What I Learned In The First Year of My Social Venture
Today marks the one year anniversary of the launch of my own social business: Social Change Nation. It was born in an all night whiteboard session and marked the beginning of one of the most exciting and terrifying journey’s of my life. All at once my schedule was my own. I was free to live my dreams and free to fail or succeed dramatically. Today I’m going to give you a completely candid accounting of where that journey has taken me. Saddle up because it’s a wild ride full of the ups and downs that you would expect with the launch of any business. But don’t fret - there’s a happy ending to it all. No, I haven’t yet launched myself or my business into the stratosphere, but I’ve ventured out. I’ve taken the great risk. I’ve fought the good fight and ain’t stopping anytime soon. I’ve made TONS of mistakes along the way. But through it all, I’ve learned. So, sit back, relax, and hear why I believe this year has laid the foundation for the best years of my life.
The Beginning: I was at the tail end of a grad program at Kansas U and amazingly frustrated with the complete lack of action at a larger university like mine. I have a bias for action and it seemed to me that we would just beat an idea to death in an effort to understand every nuance without ever really acting on any of the research we were doing. I was studying some pretty cool stuff and interviewing lots of social entrepreneurs around the world. What I was finding was life changing for me: businesses were beginning to dramatically shift to a triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit. Consumers were overwhelmingly demanding that businesses make a dollar AND a difference and these companies were responding in some dramatic ways. So, I approached my advisor with a desire to build a website that would touch an entire generation of new business leaders and get the them tools they needed to build these kinds of businesses. The reaction was as you might expect it to be…”this won’t pass the research compliance board” or “what about this angle? that angle?” “several professors already did an experiment on this, they’re working on it…” My reaction to this? Complete devastation. For a few hours anyway. See, the beauty of having a bias for action it that you’re only a few hours away from your next bolt of inspiration. So, it was of little surprise to me that that same day I spent the whole night scribbling out the framework for what would become Social Change Nation. I had really never pulled an ‘all nighter’ in all my years of college, but this was different, this was me taking action. I knew that I could build THE toolbox for people seeking to build businesses on profit and purpose and nothing was going to stand in my way. Thankfully, that lighting bolt moment came just days before Innovate so I was able to spend that next week honing and refining this idea.
Early Stage: I finished the semester prepared to start taking the practical steps that would turn my ideas into action. Quarter 2 of 2014 was amazingly exciting and saw me creating my company name (Social Change Nation) our tagline (Empowering Businesses that Make a Dollar AND a Difference), and laying the foundation of all the tech tools for my website and podcast. I was on my own, building my own movement, and creating an entire community around an idea. To say that it was exhilarating doesn’t even begin to do it justice. But this period was also full of frustration. I knew that I had a message inside me that would change the world, but the realities of our connected and cluttered world meant that in order to express my art I had to learn all kinds of new skills. I barely had a twitter account, knew nothing about websites, despised Facebook, and don’t even get me started on LinkedIn… But all of a sudden these were tools that were absolutely vital to my chances for success. I had to learn them. So, I swallowed my pride and started my education over again (not really, but sort of ;). Lucky for me, my hometown of Kansas City is home to one of the most vibrant entrepreneurial communities in the U.S. I got myself into the Kansas City Startup Village, a grassroots community that put all kinds of startups within ten blocks of me. As a result, when I ran into tech issues I didn’t understand (which happened about every 10 minutes in those days…) I was never more than a few blocks away from the answer. And this paved the way to one of the most vital lessons I learned in those days: you’ve gotta get yourself into community. Frankly, I don’t understand these early stage solopreneuers who try to work on their own. I just don’t get how you could possibly know everything you could need to know to launch a business and create the life of your dreams flying totally solo. If you’re dreaming of getting out on your own, hear me loud and clear: you WILL FAIL if you don’t get yourself into a community of support. It can be virtual if you want, just get into one. The startup world saved me from myself in those days and helped me to lay the critical foundations I needed. On a side note, that summer also saw me meeting Brittain, the girl of my dreams. She got me, supported me, and was an entrepreneur herself. In her, God blessed me with everything I’ve ever hoped for. I’m not exaggerating when I say these are the kinds of things that happen when you work in your passion.
Middle Stage: This was the most frustrating part of my journey. See, I had done an awesome job of branding and building the machine that is my business, but I had done a horrible job of getting the fuel that would drive it. By ‘fuel’ I mean I had built an awesome business but no one was seeing it and I didn’t even have a ‘buy button’ anywhere. People couldn’t even do business with me if they wanted to! Looking back now, I have no idea what I was thinking. I believe this happens to a lot of us because it’s fun building an idea, working in your passion, and getting excited about all those awesome possibilities. What very few of us get excited about is the tough stuff: convincing people to listen to my podcast, sign on to my newsletter, and buy my product. My error in this stage was getting distracted with the bigger picture of building and utterly failing to bring in the customers that would keep the machine running. I had to jump ship for a few and work somewhere else because I had forgotten the cardinal rule: you work for the people you serve. They don’t work for you and their job is not to support your dream or to find you. Provide awesome value for them, find them, get it in front of them in the right way, and keep nurturing that relationship. If you can’t do this, if you can’t market tastefully and sell effectively then you’ll never be able to express your art. Current Stage: It’s been a whirlwind year. I still know I’m at work on what will become my life’s work but I’ve pivoted in some dramatic ways. My business is getting healthier, I have buy buttons now, and my audience is growing every day. This has happened because I’ve refocused on the metrics that really matter right now. Peter Drucker always said “what gets measured gets managed” and that’s absolutely been true for me. The minute I started actively watching my email signups (my lifeblood) and my podcast downloads (my other lifeblood) I started taking the action steps I needed to take to get them ticking up. And not because I’m some heartless bean counter, to the contrary, I’m a firm believer in Social Entrepreneurship and want it to spread. But that’ll never happen if I don’t get Social Change Nation in front of the person who dreams of having a cause based startup. It’ll never happen if I can’t reach the startup social entrepreneur who needs the tools to make a purposeful and profitable impact with their startup. Biggest lesson from this stage? Before, I spent 80% of the time building my business and 20% promoting what I was doing. So, I simply reversed that and it made all the difference. Now, I spend 20% of my time building my business and 80% or my time spreading the word and sharing stories of social change. So that’s the story of my first year in business. It’s been the most exhilarating journey of my entire life and I don’t plan on leaving it anytime soon. If you take anything from my story take this: if you spend more than 2-3 months building your business without spreading the word, you’ve taken too long. Get a minimally viable foundation up and the get out and start hustlin’. Your message and purpose are too beautiful to keep to yourself. You’re going to learn a ton by getting out there and getting your nose bloodied anyway. So, go forth and be bold my friend. Just be sure you’re bold in a way that actually builds your business… Enjoyed this post but want more in-depth tools and training? Then click the button below for access to our FREE video series put on by expert Social Entrepreneurs!