Mike McGlade | HBR Blog | 11 February 2013
During my first year at Harvard Business School, I decided to start a new business. I set up a team, choose a name, secured a URL, and Zoosa was born. My theory was that by leveraging the collective expertise of skilled professionals, we could have a significant impact on the social sector. Zoosa was intended to be a platform where volunteers shared their activities and connected with others, creating a positive feedback loop. The idea was that this would encourage some people to deepen their efforts and others to become new volunteers. Unfortunately, I had never worked for an early-stage business or in the social enterprise space. The result? My business failed.
My story is not unique. Though we don’t often talk about failure in the social sector, I’ve seen numerous entrepreneurs waste countless hours working late into the nights and stubbornly plugging away throughout weekends. Even worse, many forfeit the opportunity to have a full time job in order to “follow their passion” as a first-time entrepreneur. They watch their social lives melt away at the same rate as their savings.
That’s what I did. And it took me 2 years to put a bullet in Zoosa. I pivoted from a skills-based volunteering website to a platform for corporate social responsibility to a third concept — you’d use Facebook for your personal social network, Linkedin for your professional social network, and Zoosa for your social impact network. Ultimately, I didn’t have the industry knowledge or the professional expertise to realize the vision. Eventually, I did two things that every social entrepreneur should do: set aside my ego and went back to step one — getting smart.
Here’s my advice for any social entrepreneur who’s decided she’s got the next big idea:
Put your ego away. How often have you heard an entrepreneur — or a want-to-be entrepreneur — say they want to run their own business? It’s almost as if they’re starting with the end point and working backwards. They want to run a business and so they look for an “idea”. Sometimes they’re clever enough to at least look for a real problem to solve — but not always. Instead of focusing on what you want to be or what you want to achieve, think about what it is that someone else truly needs. You and your ego should be beside the point.
Get smart first. Entrepreneurs-in-the-making are often convinced they have the next big idea for an app or product or service. Do they know anything about building an app? Well, no. But they want to run a business. So they dive in. They’ve heard from others that entrepreneurship is about persistence in the face of adversity. So they persevere, even when the market is giving them negative feedback. This feedback is especially tough to hear for social entrepreneurs. Failure may be doubly hard when the market is saying no, but the social need still exists. Getting smart requires you spend time in the field you want to run a business in. Volunteer or get a job working in the industry or with the clients you want to serve. Enduring adversity is important but without the right experience and exposure to the field, you’re unlikely to succeed.
Failure is not necessarily a bad thing but it has consequences. Consider how many nonprofits offer duplicative services or solutions, or early on learn that their original hypothesis is flawed. In all of those cases, the wasted time, effort, and capital only hurt the stakeholders — the folks the entrepreneur wants to help in the first place. Ego wins and stakeholders lose.
In the three years since I let Zoosa finally die, I’ve become an expert in building sales, marketing, and business development teams for early stage ventures. I’ve worked closely with several very successful entrepreneurs and investors and they’ve taught me a lot about everything from leadership to fundraising to recruiting. They’re helping me get smart.
I plan to go back into social enterprise, and maybe even run my own business. But for now I’m content to focus on my passion: helping entrepreneurs build their businesses.
Before you don the social entrepreneur title and dive into building your enterprise consider if you need more experience to realize your idea. If you do, set down your entrepreneur ego and find a job. You need to get smart to make a difference.