How to Start a Social Purpose Business
Take a look at our 10-step framework for starting up a Social Purpose Business.
If you’re an aspiring or established entrepreneur with a passion for a social or environmental issue, there are growing opportunities available. Starting up a Social Purpose Business allows you to leverage your entrepreneurial principles to organize, mobilize and manage a for-profit business that supports social change. Here’s a 10-step framework for starting up a Social Purpose Business.
1. Choose a social issue
Most social entrepreneurs are inspired by something. Christine Poirier of Montreal, Quebec designed her own nursing top to feel more comfortable breastfeeding in public. Her desire to help other women have positive breastfeeding experiences is what inspired Christine to co-found Momzelle, which makes quality, fashionable nursing apparel, sponsors breastfeeding events across North America and donates tops to women’s centres.
Like Christine Poirier, you might be drawn to a social issue through your own experience, but the cause you choose needs to be important to many others. For example, a recycling business that helps reduce the amount of plastic water bottles in landfills can resonate with a wide audience, in turn making a greater positive impact on the environment.
2. Research your issue
Even if you have personal experience with the social issue you’re hoping to solve, that doesn’t make you an expert. You need to have a full grasp on the nature of your endeavor, so take the time to do your research. What is your target market, and what assumptions are you making about it? Is there a real need for your Social Purpose Business? What is your competition and how will you stand out from it? What is the value you want to bring to your customers? Market research and analysis, feasibility studies, industry analysis and viewpoint forums can help you validate your assumptions and determine the potential of your idea.
3. Get a global viewpoint
Even if your cause is a local one, look beyond. There’s a world of resources available – international websites, online blogs and social networks, local and global social enterprise networks, events and meet-ups and traditional media. Take advantage to find out who the relevant innovators and innovations are worldwide, and to set up interviews with experts and potential customers. Also look beyond your industry, as valuable parallels can be drawn and trends understood from Social Purpose Businesses in other sectors.
4. Grasp legal structures
The legal structure of your business will impact its structure, governance, taxation, regulations and ability to attract investments and partners.1 Structures currently available in Canada are charities, not-for-profits, co-operatives and for-profit corporations.
The challenge faced by social entrepreneurs in Canada is that they must choose between a not-for-profit and for-profit structure from the get-go, neither of which is entirely suited to a business striving to create blended value. Before you decide upon a legal structure for your business, be sure to do your research, speak to other entrepreneurs about their experience and make sure you understand the impact your decision will make on your business. Read more about choosing a legal structure for a Social Purpose Business.
5. Establish a solid business plan
It’s time to turn your research into a business plan. A business plan should have defined goals and tasks, effective strategies and measurements for success, such as:
- Clearly defining your product or service
- Clearly defining your social objectives
- Your plan for meeting your blended social and business goals
- Your plan for measuring success – both business and social
- Who your customers are and how you plan to reach them
- Marketing channels you plan to use
- Your plan for product development or service delivery
- Your business model (legal structure)
- Your operations plan (where it will be based, who is on your team, how it will work day to day)
- Your financial plan (start-up costs, projected incomes, expenses and cash flow)
- Skills required and staff needed
Remember, a Social Purpose Business is a for-profit endeavour that will be competing with commercial enterprises that are concerned only with financial returns. Your business plan needs to engage and convince stakeholders, investors and funders.
6. Investigate funding options
One of the greatest challenges for entrepreneurs is finding the resources and capital to start their venture – even more so for social entrepreneurs. It helps to first understand the different types of financing that are available, including various sources of private sector financing or financing from non-governmental organizations. Only then can you assess which financing options best suit your Social Purpose Business.
The struggle many social entrepreneurs have is engaging private and public investors who generally lack experience with the unique risks, business models and markets presented by social ventures. Investors consider Social Purpose Business a riskier investment because it tends to be relatively complex, takes longer to scale and often tackles uncharted areas.1
7. Seek ongoing support from a mentor
Establishing a relationship with a mentor from the onset of your business is critical. A mentor is a business professional with the experience to provide sound business advice, support and encouragement, but it’s imperative to choose a mentor who understands the unique challenges and issues faced by socially-minded entrepreneurs. In the experience of the Futurpreneur Canada, the chances of success are much higher when a young entrepreneur has the support of a mentor, so all Futurpreneur Canada entrepreneurs are matched with a mentor, prior to receiving their loan. Read more about the value of mentorship.
8. Hire the right people
Choosing the right people for your Social Purpose Business follows the same principles as hiring for any type of business. Building a team with a mix of practical, entrepreneurial and business skills will serve your business well. Yet working for a business with a social mission may require more commitment, and any prospective employees need to understand just what’ s expected – whether that be flexibility, longer working hours or lifestyle changes. Ideally, those you hire will share the same concerns about the social issue you’re striving to change and experience with the community you’re planning to serve.
A Social Purpose Business can also benefit from a board of directors that provides specialized guidance, expertise and support. The board oversees the business and supervises management, and will make decisions that will impact all aspects of your business – employees, customers, shareholders, suppliers and communities. Depending on your social and business goals, different skills might be required from your board members, such as a lawyer, accountant, marketing executive, fundraiser, IT expert, health care provider or social worker.
9. Build a company culture
A Social Purpose Business needs to develop its own company culture and not just a campaign. For a business striving for blended value, the culture should likewise be blended, combining the best of both the traditional not-for-profit mentality and the traditional for-profit mentality. The business needs to communicate to everyone involved – employees, board members, stakeholders – how it’s founded upon blended value, measures success based on the “triple bottom line” (people, planet and profit), and serves both clients (the people benefiting socially) and customers (the people buying).
10. Reach out globally
Once your Social Purpose Business has a solid foundation and its generating both economic and social value, it might be time to build awareness about both your business and the social issue it’s impacting. Establishing a global presence can bring many benefits. It can lead to further funding, opportunities to expand your positive impact, awareness about your social issue and interest in working for your company. Recent research has demonstrated the importance and positive results of successful social media campaigns, and it’s become imperative for all types of business to reach out to people around the world with a company website, blogs and social media platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube.
As powerful as social media can be for business, it comes with an element of risk. It should be assumed that anything shared on social networks lasts forever, so choose your words wisely. Also, while controversy gets people engaged – the ultimate goal of social media – you’ll want to avoid any topics (such as politics or religion) or strong views that jeopardize your business values or polarize your audience.
- Brace for (Social) Impact: The rise of social entrepreneurship in Canada. Rachel Shuttleworth, April 2012.
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