Venture Deli is excited to be part of Toronto’s Ultimate Entrepreneur and Leadership Event, the SociaLIGHT Conference happening this November 17. The conference will bring together 1,000 innovators and young professionals, 20 acclaimed speakers, and over 60 of the top business and leadership organizations for a day of empowerment and inspiration. Past contributors include Sir Richard Branson, Tony Hsieh, Robin Sharma and more.
To register, check out http://bit.ly/rGgQjo#Toronto and use the the special discount code VDVIP (all caps no spaces) to get 50% off all tickets.
For more information, check out https://www.facebook.com/SocialightConference
The problem is that many charities are dipping their toes into social enterprises by launching those that appear less risky, when in reality they are not. Too many charities are considering launching brick and mortar businesses like landscaping, cafes, consulting to limited markets, workshops, and other business models that seem close to their current competencies. Not only is this a suboptimal investment of resources, in aggregate, this thinking is hurting the quality of the ‘pipeline’ of investment opportunities for Canadian impact investors. What’s more, this approach risks placing social enterprise in a crowded bucket of other investment ideas labelled ‘good in theory’.
Low risk enterprises are a myth and are actually riskier in some cases to pursue. People and organizations launching social enterprises would do themselves a favour by being more ambitious. Here’s why:
9 out of 10 businesses fail in their first year
Untrue. So untrue, in fact, as to be near opposite to reality. Industry Canada’s report on small businesses shows that 85% survive their first year, and 51% survive five years. Yet we keep terrifying would-be social enterprises with this myth, and trigger their instinct for loss aversion. No wonder charitable boards and managers try to cut anything too unfamiliar or ambitious out of the business plan.
Growing is more important than surviving
But investment is about growth, not survival. Angel investors have to assume they’ll lose money on some deals, which they’ll more than make up for with a few successes. In order to fit that dynamic, each deal needs to have high growth potential, not slow, middle of the road return potential. Of course, there are funders who focus more on low-risk, low-return investments, but they are likely not angel investors. This is an issue, because angels – driven by progressive world views or emotional affiliations – are among the most interested type of investors in social enterprise. Yet they aren’t finding what they’re looking for, so their capital isn’t moving much.
Most small businesses survive year one, but less than 5% are high growth businesses, as measured by employment growth. This elite group is far more likely to garner angel investment, and tends to include businesses that are focused on research and development. Yet I have come across very few charity-founded social enterprises that are shaped in this mould. In my experience, the majority are developing simple business models with few competitive advantages and no real ambition to be high-growth businesses. Instead, since a common driving cause for considering social enterprises is filling a funding gap, they are too often conceived entirely as preservation of capital schemes, originating from the very loss aversion mentality that relegates growth to a secondary concern. This leads to a lack of imagination, and a fear of ambitious ideas.
Every business that isn’t growing is dying
It may be true that we fetishize scale, but there’s a reason: a business that isn’t growing is dying. There’s no such thing as equilibrium; staying the same is not sustainable in the long run. Inflation grows, competitors strengthen, rent prices go up, and bodies age. Likewise, you can’t grow forever, but that doesn’t matter so long as you’re growing.
It is therefore imperative that social enterprises are designed with scaling in mind. Launching one without a real vision for growth consumes as much blood, sweat and treasure as launching anything else, except without the proportionate reward potential.
So what should charities considering social enterprises do?
Big costs as much as small
If ambitious companies took more effort to run, then you would expect that CEOs of large companies would work many times as much as owners of corner stores. In practice, they work the same and probably experience similar stress levels.
Ambitious enterprises take the same amount of work to build as small ones do, and have the same risk of failure, except with dramatically more upside for those who get it right. Thinking big is the optimal response to the risk of failure present in any enterprise.
Focus on technology based products
Products and services that are born and delivered digitally are far more scalable because there’s much less (in some cases zero) cost to servicing each additional customer, regardless of geography. Moreover, software is quickly becoming better and better at performing operations whose complexity only humans could navigate in the past. This means that at some point, in whatever sector you’re servicing, technology is likely to disrupt how that service is conceived, delivered, and priced. Better to be the cause of the wave than in its path.
Fail fast and iterate
The entrepreneurial world is abuzz with the virtues of failure these days. The reason for this is that virtually no business is exactly correct out of the gate on what its customers want, how, at what price, and even who its customers are. In this context, failing fast is defined not as total business failure, but as learning which assumptions are wrong as quickly as possible, and reinvesting in fixing them quickly. The unit of progress in a new business is not profit, it is the number of assumptions you validate, and how quickly you do that.
This problem will not be solved by a year-long business planning or feasibility process. I have learned this lesson first hand. The only way to validate that you’re creating something people want is by trying to sell it, or a scaled down version of it to them.]]>
A few weeks ago, Salesforce.com withdrew its application to trademark the term social enterprise. The cloud computing company has used the term extensively in its marketing materials to refer to its suite of services that help businesses use social media.
The retraction was prompted, in part, by an outcry from the social sector -namely, Social Enterprise UK’s campaign to keep the name “for the REAL social enterprise movement.”
In a statement, Saleforce CEO Marc Benioff wrote, “It was never our intention to create confusion in the social sector which we have supported since our founding.”
And yet, this confusion around the term social enterprise is pervasive and has been since the term was first used in the late ‘70s. More than any sector I can think of, we worry about what to call ourselves, who is in and who is out, and the implications of the terms we use. While this attention to detail and level of self-reflection is good, it does come at the cost of confusing and often dissuading those outside of this community from participating.
Ownership of the term by one entity, as Salesforce attempted to do in its own misguided way, is not the answer. But neither is the narrow approach of excluding large, technology-based or mainstream companies either. Instead, individuals playing in the realm of revenue and impact generation must decide for themselves what is deserving of the “social enterprise” title and be prepared to defend that to the people and organizations they work with.
In my first year at Venture Deli, I’ve learned a lot about social enterprises and the diverse range of models and missions of the organizations laying claim to this title. I’ve also learned to go with my gut when figuring out what is and is not a social enterprise. Some key criteria for me are:
Intention – does the company have an honest intention to make the world a better place?
Measurement – does the company measure and respond to their social and environmental impact?
Motivation – does the company consider their social impact equally as important as their financial results?
Profit – do they generate revenue as a result of their activities?
While Salesforce eats crow, we at Venture Deli remain on the lookout for social enterprises, in whatever form they may take.
Image from WebHostingBreak]]>
Lesson #1: Process as technology
A year ago, we worked with a start-up company to help bring a much needed hygiene product to market. We learned that production is a painful process. First came a prototype, at around $8000. Then came a low-volume mould to mass produce up to what I roughly remember as 30,000 units or thereabout, for roughly the same number of dollars. That didn’t include packaging, marketing. At the end of the day the entrepreneurs had to secure nearly $50,000 just to have a decent go at generating sales, and we still weren’t certain that the product would sell.
This process is what many entrepreneurs with commodity products go through. Entrepreneurs adopt the burden of financing the manufacturing, often by assuming personal debt, and then hope to heaven people want to buy their gizmo. It’s a process that is seriously tilted in favour of people who can take on that financial risk.
With Kickstarter, that whole process has been turned on its head. The financiers are the first customers. Entrepreneurs finance their dreams by directly channelling demand. They answer the two largest questions (“how will I pay for this?”, and, “will anyone ever buy it?”) in one shot. This way, one wouldn’t have to shell out a year’s salary (or two) to see if anyone wants a giant mechanical spider to ride.
Kickstarter is largely considered a ‘tech’ company, but its IT infrastructure isn’t the revolutionary part. Though we’ve forgotten, process is a subsection of technology, and Kickstarter’s brilliance is innovating on the process of production by finding a shortcut through it. That innovation holds tremendous promise, not just for hackers and makers in the West, but multitudes of artisans and creators around the world for whom bringing products to global markets has remained all but a dream till now.
Lesson #2: Unintended Innovation
Funny thing is, I don’t think the Kickstarter team anticipated or aimed for this. And it remains to be seen if they even want to embrace it.
Their initial goal, interpreted from public statements, was to create a platform for patronage to thrive in the 21st century. They sought for a new renaissance of the system that sustained the creative lives of our most iconic composers, artists and thinkers. What they seem to have gotten instead is a fantastic new channel for market feedback and mitigating risk. In fairness, they may yet deliver on their initial vision, too.
As a colleague put it, Kickstarter seems to have been less steered towards its current incarnation than hacked by its users. Either way, they find themselves at a critical juncture, at which they decide to either embrace or discard the innovation.
Whatever they do, my hope is that they have permanently torn open a new option for people to bring creations to consumers cheaply and directly. Scouting the bubbling landscape of niche copycats, I sense that is just the case.
And while unintended, I think it’s a great thing for people all over the world.]]>
But what about when an innovation makes you feel both awed by its genius, and frightful of the unintended consequences of its well-intentioned success?
This is what came to mind as I watched a mind-blowing talk about newly possible 3D printing of houses. Yes, houses; stronger and vastly quicker than before. Check it out for yourself:
TEDxOjai – 3D Printing a House
What I found interesting was that the presenter opened his talk by making mention of the injuries and accidental deaths that plague the construction industry, especially in developing countries with shoddy standards. Naturally, his solution was this new toy – a brilliant system for rapid house construction.
Yet he failed to mention that while construction is replete with safety problems, it is also the main source of employment for huge swaths of (mostly) young men in the developing world. Wherever you travel, you are likely to encounter the common scene of structures wrapped in scaffolding, with workers climbing through and around them like a colony of ants. In China, the government has propped up the economy and labour by investing in the development of entire cities that sit unpopulated.
It’s a good bet to assume those workers wish for a safer working environment, but I’d bet against them wishing to be replaced by automated building systems. This is merely the latest in a string of industries in which automation looms as a replacement for mass employment. Surely, the long-term hope is that new pools of employment will open up in new industries, and that technology will simply have taken the danger, inconsistency and hard work out of existing ones. But for the meantime, for populations of labourers whose next meal depends on their next shift, this looks more like a threat than a visionary innovation.
What will a study of social impact tell us? More than anything, this case highlights the subjectivism of positive development. If you value immediate employment most, then you might conclude that the more valuable intervention would be in worker safety, as opposed to automation. However, if you value the possibility to build quicker, cheaper, safer most, then you might conclude that replacing workers is the collateral cost of moving our common lot forward.
So, in which direction is progress?]]>
Office Manager Posting]]>
We are living in a decidedly Heraclitian world. Scanning across the landscape of our society, it is impossible to ignore the march of change through the fields of energy, education, agriculture, demographics, healthcare, transportation, government, media and the like. To his credit, Parmenides was right in observing a connectedness amongst parts; these systems emerge and dissolve from the same underlying forces in the same way that waves are merely the result of currents below the surface.
My point is this: the world is in a constant state of change, and now more than ever. By vowing to change it, we ignore that it changes regardless of what we do. Our role is to steer that change by making use of the new possibilities that result from underlying currents.
In this way, the best ‘social’ entrepreneurs are surfers. They ride waves of change to get where they need to go. Kiva surfed the convergence of peer to peer platforms, online payment software, and a growing charitable instinct amongst Westerners. Brightfarms places farms atop supermarket roofs and sells hyper local, super fresh produce downstairs at a higher margin that is an economic advantage in that notoriously low margin industry. They surfed the convergence of fuel prices that squeezed food distribution, new urban farming technology, and ballooning ethical produce consumption. No philanthropy – just economic, social and environmental sense.
This explains our company’s fascination with the internet of things, and our participation in the founding of ThingTank Ventures, whose aim is to achieve social change through next generation technology. We get many raised eyebrows when we reveal this to colleagues in the ‘social entrepreneurship’ community. After all, isn’t big data and digital sensing the realm of traditional tech entrepreneurs? Isn’t data collection an invasion of privacy? In our view, that’s part of the problem. The main financial drivers of technological progress tend to be defense, advertising, gaming and pornography. What wonderful catalysts for progress. Instead, we need to begin with improving human experience as the anchoring motive, and design around that.
Regardless of whether we do or don’t intervene, the internet of things is descending upon us. Cisco notes that around two years ago, we reached a point where more devices connected to each other than people on the planet. That number will grow to an estimated 30-50 billion connected devices in the next decade. The question is what value this will have for society. That is as yet unanswered, and therefore, is our responsibility.
Since Venture Deli first started in 2010, we have made a commitment to continually iterate our services and approach based on what the market tells us. We’ve been listening – a growing number of investors have approached us looking to support innovative social ventures under the banner of impact investing, and many of them are seeking help to move from “interested” to “invested”. We feel the need is so great that it demands a dedicated corporate focus to meet this need. Say hello to Purpose Capital.
Venture Deli and Purpose Capital share the same vision – accelerating the development of companies that matter to the world – though we have a slightly different (but related) approach.
Venture Deli’s focus has always been on supporting ventures that matter to the world. We continue to be inspired by the ingenuity, determination and commitment of social entrepreneurs to launch successful companies that do well by doing good. Through our work with numerous entrepreneurs, we have gained a nuanced understanding of their needs. Entrepreneurs rarely come to us seeking advice. Rather, they tend to ask us for support to get to a stage of ‘investment readiness’ and subsequently, to raise investment. We have met over 270 companies since we started, and selectively worked with a handful of them to raise the bar on their financial and social performance.
Effectively positioning these amazing ventures for investment dictates that we understand investors’ motivations and investment criteria, as well as the mechanisms and systems necessary to flow purposeful capital. In our conversations and research, we hear two very different messages. First, a fundamental shift in the method and motivation of investment is upon us. Second, investors face challenges in finding and vetting impact investment opportunities, and structuring their investments in a manner that aligns with their financial and social return expectations. In a nascent marketplace, these issues are expected, but they can discourage activity and deals.
Purpose Capital meets investors where they are. We work with asset owners and managers to help them better understand impact investing, how it harnesses the best of traditional philanthropic and investment strategies, and the conditions required to be a successful impact investor. We work with both investors and their advisors to craft impact investing strategies that align their financial and social/environmental objectives, including how to measure and communicate their social impact.
As we have demonstrated with Venture Deli in the field of social entrepreneurship, Purpose Capital is equally committed to building the field of impact investing. We are developing a range of research and knowledge products to provide in-depth analysis for clients and industry stakeholders on the key trends and opportunities in the field. As an example, we recently released Redefining Returns: Social Finance Awareness and Opportunities in the Canadian Financial Sector. Furthermore, we remain active educators to the next generation of impact investing leaders through our teaching and research at Canada’s leading universities.
At Purpose Capital, we believe that impact investing is here to stay. The term may be relatively new, but the concept itself is not. The financial crisis has forced a re-think of many of the core tenets of investing, and a recognition that value creation cannot simply be acknowledged in financial terms – social, environmental, cultural, and human capital all matter. These trends have contributed to a greater amount of interest and capital commitments from some of the world’s leading investors and financial institutions.
We believe that connecting this capital to the best social ventures requires thoughtful and diligent intermediation, which is where we play. Venture Deli will continue to launch companies that push the boundaries of business success and social impact. Purpose Capital will connect with the investors who are interested in sharing this vision, and committed to delivering on the potential of impact investing. Together, we hope to move the needle on realizing the true potential of impact investing and social entrepreneurship both in Canada and internationally.
For more on Purpose Capital, please visit http://www.purposecap.com.]]>
For the past year and a half at Venture Deli, we have tried to navigate from surviving our first year, to thriving in the ones to come. Along the way we’ve learned valuable lessons about how to make it in a young and emerging industry that I think apply to many other sectors of the economy.
There are very practical differences to starting up and thriving in emerging industry, compared to already formed and competitive ones. There are entrepreneurial truisms that are indispensable to success in one scenario, and a barrier to it in another.
Emerging industries may be constituted by only a handful of actors (institutions, entrepreneurs, academia, and most importantly, customers). Many of them will know each-other, and spend much of their time deliberating and collaborating with one another. The concepts and shape of the opportunity will remain largely unclear to people outside that community, for the time being. At some point, their efforts begin to resonate with others for reasons of curiousity, critique, or financial potential. Being an entrepreneur in this environment is a very different experience than being one in an established industry.
Established industries often have a robust field of actors, with an already established food chain of commercial entities. Their dialogue doesn’t happen at obscure conferences, but rather out in the open, with larger audiences. Their debates aren’t settled principally by research papers, but by corporate strategy. Their commercial hierarchy creates opportunities for acquisition. Most importantly, they are supported by a number of customer segments with well-known consumption behaviours. Consumer electronics is an example of this.
So why do these two scenarios necessitate different entrepreneurial choices?
Competitive vs Complimentary
Established industries tend to have tense competition over market share. Emerging industries are trying to create market share to begin with. The biggest threat in the former is that a competitor will outperform or outflank you somehow. In the latter, the biggest threat is that there won’t be enough paying customers soon enough, or at all. I would argue that having a few competitors in an emerging industry is helpful, not harmful. Obviously given the choice, I wouldn’t want to see a competitor around, but from a bird’s eye view, I can appreciate the sum-sum dynamic of a few groups. The main job of entrepreneurs in this scenario is not to outperform, it’s to educate people into becoming customers. That’s an uphill battle, so having a few other groups to shoulder the burden helps. Too often, entrepreneurs get distracted by competition (whether real or phantom menace), when instead it should serve as proof that there’s actually merit to their hypothesis (i.e., they’re not totally crazy).
Differentiated vs Generic
In established industries, differentiation is vital to prying market share away from existing players. Any start-up going after an established market without a killer differentiator is dead. In an emerging market, differentiation doesn’t matter nearly as much. In fact, since educating customers is the entrepreneur’s main job, having a generic offering is probably a better choice. Being generic allows you to cast the net as widely as possible so that you survive long enough to see the market grow. As well, because emerging industries have a dearth of accepted standards and best practices, the early spoils go the company that can package the conceptual into the purchasable. This is very much where impact investing is today.
Better vs First
First mover advantage is a term people throw around, but it’s often not a key determinant of eventual success. Google wasn’t the first search engine, Facebook wasn’t the first social network, and Groupon wasn’t the first daily deal company. They just got it right. So being a first mover is less important than getting it right. Unless, that is, you’re in an emerging industry. In that case, being first usually helps because the first group of more adventurous customers will choose you, and the second group of more risk averse customers will want to go with an already vetted provider (you). This advantage will fade as the market matures, but it is significant early on. Speed to market is more important than refinement.
Focus vs Flexibility
In our company, the pendulum has swung many times from focus to flexibility, and vice versa. There is a delicate play between the two that requires careful attention to the market’s growth. In established markets, if you’re doing more than one thing at a time, you’re diffusing your energy and fighting wars on too many fronts. In emerging industry, if you focus on one thing at a time (one product offering, one customer group, one business model), you’re making yourself vulnerable. That’s because there’s no track record to show that any of these focus areas is a good bet. Most importantly, uncharted markets hold many surprising opportunities, so nimbleness may actually lead to discovery. In an emerging industry, you have to be flexible with pricing and products. Rather than going into a sales meeting and harvesting the opportunity on the table, you have to walk into a general introduction meeting and make the opportunities from scratch. Rather than searching, sales in emerging industries is a lot like bricolage. That said, flexibility can be deadly if it grants you too much comfort in making money doing many different things. Flexibility is a survival tactic, but focus is a strategy for thriving. Only stay in flexibility mode for as long as you absolutely need to, and when there’s a real opening (acceptance for your main intended product/service), reallocate all your resources towards it and run like hell.
Exit Food Chain
In the digital media space, there are (far too) many companies sprouting up that are “one-feature” plays (a more aesthetic inbox, for example). Despite lacking imagination, I can understand why entrepreneurs go for this. There’s a ready and willing group of top industry predators atop the food chain who are buying up little up and comers regularly. These entrepreneurs are hoping to be rewarded handsomely for providing the next gadget one of the predators can deploy in their much more important game of chess. Little start-ups are just little DARPAs for companies like Google, FB, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple. Between them, these predators have hundreds of billions of dollars at their disposal to satisfy their hunger. In an emerging industry, there are no likely exit targets, so you can’t focus on one little feature. You have to want to build a visionary company that can become one of the predators later on. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll start to look like a good meal for players in an adjacent industry who are starting to see the financial potential in yours. But don’t count on it, and don’t build towards it.
Clearly, our story at Venture Deli is far from written. We may be only be beginning chapter 2 or 3, but I think there has been valuable learning about what it takes to navigate a industry in mid formation.]]>