Welcome back to our series on social entrepreneurship! I’m working to get you the basic foundation you’d need to get rolling as a social entrepreneur. Oh, and btw, if you didn’t catch the first parts of the series, I’ll be posting it all on the podblog. Click here if you missed out.
Today will be a longer one, but we’re going to be covering a really important topic: how to create a product or service that will be your business and drive your social good efforts. Let’s start things off with a quote from a social entrepreneurship rock star:
“Think of your product as the first date, it’s your first chance to win over and impress your customer. It’s gotta be right and it’s gotta be the thing that stands on its own and draws them in. Once you’ve taken your customer on a great first date, only then can you move to the second date: your cause.”
-Tyler Merrick, Project 7
One of the biggest mistakes I see cause-based startups make is leading with the cause rather than leading with the product or service. I know that for you and for me, our causes are the major reason we got into this business. But for our customers’ sake, we’re going to need to weave that cause into product lines that are second to none. Remember that for us to build a movement, we have to build a following of loyal and dedicated change agents. In order to do this, your customers will have to be just as sold out on the features and benefits of your product as they are on your cause.
Tyler of Project 7 taught me a ton about this. Project 7 has evolved into a highly successful cause based company that sells a very unique line of mints and gums. Each product line is tied to a donation in 1 of 7 cause areas, from education to health. Their gums and mints are really unique and they even have a large partnership with 7Up that will take them to new heights. But Project 7 could have crashed in its early days had Tyler not refocused his efforts on his products. At that time, Project 7’s products were essentially no different from others on the shelves, except for the cause. As a result, people would make “pity purchases” of Project 7’s cause-based gum, and then switch right back to Wrigley’s or whatever else they were chewing. So, the stores carrying Tyler’s products stopped buying more because customers were not making repeat purchases.
It was a moment of truth for Tyler. He realized that he had two options: either make his product stand out, or risk going under. Thankfully for us, Tyler chose to double down on re-launching his product. The new and improved Project 7 saw the creation of such unique gum flavors as: birthday cake, coconut lime, front porch lemonade, and a host of other jazzy options (you can check them all out here). Tyler also rebranded his packaging. Originally his gum packages led with the cause and followed with the features and benefits of the product. His new packaging flipped that: unique branding, tasty flavors, and creative design drew in customers. Once they were loving the features and benefits of Project 7’s gum, they’d read about Project 7’s work on the back of the packaging and be even more sold out on the company. Take a page from Tyler’s book and avoid a similar challenge in your business. You must create a second to none product so that you can drive social change.
Here are some tips for you to think about as you think about what you’d like your venture to offer the world:
How well suited is your product to your cause?
This is an important question to ask from the beginning because making fundamental changes to your product along the way will be really challenging. Ideally, you will want to develop a product that weaves your cause naturally into it. Some examples: LSTN sells headphones and helps the world hear, Panda sells sunglasses and gives the gift of vision, and MADI sells intimate apparel and donates women’s underwear, one of the most under donated items at women’s shelters. Remember that your product is the star of the show. If you’re going to sell it well, you need to be just as dedicated to your product as you are to your cause. It’s worth devoting a great deal of time and resources to getting this right on the front end.
A quick note: I’ve seen cause-based companies, like Project 7, have success when their product is not as tightly tied to their cause, but I think this is a very difficult road to go down. Tyler benefitted from the fact that he had formerly run a business that created boutique food products, so he brought a natural understanding of that world to Project 7. Unless you have a similarly compelling reason to pursue a product unrelated to your cause, I would advise against it.
Here are the types of products that are best suited for cause-based businesses:
1.) High margin items. These are items for which you can charge a premium price so that you generate the kinds of profits needed to fund your purpose mission. Oliberteis able to commit itself to providing decent employment to Ethiopians because its unique and high quality shoes create enough margin to support fair wages.
2.) Cutting edge or proprietary technology. This is true for any business: if you have a patented technology or one that is tough to duplicate, you’ll have a competitive edge. Mission Belt has a patented ‘no holes’ belt. Instead of holes, its belts always fit the wearer perfectly because a unique zip technology replaces the standard belt buckle. Mission holds the patent on this technology, thereby ensuring ongoing support for Kiva, their cause partner.
3.) Products that literally weave the story right in. Indosole’s founder Kyle Parsons was your typical surfer dude until a trip to Bali transformed him forever. Shocked by the level of pollution in that country, Kyle set out to create a movement that repurposed junk, reimagined the lives of Indonesians, and gave re-birth to ‘trash’. Kyle and his team employed Indonesians to create some of the awesomest shoes and sandals I’ve ever seen. They’re made from repurposed tires, one of the biggest contributors to Indonesia’s pollution problem. The result is a one-of a kind product with a built in cause.
4.) Services that employ marginalized populations. Until now, I’ve talked a lot about products, but services can be an excellent match for cause-based companies. Samasource employs marginalized populations around the world in micro-work projects for businesses. The fact that Samasource provides a service allows them to link up with virtual employees in regions where unemployment is staggeringly high. Central to Samasource’s mission is a training program that gets neglected populations the skills they need to succeed in virtual business. In this way, Samasource is using its core service to solve the social problem it is addressing: high unemployment among marginalized groups.
5.) Products with multiple causes. My favorite example of this is Sword and Plough. Sword and Plough calls itself a ‘quadruple bottom line company’ because it weaves several missions into one product. A fashion company, Sword and Plough is currently focused on a line of high quality bags and totes. Their products are made from repurposed military fabrics and product sales support military families. But that’s not all, the company is dedicated to hiring military veterans. The result is a cause-based company that has social purpose flowing through every bit of it, and that makes for a pretty cool story that customers are sharing like mad.
Your product is the star of the show, your cause the supporting actor. Devote yourself to building a product that is worthy of star-level treatment, and your supporting actor will shine as well.
As always, if you have questions, or need help walking through this, hit reply and I’ll hit you back with a crazy witty response 🙂
Peace and love change nation,