Taking your bearings: Or I love your idea, but I’m not prepared to pay for it.

The only time Search and Rescue was ever called out to find me was when I was hiking in the backcountry with a friend who was one of those guys who forges ahead and assumes that he can find his way home.  Fortunately, I took some back bearings of where we had stowed the canoe so when we got back in the dark, we could find it.  Search and Rescue arrived because we were way too late getting back.  Although we were embarrassed, we were also grateful.

Taking your bearings is really important when you are starting a business or a new social enterprise.

One of the temptations to forge ahead without getting your bearings comes in the form of the admonition to “think like an entrepreneur”.  This is the new buzz thinking in the social justice world. If you can think like an entrepreneur, you can create “scalable” change in the world. “Social enterprise” is another buzz term.  The idea is to create a business which can make money but also do something to change the world.

There is merit in thinking like an entrepreneur when imagining a way to change the world, but social activists can fall into the same traps as any other entrepreneur when starting out, whether as a non-profit or as a social enterprise.  One of those traps is falling so deeply in love with your ideas that you fail to notice that no one else in in love with them.

As a person who has owned her own business more than once, I confess to having done this myself.


We entrepreneurs are often so excited about our “discovery” or our “worldview”, that we can’t understand how everyone else doesn’t see what we see.  So we polish our idea, shape it, reframe it, detail it and write brilliant prose about it, but we don’t put it to a clear-eyed test of whether anyone else cares.  Often, we are so convinced that we are going to change the world that we forget to ask whether the world wants to be changed.

We have a product, for sake of argument, inexpensive and funny looking shoes.  We plan to sell these shoes for a high price and use some portion of the profit to buy shoes for poor people.  Everyone will want to buy our shoes because everyone wants to help poor people.  Do they?  Not everyone wants to help poor people.  If they did, then you could simply ask for donations to buy shoes for the poor and cut out the aggro of making shoes to sell.  And, if people are interested only in the “coolness” factor of our funny looking shoes, “coolness” has a shelf-life.

So when thinking about how my social enterprise is going to change the world, I need to be clear-eyed about what the value proposition is:  the social justice change I want to achieve or the needs of people I want to buy my product.  It’s probably both.  I need to be clear-eyed about whether there are any conflicts between the two.  I need to be clear-eyed about who the client is:  people who want to achieve social justice or people who buy my product.  And I need to be clear-eyed about what it will take to sustain my organization, including myself, in the long term.  Can I make a living off selling organic herbs or funny looking shoes while managing to change the world?

When I work with clients who are looking to start or sustain a social enterprise, we do a lot of research before we start polishing the idea to a high gloss.  It feels like a bit of a downer, but in the long run, building an enterprise to change the world is a lot more about perspiration than inspiration.  And finding your way home is about taking your bearings and not just rushing ahead.