3 lessons learned as a startup social enterprise

On a train again, heading back to London after a few days in the Edinburgh Festival, I thought I’d write a few reflections on starting up our social enterprise.

Not to suggest that we’ve had world-beating success or anything, but to look back on our experience of developing an organisation around a set of ideas, that’s given us both a job!

So here we go….

Get started, but change things up

involver's logos in various guises and with a variety of taglines

'On the origin of logos'

The great benefit you have as a new organisation is that you can change big things very quickly.

You need to get up and running and making money in the area that you want to work, but don’t feel bad about making big changes when you’re starting up: change things up!

There’s no six month review on a new three year strategy, there’s no board of trustees to pass things through, there’s just good ideas and not-so-good ideas.

It’s your job to find the good ideas and use them to direct what you do, and how you describe it.

That’s not to suggest that you shouldn’t plan ahead, but being able to change things to make sure you get them right.

Ross, a former-colleague who’s now in the Digital Diplomacy Group at FCO described us as being ‘agile’ – I think this is a good way to describe it. And being agile in changing times like these is definitely a good thing!

We’re constantly tweaking our business plan, and it’s always out of date pretty quickly. It’s quite funny looking back at the earliest versions and how far our thinking has developed – hopefully in the right direction!

And as things develop …

You’ll have to learn stuff, but don’t try to learn everything

You’ll have to learn stuff.

This might seem obvious, but some of this stuff that you’ll have to learn is probably stuff you might not be that interested in learning. Sad but true.

Having worked in big organisations like the civil service, where you know your job description down to the letter (so that you can palm off as much work as possible!), it’s clear that this is the opposite.

In a small organisation like ours (two people), being versatile is important. And not always in a fun way: playing chief executive is fun, but we both need to be admin assistants too!

Knowing the limits of your versatility is the tough bit: the trick is to be able to differentiate between knowing when it’s worth taking the time to learn something, and when you’re best off paying an expert to do it.

Why spend two weeks learning to use an accountancy package when you can pay an accountant to do them in a day? Resources may be scarce, but it’s important to remember what you’re good at, and why you’re there in the first place.

I guess if you can do something:

  • To a good standard
  • Quickly
  • Without paying
  • Which will benefit you again in the future

Then do it! If it’s a one off that will take ages, then don’t!

Sometimes you’ve got friends you can call on to help you with this stuff, but …

Be wary of overplaying connections

Just because you’re excited about your new organisation, and you’ve got a really good contacts, it doesn’t mean you should push them all really hard to help you.

At best, you could force them to reluctantly give you a hand on something they don’t want to do, at worst, you could lose them as a contact all together.

Better to gently remind people of what you’re up to, and open up any opportunities to them. Reminding people is usually pretty easy too, because of the sheer number of ways that you can contact people – twitter, facebook, linkedin, phone, email, letter etc…

Of course, give your cards out widely, chat about what you’re doing with everyone, and there might be a time when you’re begging your Auntie’s son for some legal advice, but in general, I think it’s best to be patient with your efforts.

This could be anyone – a web designer, a lawyer, or an SEO expert – and I think the rule holds for them all.

Interestingly, I see this A LOT in London, maybe because there are just more blaggers here. A friend and I were talking about the same thing within the music industry- people mistake having a contact, with actually doing the work themselves – dangerous!


Add yours
  1. graham allcott

    Great tips – On your final one, I would add that skills swaps are a great way to collaborate with other entrepreneurs, start-ups, friends, contacts and so on. So if you learn how to use Linked In really well, teach someone else that can teach you some SEO. I also really admire the way you guys have set up as a duo, in partnership, rather than on your own – it must make item 1 harder to do as you need the same vision… which it looks very much like you have!

    • Asher

      Thanks Graham, that's a great idea and something we've kind of done with Changemakers (we did some research for them, and they gave us some office space).
      You're right that the vision thing can be difficult when you're a partnership, but it was obviously something we discussed a lot before setting up. The core beliefs and aims are still the same (if they changed I think we'd need to have some kind of business divorce), it's really what we've thought the best way to achieve those aims would be that has evolved. You can see that in the change of tagline. And one of the great things about being in a partnership is that the ideas do evolve, the weaker ones get shot down by your partner and the best ones come from when our ideas mate ;)

  2. Nick Temple

    Enjoyed this Greg. I think the learning point is a really good one. Another way of putting this might be to say that social entrepreneurs need to learn what is relevant to them at the relevant stage of their organisation; so that they are not just amassing lots of stuff, but learning stuff they can apply straight away. If you;re just having content downloaded at you, it pretty soon gets overwhelming and the next step becomes less clear and evident.

    And, as you say, also learning about what you're good at (or want to do) and what you're not. That self-awareness, combined with openness about what you can't do and the resourcefulness to find it, is an underrated characteristic of successful social entrepreneurs in our experience at SSE.


    • Greg

      Thanks for the comment Nick, and your useful points. Particularly good point about the openness thing, sometimes it's tough to admit if you're not good at something, but really important!

      SSE site looks really interesting too, stay in touch.


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