Should Have Put a Ring on It: Marrying a Part of Your Startup

Daniela Papi, founder of PEPY and PEPY Tours, is back and hitting us with some pretty serious stuff – marriage! Well, marriage to your startup, that is. She asks social entrepreneurs to reflect on what part of their plan they are unwilling to break away from so that when components of the plan are challenged, they know what to prioritize. Through her work at the Skoll Centre, Daniela lectures on entrepreneurship at Oxford’s Saïd Business School and is responsible for designing ongoing learning opportunities for students interested in the relationship between business and social impact.

Originally posted on Unreasonable.is on March 4, 2014.

Through my work at the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship in Oxford, I get the chance to interact with a lot of successful and aspiring entrepreneurs. I see a key difference between the groups that effectively get their organizations off the ground and the ones that stall. The ones who are able to move forward are easily able to answer the question:

What are you married to?

daniela papiBy “marriage”, I mean: What is the ESSENTIAL part of your plan that you are married to and unwilling to break away from?

Similar questions might be: What is your goal? What does success look like? Why are you doing this?

People often start enterprises with more than one goal in mind. They may have a lot of different reasons for launching and might be able to visualize success in many ways. The good thing about the “What are you married to?” question is that it implies a commitment to something specific. Without that, I have seen numerous projects, including my own, flounder or fail to get off the ground.

Founding teams seem to get stuck on these issues in two ways: they are either not married to ANYTHING and get torn apart by lack of direction and different priorities. Or they marry themselves to too many things at once, making it impossible to realize their goals.

Let me give you an example:

Helping the “Poorest of the Poor” & Mobile Technology: I met with a group of people who were looking to bring their business model to a remote area of Africa and in their plan they stated that they were committed to reaching “the poorest of the poor.” They also expressed their resolve to deliver their product via mobile phones. And they wanted to base themselves in the UK while they did it.

My questions to the team were: What are you MARRIED to? Which of these “requirements” is fixed? Because if they ALL are, you might not get anywhere!

If they were resolute in their marriage to the idea of using mobile tech to deliver their platform, they might have needed to give up the idea of reaching “the poorest of the poor” given their business model. Or, if they were unwaveringly married to the idea of reaching “the poorest of the poor”, then they needed to first consider the BEST way to reach those communities, and be open to the possibility that it might not be through a mobile app. Or, if they were committed to staying in the UK and steadfast on that decision, then they needed to figure out a different business model, team structure, or split leadership plan which allowed them to accomplish their personal goals and get their business off the ground. And, if they were married to the idea of running a business, not a non-profit, then they needed to come up with a model to achieve all of this that would make enough money to keep their business afloat.

In this case, it would have been impossible to be married to all of these things at once, which prevented them from even getting off the ground.

Knowing what you are married to can help you and your team prioritize when fundamental concepts around your business are challenged. Mature businesses rarely look anything like the original business plan (i.e. Nokia started as a paper mill, and at one point was a boot company!), start-ups need to be prepared to pivot away from their first idea. Pivots are possible with a few fixed points (i.e. we know we are married to a for-profit model and we are committed to helping employ people from XYZ community). A group with these fixed criteria might have started with a business model involving mobile phone based sales, and then later realize their model wasn’t achieving their impact goals, so they pivot their business to an in-person sales model.

Pivoting away from your plan becomes impossible if you have a laundry list of “fixed” criteria (i.e. we know we are married to a for-profit model, that serves the “poorest of the poor” in XYZ community, and must use this specific mobile technology, and we need to be based in this other specific location while we do it, and…). If this group’s initial business idea starts to prove ineffective, it will be really hard for them to pivot if they are indeed “married” to all of these things.

From the groups I have worked with and mentored, I believe this can specifically be an issue in social entrepreneurship. As an ideas person myself, I too often get caught up in a new concept, and get carried away with thinking about the business model before I step back and ask myself, “What am I married to with this idea? Is it the business model I’m in love with, or the impact this model will have?”

commitment1

I have seen a few social enterprises drift away from achieving their mission by failing to get married to the impact they wanted to have. One group had trajectory similar to this.

Here is another example.

Employing Immigrant Women & Sewing Classes: A group of budding social entrepreneurs noticed that many immigrant women were having problems finding employment in their city. They decided to set up a business employing recent immigrants to teach sewing classes to paying customers. After a year’s trial they realized that the unemployed women were not great teachers, so they began to employ professional sewing instructors to teach the classes.

In this case, it didn’t work to marry themselves to their original sewing classes model AND the goal of employing immigrant woman AND running a for-profit business. Their business model proved to be financially unviable with that setup. At that stage, they asked themselves: What are we married to?

If the answer was, “We’re married to employing immigrant women”, then they would have needed to significantly shift their business model, perhaps throwing their sewing class idea out the window and asking themselves “What other businesses could we run to employ these same women?” If they decided they weren’t married to the idea of running a business but instead married themselves to “helping immigrant women get jobs” they might have decided to throw their social business idea out the window and instead run a non-profit that was doing skills training and job matching for immigrant women. Instead they married themselves to the sewing classes, meaning that their impact changed. They were no longer trying to help immigrant women, but focused on teaching more people how to sew.

There is nothing wrong with running an awesome sewing education business…. if you are extremely passionate about teaching people how to sew!

So to all the budding social entrepreneurs out there: If you are married to a specific change you want to see in the world, make sure you make that clear to your team, your funders, and yourself. Look at your original business plan and ask yourself – “What parts of this plan am I MARRIED to? Which part, if it needed to change, would make me NOT want to do this idea any more?” If you are married to achieving a specific impact, that might mean you need to be willing to throw out other parts of your business model if your plan fails. Sit down with your founding team and do some pre-marriage counseling – make sure you are all on the same page about which things you would be willing to change, and which things are grounds for a divorce. If you don’t know what you are married to, you might not even make it to the honeymoon part of the start-up!

To read more from Daniela, check out her blog Lessons I Learned.

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