Social Doesn't Mean Special (Part 1/3)

By Isaiah Baldissera, lead educator, Groundswell BUILD.

Over the past six months, I’ve had the pleasure of working with a talented, inspiring group of urban entrepreneurs who are confronting the most important social and environmental challenges facing Metro Vancouver and beyond. I’m proud that Groundswell is an inclusive incubator program which empowers those from low-income and marginalized backgrounds to create a livelihood through self-employment.

**By the way, our annual showcase takes place this Tuesday. More here: **

My first year as lead educator of the Build program saw me overhauling the curriculum while simultaneously teaching it. This has been a wonderful way for me to test my own hypotheses surrounding entrepreneurial education with young adults.

Some of my assumptions proved false. I realized the concept of ‘validation’ couldn’t simply be introduced in the first week then left alone; instead, it was something that had to be woven into the fabric of each class.

Below (and in two other blog posts) are three important lessons I’ve learned as an entrepreneurship educator which I hope will be helpful to other aspiring founders.

'Social’ doesn’t mean ‘special’ 

The social enterprise is a curious breed. Depending on how you define it, it could be a pure non-profit, a for-profit hybrid (think Benefit Corp or Community Contribution Corp), or perhaps even an enterprising wing of a charity. All that is certain is that social enterprises have something in their DNA that differentiates them from traditional corporations. It would be a mistake, however, for a social entrepreneur to adopt an exceptionalist mindset, or a paradigm that they are somehow special, or exempt from the rigorous validation standards expected of other early-stage startups.

Since social problems are often well-researched, well-publicized, and well-discussed in the public sphere, a social entrepreneur can develop a false sense of understanding which leads her to make unsubstantiated assumptions about the problem she is trying to solve. I see this harmful mentality creep up when founders settle for secondary research instead of doing the time-intensive work of talking to those affected by the problem. As uncomfortable as it may be, meeting face-to-face or picking up the phone is the best way to gain a deep understanding of who your user is and how the social issue in question affects them.

Beyond problem validation, a social entrepreneur must be vigilant when validating her solution and business model. A well-intentioned founder seeking to solve a social ill is likely to receive generic platitudes from friends, family, and the public when pitching a benevolent idea. This can often lead to a false sense of confidence in the validity of the idea itself. In light of this, I ask founders to ask the question ‘will he put his money where his mouth is?’ when deciding whether to act on feedback. The best way to do this is to actually have something small to sell — such as tickets to a pop-up event — or to ask for an email address.

It won’t take long for an entrepreneur to find that getting Facebook ‘likes’ is easy; but getting a paying user, client, or customer is hard. Keeping the focus on where there is demand and a willingness to pay for a product or service is the best way to build a sustainable venture.

Key takeaway: Don’t assume you understand the problem or have a robust solution until you run tests to validate it. And don’t expect a break because you’re trying to solve a social problem.