3 Questions to Consider Before Starting Your Social Venture

alden zecha

This post was written by CASE Executive-in-Residence and Sproxil Co-Founder Alden Zecha in March 2016. He has over 25 years of experience in more than 35 countries and has founded several companies, including SEAD Innovator Sproxil, Inc., a social venture that provides a consumer SMS and app product verification service to help consumers avoid purchasing counterfeit products.

Based on my own work founding a social enterprise and my experience collaborating and networking with many other social entrepreneurs, I recently developed and delivered a workshop for Fuqua MBA students about launching a social venture. At the core of the workshop I shared three questions that I believe every social entrepreneur should ask himself or herself prior to launching a new venture. If we each honestly answer these questions prior to launch, I believe we can significantly increase the likelihood that our ventures will succeed.

Who are you actually serving?

In many social ventures, there is often a distinction between who will pay you and who is your actual target beneficiary or end user. Both are critical but, in my experience, really understanding who you are serving and their true needs is core to your model. Do you plan to serve consumers, businesses, government, or society at large?A venture can serve many or even all of these, but each has its own specific needs.  The more you add to your venture’s targets the more complex your business model will need to be – and the more difficult it will be to execute the business well. You should carefully and deliberately choose which one(s) you want to serve and ensure that you don’t inadvertently plan to serve others.When we started Sproxil, we determined that our target beneficiaries would be both individual consumers and businesses. Although we would also provide notable benefits to government and societies at large, we felt that by focusing on the former two we would best achieve the impact we were seeking, which was to reduce the effect of counterfeit goods in the marketplace.

Will you serve more through indirect or direct means?

When the goal of a social venture is to have an impact, the means to achieve that can be more nuanced than in a commercial venture where increasing numbers of customers or revenue is the direct path to sustainability and scale. A given social venture can potentially impact millions of lives, but to do so means that you can’t realistically directly contact and serve each person.This is a traditional dilemma social entrepreneurs face. Should your venture scale indirectly to broaden its reach and impact the most possible people, or go deep and serve people directly? Either is an honorable and admirable path; they just differ and those differences will deeply affect your business model and how you execute against your business plans.At Sproxil, we felt that we could best scale indirectly by affiliating ourselves with others so that we could leverage our joint strengths to maximize our impact. We recognized that by joining with others we could incorporate already well developed telecommunications solutions and focus on the most challenging parts of the problems we were working to solve.

In my new venture, We Scale Impact, we have taken a similar approach as we advise clients on healthcare issues. We know that we don’t have all the answers and so welcome partnering with other consultants and practitioners to jointly work together to address difficult issues.

What defines success for your venture and why are you pursuing this venture?

Building and growing a social venture is hard work and being clear about your own goals and motivations can steer you through the inevitable setbacks along the way. The definition of your venture’s success is likely defined in large part by your answers to the first two questions.But just as important is clearly understanding your personal motivations for launching the enterprise. Are you seeking to purely serve others, tour the world, gain fame, profit financially, become an expert on a topic or some combination of those? And what is your personal time horizon to achieve those goals? You need to see if there is alignment between your venture’s goals and your own personal ones (and those of any co-founders).For example, at We Scale Impact our venture’s goal is to improve healthcare globally by sharing our knowledge, experiences and skills with others. My personal goals are to continue to be intellectually stimulated by solving challenging issues, to work with interesting, intelligent and passionate people and to earn a reasonable income to contribute to my family’s wellbeing. These sets of goals are not the same, but they are also not in conflict.

Goal misalignment doesn’t mean your goals are inappropriate or you are a bad person for not prioritizing what is best for the enterprise but it likely means that you aren’t the best person to run the venture long-term. Social ventures progress through multiple stages of growth and it often takes different people with different motivations and skillsets to carry the venture through those stages.

Answering the above three questions thoroughly and honestly will help you have a strong articulation of your organizational vision and help you to formulate a business model that is most likely to achieve success. Taking time to go through this process will also help you better define your personal role in launching the venture and when and where you might need to garner support from others.