Finding SE models that are replicable and scalable.
Congratulations to the Canadian social enterprise sector. I read both the Canada-wide and Ontario SE checkups posted in this publication over the last month and the SE movement appears to be in good shape. As we start 2013, I’ve been doing a bit of a checkup on my own social venture. Putting on my stethoscope for just a moment, I’d like to give myself some SE health advice. For what it’s worth, I share this below.
First, there are a lot of great stories being shared about social enterprises all across the country. But for 2013, my challenge to myself is to find models that are both replicable and scalable. To echo a point made by Al Etmanski, a partner in SIG, in last month’s cross Canada checkup, many of our SE initiatives still see social innovators working for minimum wages with little financial backing to grow. I’m not suggesting that these innovators shouldn’t be applauded for making things happen; and if sector health is to be strengthened, their stories absolutely need to be shared. Nevertheless, I need to make it my priority to find the innovators who are scaling.
My wish for the social enterprise sector
To help address Al’s concerns, my wish for the sector as a whole is that we do a better job sharing these stories with everyone else who will listen. Sometimes these aren’t the sexiest enterprises. For example, SEs focused on local organic food get coverage in the media, a cleaning business with an SE focus usually doesn’t. However, if we’re really looking to both grow our own businesses and help SE, it’s important to look beyond just the sexy news stories. It’s also important to look beyond our own borders. If someone is scaling somewhere else where we can get good data, figure out what they’re doing to get there. On my personal wish list is to hear how Thorkil Sonne and his team atSpecialisterne have scaled a business that focuses on employing individuals on the autism spectrum.
Keeping the medical analogy going for a moment, my second point is really a request to the “SE medical profession” or in this case, those of you investing in SE capacity-building in Canada. There’s a lot of great information out there in the SE sector (as an SE student, sometimes it feels like there’s too much of it). The challenge for someone starting an SE, with limited capital and very limited clout, is sifting through it all to find out what’s most useful. To use the medical analogy again, I think doctors have learned that if they want their patients to take action on a negative behaviour, like quitting smoking or changing their eating habits, they need to keep their advice short and focused. It’s about priorities. We in the SE sector need to do the same. So as we build those SE databases and continue to organize our capacity-building events, I’d like to see us start to build a focused model on what it takes to build both successful social enterprises and successful social entrepreneurs. Perhaps we could look at correlating with the kinds of capital that SEs need to build (at least as a starting place).
A prescription for successful social enterprise
As with any medical prescription, I know that one approach will not fit all. However, as we’ve learned in the public health sector, it really is about scaling. To get there, we need to get good at a) culling data, and b) when we find something that works for large numbers, disseminate that information widely. Those posters on every bus shelter reminding us to get our flu shot do work.
Zooming back in on my own SE prescription for a moment, my advice to myself for 2013 is to build on the health tips I’ve already found that work. I also need to remember to be really focused. With this in mind, I want to share one book that I literally stumbled upon at the library last month. As a startup co-founder, I wish I’d had this last year, back when my venture was just an idea. The book is The Ultralight Startup, by Jason Baptiste, one of the co-founders of OnSwipe. Jason is a tech entrepreneur, so most of his examples come from the tech sector. However, even if your social venture has nothing to do with technology, you can learn a lot from him, and save yourself significant time (and dare I say headache) in testing your idea or a minimum viable product (MVP). If you don’t know what an MVP is, (I didn’t a few short months ago) then I definitely recommend you grab this book and read it cover to cover right now, especially if you are currently investing your hard earned savings in your SE.
Enough said. I’m going to take my own prescription advice and not get to the point of overwhelming myself with too much information. Instead I’m going to sum up my SE health focus for this coming year, as follows:
1) Find examples of SEs that have scaled and learn from them.
2) Tap into the sector road maps that are being built now; learn from and contribute to them.
3) Be really focused in my search for additional startup information – and when I find it, share it with the folks I know who are looking for the same thing.
4) Finally, as I’m sure the doctor would prescribe, get regular SE exercise – attend SE learning events.
Verity Dimock is currently working with Robert Patterson (www.earthbox.mx) on the launch of a Canadian social enterprise focused on local, sustainable food. Before shifting her career focus to social enterprise, Verity was the executive director of Smart Serve Ontario. She holds a Master’s degree from Boise State University (Instructional and Performance Technology) and a Bachelor’s degree from Trent University (Politics and Economics).
In addition to her social enterprise work, Verity teaches career development workshops and is an employment coach for students in the HVAC and Sustainable Energy Programs at Humber College. She tweets about her experience as a new social entrepreneur @SocentGirl.