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Live and Learn: The Greatest Mistakes (and Lessons) of Social Entrepreneurship

Image credit: DoGoodBuy.Us

I liken being a social entrepreneur to being a New York City resident; you don’t really feel like you belong until you can show others around. After celebrating two years of being a social entrepreneur, I am thrilled to share the story of how I turned mistakes into a meaningful enterprise.

It began at the supermarket. My then three-year-old son and I were heading down that slippery slope aka the cereal aisle. It hit me that every product that was at eye level for him contained more sugar than nutrition. In fact, some boxes listed over 90 ingredients, most of which I couldn’t pronounce.

I searched for better alternatives and picked up a box of Newman’s Own brand cereal. What caught my eye was not only that it was made of four all-natural ingredients but the phrase, “All profits go to charity.” This began my journey to discover more products and companies that made the same pledge, and to then set up a marketplace for them. Hence, DoGoodBuyUs was born.

There were some immediate challenges, such as educating consumers about the need for a socially responsible marketplace and forming the right partnerships. But there were lots of bumps along the way.

Entrepreneurship starts when everyone else would have quit

It's near impossible to keep up with the Joneses when you don't have their deep pockets. But necessity is the mother of invention. Reaching the brink, running out of capital, losing sales and other setbacks will force you to explore options for survival that would otherwise not be on your radar.

Contest after contest, incubator after incubator, no matter what the business competition was, we finished just outside the running. Finalists for TechStars (twice) and Civic Incubator (twice), and runner-up at three investor conferences. With our backs against the wall, we improved on the model after falling short in several areas.

Our new model has proven to be more effective; by following the course we had originally set, we couldn’t have grown. We had to be open to options, but we also had to be at the brink of disaster in order to find the right path. When nothing is going right, go left.

If you can get them to cry, you can get them to buy

A social entrepreneur’s greatest tool is “storyselling.” The idea that, because of you, something good has happened. Look at TOMS Shoes (Because of you, a child in need received a pair of shoes) and FEED: Projects (Because of you, 35 people will eat tonight). This is our tool and we need to own it.

By launching with a crowd commerce model, we are bringing amazing projects to life through great products. As an example, in October we launched a campaign to build water wells through water bottles. For every 300 bottles we sold, a well was built in Nepal, providing clean water to 10,000 people.

By month’s end, more than 600 had been sold. So: Because of you and your purchase, the world will be a better place.

There is no such thing as a bad conversation

Far too often I hear stories from other entrepreneurs about the deals they missed out on because of the networks they couldn’t tap into. Don’t get me wrong — there are 100 reasons you can lose a deal. But consider this: If you talked to everyone you ever met for five minutes about what you were working on, do you think a few of them might be able to make some great introductions? The answer is YES.

95 percent of business is done exactly the same way

We often forget this as social entrepreneurs. We believe that because our mindset is so unique and our businesses so forward-thinking, that execution must be as well. But all enterprises, mission-driven or not, need good accounting procedures, a steady customer base, solid organization and proven business practices.

For us, the most challenging part was keeping track of our finances. Yes, there are some seriously easy-to-use software options but accounting was never my strength. When at a crossroads, look to your network. We were able to tap friends (after tax season) who helped us manage our books for low or no cost.

Patience is key

Set expectations for your first year and then cut them in half. Don’t overreact when everyone doesn’t jump on the bandwagon right away. Don’t twist and turn to every whim of your first couple of clients and most importantly, stay true to your mission.

I had an uncle suggest that I quit because the world wasn’t ready for this type of business, friends who told me to give up my hobby and think about my family, and partners who didn’t totally understand our mission and ended up making things more difficult. Despite all that, our team never quit.

Your idea is good and if it keeps you up at night, it’s even better. Get out there and do it. The tides are turning around the world, making this the ideal time to start a social venture. According to eMarketer, more than 56 percent of consumers are seeking companies that give back. And according to a study of Stanford undergrads, more than 90 percent said they would take a lower salary to work for a company that shared their values.

So if you have the ideas and the determination, it’s time to start making the mistakes you will never regret.