This post was written by CASE Executive-in-Residence and Sproxil Co-Founder Alden Zecha in August 2017. 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.
By their very nature, social entrepreneurs are dedicated, mission-driven people. We strive to make the world a better place by turning down other professional opportunities and forgoing their more lucrative financial rewards to achieve our missions. Few would ever accuse social entrepreneurs of not being willing to sacrifice for their mission. But sometimes that is our biggest problem.
As any venture scales, it evolves. Each stage of that growth poses different challenges and key priorities to continue the forward progress toward greater success. In addition, while the mission may remain the same, the ways to execute against it change in terms of offerings, consumers and partners. Simultaneously our personal lives evolve too – relationships, family, financial responsibilities and intellectual interests all change over time. That’s where the issue arises.
When you found a social enterprise, you and the venture are highly aligned. Your personal goals are almost inseparable from the organizational goals. Success for one means success for the other. Over time though as both you and the enterprise grow, those goals may no longer be as well aligned. To meet the organizational goal of having more impact may require you to personally forgo spending time with, or even having, a family and being a good partner/spouse/parent may be a critically important personal goal. Because social entrepreneurs are self-sacrificing, we typically soldier on to push our enterprise forward and subordinate our personal interests. But is that best? Can we actually create a win-win situation? My belief is that often we can and we just don’t see how.
Two years ago I went through this struggle at Sproxil. I was the co-founder, CFO and strategist and had helped guide it from an idea to successful business operating in seven countries and impacting millions of lives. We had gone from one core offering to three and from working exclusively with pharma clients to clients across more than a dozen industries. During that time, I had also gotten married and my family faced some medical challenges. The company’s goals and my goals were no longer exactly the same. We had both evolved. Success for one didn’t mean failure for the other but it didn’t mean success for the other either. So it was time for us to part ways.
I could easily have stayed on. No one was pushing me out at all but staying wasn’t for the best overall. The company would be better served by others whose personal goals more fully aligned with the opportunities at hand and I could better pursue my own goals apart from the company. Both the organization and I would be more successful at achieving our goals if we parted ways and divorced. That was the win-win. It wasn’t easy – breakups never are. We’ve stayed close and friendly, as I continue to serve on Sproxil’s board and provide advice, and we have both gone on to bigger things. The company has achieved greater successes, including recently launching in Mali and reaching the milestone of having protected consumers in more than 50 million transactions. I’m now advising and mentoring numerous social enterprises, running a specialty consulting firm focused on the emerging markets, and working with terrific students at Duke.
The experience taught me a lot. In the talks and workshops I give, I now teach founders to evaluate the differences between their enterprise’s goals and their personal goals and to ensure that they reassess both periodically. I challenge them to be brave when the time comes to leave their social enterprise. Doing so isn’t a failure and isn’t abandoning the impact mission. Sometimes going separate ways is the best for everyone and so in the end we can have our cake and eat it too.