Lessons from Entrepreneurs, for Entrepreneurs

Last week, Good magazine interviewed seven all-star social entrepreneurs. At the very bottom of the interview, they get to the good stuff: “Do you have any ‘lessons learned’ [sic] to share with people who are thinking of creating a social enterprise?” The answers are gems:

Lesson 1: Listen to your customers

Get on the ground and listen to the people you want to help! This is the heart of social enterprise—satisfying a customer with a product or service that they actually need. (Andrew Youn, One Acre Fund)

Go to the customer. Who are you trying to serve? Have you talked to them? Do they want your solution? (Timothy Wade, Waste Enterprisers)

As investors, we pay close attention to whether entrepreneurs seem to be listening to their customers. Spring Health’s Paul Polak, for example, has built his career on conversations with thousands of smallholding farmers. Recently, he and Jacob Mathew from Idiom design discovered through one of those conversations that rural Indian consumers were willing to pay a premium to have purified water delivered to their doorstep, like jugs of milk in 1950s America. In contrast, In 2006 I remember hearing HIV experts complaining about Ugandan women using the plastic rings from female condoms as bracelets rather than contraceptives.

Lesson 2: Focus on people  

Once you have a good idea, it’s having the right people on board that will make or break your business.  Your human resources are your most important resource. (Ashley Murray, Waste Enterprisers)

Making a solid early hire is like anabolic steroids for a company. I spoke last week with one entrepreneur who hired someone to pay attention to the details that she hates, from typos on blog entries to double-checking contracts; she feels like she’s added an extra 20 hours to her week. Conversely, a bad hiring move–or poorly managing high-class talent–means dead weight, distraction, and more time spent on HR when you should be talking to those customers. A friend of mine lost his star salesman this month because both (wrongly) focused on salary as the driver of that employee’s job satisfaction and shut off negotiation too early.

Lesson 3: Ditch the ego and execute

It’s hard to be the visionary and the operator at the same time. Figure out which role you are better suited to play, and find the best person you can find to do the other stuff. Also, don’t worry about if you are the first to come up with the idea – just execute the hell out of yours and in 3 years, no one will care who was first. I’m sure someone else has said that before, but it’s especially true for the types of people who gravitate to our field. (Peter Gross, MicroEnsure)

Entrepreneurs that we meet, by and large, are visionaries. Finding the operators is tough–and even more so when an entrepreneur isn’t willing to share power, equity, or limelight with someone else. BioSense, a Thane-based company with four founders (typically a red flag) has been able to build a product, make sales, and nearly close a round of funding–all because none of them allow ego to get in the way of execution.  They go so far as to have a rotation for attending conferences and events.

Thanks to Andrew, Timothy, Ashley, and Peter for the tips! Photo credit Lokis Tochter

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