstration, testimony, confirmation, substantiation… evidence. The hard part is not the idea of pudding, but in its making.
Proof Of Concept
Launching without cash in hand may sound like a recipe for disaster, and gathering data may seem like something for the geek posse, but proof of concept is worth every ounce of sweat poured in, especially in the social sector.
If it’s a service being provided, write the documentation and provide it somewhere for free. Prove it works. If it’s a product, design it, build the prototype and demonstrate functionality. And while there’s a sucker born every minute, there’s always someone willing to try what you’ve got for free. Get testimonials, video, and pictures.
Do you know anyone who has ever answered a letter about a lottery from Nigeria? And while that is more appropriately labeled “stealing air,” it is something akin to shopping an idea without proof of concept. Taking the time to actualize this allows for building a greater understanding of the capabilities and idiosyncrasies that will invariably arise.
That understanding, in turn, means the final product is less likely to be a surprise to either the entrepreneur or the end user. Proof of concept allows for a level of risk taking and at the same time reduces overall risk issues. The entrepreneur can see what works and knows what doesn’t.
This may seem obvious to an engineer or computer software developer, but to a social entrepreneur driven by urgency and mission, it can seem like unnecessary delay. It is anything but. Proof of concept is not about satisfying those without vision. It’s providing a testing ground where changes can be made, refinements assessed, and obvious errors corrected.
Working For Free Up Front Pays Off In The Long Run
No one likes working for free, and even fewer can afford to, and yet there is, often, no other way. Take half the time used for selling an idea and put it into doing it. Then use that experience and feedback, and do it again.
It may mean that two or three prototypes are discarded on the way to a final product or service, and that’s good news. Getting it right and being able to point to that success, even in limited measures, increases the opportunities to sell it to investors and customers alike.
This is of even great importance with social entrepreneurial efforts.
Because of the social challenges they are attempting to solve, social innovators have taken on a greater role in filling the gaps in our social infrastructure. And since every effort begins as a startup, it behooves even the most ardent idea generator to manifest the model, engage the infrastructure required, with all its moving parts, then test and prove it works.
Once a functional process is in place, substance replaces air, and the credibility impact investors and donors are looking for can be pointed to and trumpeted with good reason. Creating good work is ultimately only of value when we are doing good work.
Got a good idea? Get it to work.