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May 17, 2017

Open Letter to Aspiring Social Entrepreneurs

This week we re-post from David All’s blog, addressed to all of us who see social entrepreneurship as the path to our future.  “Let me be the first — and perhaps only — person that recognizes you for your bravery and courage; a sacrifice to align purpose within the motivation for profit.”

Fresh off a social enterprise start-up that didn’t play out as he had wanted, David gives us valuable lessons on what to do and what to avoid.  You can see more of David’s blog posts here.  Thank you, David, for your insights and your commitment.

Allen Proctor, President & CEO, Center for Social Enterprise Development


Dear Aspiring Social Entrepreneurs,

For years (2013-2016), I fought the good fight as a Social Entrepreneur.

I took on the hardest of odds tackling the toughest challenges I could find (infant mortality & opioid epidemic to name a few) while bootstrapping and searching endlessly for a business model that would make our effort sustainable and meaningful.

I failed. Let me explain.

For years, I failed convinced it would work by sheer strength of idea. Convinced that perseverance, competence and creativity would ensure success and the community would get behind it.

Turns out I was ignoring my own experience as a successful entrepreneur.

Now that I’m back in the driver’s seat of a for-profit strategic communications agency, a business model that fits like a glove, I’m able to look back at my approach with clarity.

Oh, speaking of clarity, I should clarify that this is an open letter to anyone that aspires to be a ‘social entrepreneur.’ To me that means an individual starting and building a benefit business, a for-profit that solves a meaningful and authentic community challenge.

Let me be the first — and perhaps only — person that recognizes you for your bravery and courage; a sacrifice to align purpose within the motivation for profit. You see something missing in our civic ecosystem, a third-legged stool without its third leg.

I have to be honest, I don’t wish ‘Social Entrepreneurship’ on anyone. It’s hard enough being a for-profit entrepreneur — trust me! But Godspeed, you are living your calling.

Should you continue, do so with a state-of-mind and approach different from mine. I led with my force of personality, enrolling people in my vision for changing the world, creativity, ability to drum up media and mission.

I should have been leading with a business plan to make enough money to start growing the team immediately. Instead, everyone I had enrolled was bootstrapping with no real understanding of whether they’d get paid. The wick only burns so long without the wax.

This approach I had is likely how non-profits operate, yet they’re open and reliant to take donations and accept grants. That’s not us.

I know there are some good impact investors out there but most I hear about have a pretty crummy reputation at the entrepreneur-to-entrepreneur level which meant that investment was also not an option. We never even tried.

We went the old fashioned way, bootstrapping for years, and ultimately came out empty handed but with a bank-filled with Karma.

After four years of it, I hung up my spurs at the end of 2016 to focus on a different type of impact. The type of entrepreneurship impact where you make fair money for your time, creativity and skill-set. You know, identify a challenge for a client, solve the challenge and receive contracted fee for services. Simple, effective, this is how I’ve been successful in the past.

The impact comes not in the work of the company directly, but through the growth of the company and its ability to make an indirect impact on the community. An example would be hiring new employees, dedicating a percent of work to meaningful causes, and so on. The bigger your company, the more seats at the table in the community.

My experience is not your experience. But I hope it gives you something to consider. Perhaps one day when you’re a millionaire philanthropist, maybe then you’ll be able to fund your efforts to support the community directly. Or just run for office.

Good luck and happy landing.

David All