Panel explores how to scale social ventures

At the inaugural Propelling Social Ventures conference, hosted this week by UBC’s ISIS Research Centre in Vancouver, Canada, nearly 150 social entrepreneurs, their supporters and financiers have gathered to explore how we can generate even more social venture activity in British Columbia. Canada’s westernmost province is already recognised as a hotbed of social venture activity, particularly with respect to environmental businesses.

I had the pleasure of moderating a panel of three friends—each a successful social venture leader—to explore what it takes to take a social venture to scale. Each of them has an astounding depth of experience, and countless stories of success and all-important lessons from their failures to share with the audience. This post shares ten of the lessons I noted from this ‘enterprising conversation.’

The three panelists have distinct views of social ventures, largely because each of them has a venture at a different stage of scaling: Donovan Woollard is a serial social venture leader, who prefers to call himself an “environmental entrepreneur—in that order.” His own firm, Transom, focuses on providing strategy and operationalization services to other social ventures. Most recent among these has been Alterrus, which recently launched the first commercial installation of the company’s VertiCrop vertical farming technology atop an underused, city-owned parking garage in Vancouver. As a consultant and advisor to social ventures, Donovan has seen and helped guide leaders through many of the issues and challenges inherent in development of a ‘triple bottom line’ enterprise.

Denise Tashereau is a co-founder at Fairware, which aims to disrupt and transform the promotional products industry—an industry Denise describes as hell-bent on “manufacturing trash.” Hers is a high growth social venture that’s rapidly grown from the garage where it first operated to a 10-person firm that counts brands like Patagonia, Aspen and Aveda among its clients. From her perspective inside growth, social ventures are leadership challenges of the highest degree.

And finally Rob Safrata acquired Nova Express, a Vancouver courier company in 2001, rebranded it as Novex Delivery Solutions and developed it to be a leading green venture in Vancouver, and an award-winning benchmark in the courier services and logistics space. Rob’s infectious enthusiasm for social ventures, and his irreverent humour make him a tremendous advisor, and a respected leader in the social venture space.

Our conversation was wide-ranging, but focused on the challenges of balancing financial, environmental and social ‘bottom lines’ in the business; understanding when market traction sends the cue that it’s time to pursue scale; and the unanticipated challenges that always arise as every business tries to hold to plans.

Here are ten key insights from our conversation:

  1. Market leadership begins with values. Showcase your values, share them openly and as widely as possible. Hire based on values connections with candidates. Coach your team from the same values. And plan the business’s growth to respect your guiding values. To do so is the essence of developing a great brand, and it will define your competitive edge.
  2. Leverage local. We all get by with a little help from our friends. And though every social entrepreneur (indeed, every entrepreneur of any stripe) sets out to change the world, the change we seek starts with the people we know. To ‘leverage local,’ build the business to deliver value to the community around you. Soon enough, you’ll attract business from like-minded people (or businesses) and broader market traction will soon follow.
  3. Timing is (almost) everything. As Rob well knows, the timing of their business acquisition was vital to their development and growth. Managing through the economic downturn of 2008 showed him that sometimes, timing can be your enemy. But by the same token, picking the right time to ‘double down’ on growth is vital to success. Sometimes, there’s an element of luck. But sometimes, you just know it’s ‘go time.’
  4. Authenticity is in the way you lead. It’s a buzzword, to be sure. It’s also cliche. But like every cliche, it’s grounded in truth: To be authentic, to hold to your values every day, and to unapologetically lead from those values. This is the essence of marketing leadership, and the mark of a high-potential social entrepreneur. You’ll know it when you see it. These are the people who comfortably ‘speak truth to power,’ saying no to the deals that aren’t on-mission, or aligned with their organisation’s values.
  5. Pride of association is what you want for your brand. We all have favourite brands—global leaders to which we’re loyal perhaps because of the quality of their products, or perhaps because we get the benefit of a brand experience that extends beyond the product itself. Driving a successful social enterprise is in part about driving pride of association among your customers. If they want to be your ambassador, you’re doing well. They’ll do your marketing for you, and your market reputation builds from there.
  6. Know your weak spots. When Denise started to think about hiring more people on her team, she quietly spent some time writing two lists. One was a list of things she “sucked at,” and the other was a list of things she flat out hated to do. These became the job descriptions for the people she hired. Start with values (see point 1). Add the right skills mix. And you’re on your way to building your team.
  7. The airplane rule. Rob shared a simple litmus test for choosing the right hire. “Ask yourself, ‘Would I want to sit next to this person on a cross-country plane ride?'” (For our UK readers, a Canadian cross-country plane ride could be eight hours!)
  8. Know when to decline opportunities. You are what you stand for. This is true in business, as it is in life. Pursuing opportunities that are misaligned (or worse, that contradict) your values will turn out to be a mistake. Yes, we’d all grant that start-up is hard, and chasing projects, purchase orders or deals is your highest priority. But the right fit is essential to building the business you want. Get comfortable with a simple, hard phrase: “I’m sorry. This just isn’t a fit for us.” More often than not, the result is that you’ve left space open for the right fit—which is just around the corner.
  9. Know your right-sized client. All three panelists agreed that even where there’s a values fit, and even where the project or PO# makes sense, it’s still possible that the client’s not a great fit. This is one place where size really does matter. The scrutiny and supply-chain management capacity of a significant multinational might make management of a purchase order far more burdensome on your administration than you can manage. The big top line might not deliver a shine on the bottom line. By the same token, a multitude of smaller orders might not serve your growth goals. So keep the Goldilocks rule in mind, and look for the opportunities that are ‘just right.’
  10. Respond when the business model isn’t working. The best laid plans are more often than not ready for the shredder as soon as they’re printed. Life in early enterprise is nothing if it isn’t constant change. So practice the art of the pivot: you’re dedicated to your mission, and that doesn’t need to change. But sometimes your approach won’t be right. So be ready to change up the model. Take advantage of the nimbleness of early stage enterprises, and refine and refine until you’ve found the sweet spot. Then double down and go for scale.

Our panel could have spent all day taking questions from the audience. Each and every one of the questions we could take sparked fruitful conversation, and we all learned a little something from the dialogue.

And ultimately, that’s what we’re looking for at Propelling Social Ventures—a few simple lessons we can take back to our work to make the world a better place.


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