How long is too long? You're plugging away at an idea, you've got a prototype, a pilot, a plan. It didn't quite go as you had planned, or maybe even hoped, the first time. No problem, you learned, integrated lessons, did some evaluation and assessment and tried again. It still didn't work. What now?
The exit question is one that entrepreneurs face all the time, and in the “regular” marketplace maybe just a question of money, transference of ownership, and stock. Social enterprises have a double, or even triple bottom line to consider. The exit question is one that is hardly discussed, or even included in the numerous “how do I really get this thing off the ground” manuals—perhaps because even the industry doesn’t know what that looks like yet. This strategy, however, is a critical part of that plan. It is both personal and professional.
As social entrepreneurs, we pour our hearts and heads into a changemaking idea. Sometimes we pour our life savings into it, too. Taking the time to step back to reevaluate the path of your social enterprise and your own mental health is fundamentally important for yourself and ultimately the impact you are seeking to achieve.
In her concluding remarks at the end of The Feast in New York City on October 15th, co-founder Jerri Chou noted that this would probably be the last time we would see the Feast at this size, perhaps even in this format. Given that so many other incredible people and/or groups have started something similar, or even taken it further—we are no longer creating added value. Jerri spoke of rethinking the framework of The Feast, perhaps small group knowledge sessions, retreats, etc. Whatever the next iteration, it was exciting and motivating to hear an innovator take a risk and self-selectingly choose to review, recharge, and reinvent.
Another friend and colleague, explained his rationale for shutting down his fourth venture, in India. He looked down the road in 2 years and saw a moment where their effectiveness would come to a plateau and that just wasn't good enough. His biggest issue, however, was one of scale. He wants to have a big impact in India. Massive. He couldn't foresee how this particular model could do that, particularly when looking ahead. Some would ask why he didn't just keep going and see if he could scale it down the line. His response was that others had picked up the same model and were running with it, perhaps at a lower cost. His absolute, critical review of the business plan was provocative—when reflecting on the one guy who was running this in India right now, he asked himself, “Is this really worth his time?”
It takes some good ole guts to shut something down—not because it is failing, but because it has done so well that others are now doing it better.
A lot of us remark that our goal is to create such groundswell of local involvement, that we want to be out of a job—that's our measure of ultimate success. How many of us have set a timeline for that unemployment? How many of us have actually integrated that in our strategic plan to make it happen? And what does that actually look like?
Jonathan Greenblatt, on faculty at UCLA Anderson and former CEO of GOOD Worldwide, led an interesting discussion on this topic back in May 2007. As social entrepreneurs, we're always pushing for scale and sustainability, so when Ben & Jerry's was bought by Unilever, we should have heralded it as an incredible success story. A closer reflection of the acquisition, however, shows that it was a bit more complicated. The buy-out was not entirely up to Ben and Jerry, since it was a public company with a board, and eventually led to a dilution of their brand and social goals. As we form more for-profit, social enterprises, with boards and investors, how will we ensure an exit that is not only good for the bottom line, but also good for the social mission? And once that scale happens, how do we sustain that social good?
As founders of the new wave of social businesses, we must ask ourselves: do you really want to be running this organization the rest of your life? If not, what steps have you taken to ensure that your enterprise, but even more importantly, you have an opportunity of breathing new lifeforce into other ventures, ideas, and landscapes?
In a breakout session at SOCAP10, a USAID representative asked the group to name a problem we (as in they and multiple other agencies) could solve around women's issues in the next five years. Initially, we scoffed—that's not possible, how can some government agency think they can possibly solve a problem in such a short period of time?
Thinking back though, that's quite a way to plan for an exit.
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Big Bold Benefit 2013: Celebrating Twenty-Five Years
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Celebrating Twenty-Five Years of Pioneering Social Change: http://www.echoinggre...