Two Years as a Social Entrepreneur - 6 Do's and Don’ts

In honor of our second birthday, we took a moment to reflect and share some of our top learnings with you.

by Nicole Winchell, January 2, 2018
 Social-Entrepreneur-Dos- Donts

Two years ago, we went live with The Changer now tbd*. We had no idea what to expect. And to be honest, we still don’t. But we’ve learned a lot along the way. In honor of our second birthday, we’d like to take a moment to reflect and share some of our top learnings with you. 

  1. Do hire professionals
  2. Don't be your competition
  3. Do make decisions
  4. Don't get too comfortable
  5. Don't be afraid to say no
  6. Do take of yourself

1. Do hire professionals 

This isn’t new news, but it’s definitely worth reiteration. Someone once explained the web development triangle to us. There are three elements; time, quality and cost. You can’t have all three. So you can have fast and cheap, but you’ll compromise quality. Or you can go for quick and quality, but it’s going to cost you. Of course in the worst case scenario, you’ll compromise all three. 

Early on, we tried to cut corners in some critical places. We tried to save money on development and ended up shooting ourselves in the foot. We lost time and money - precious resources for a young business.

This triangle doesn’t only refer to web development, it applies to any project that you undertake. Of course there’s something to be said for “quick and dirty” but it’s important to be able to distinguish when and where it’s safe to cut corners so that things don’t unravel. 

In our experience, human resources is not the place to save money. When starting your company, you get used to doing things yourself. But at some point, in order to grow out of your startup incubation nest, you need to call in the experts.

We’ve been lucky to be surrounded by so many talented and committed people who believe in the idea behind tbd*. They’ve dedicated their time and passion in helping us build something we’re proud of and we could NEVER have done it alone. That’s not something to take for granted, so if you’re lucky enough to find people like them, hold on tight. 

2. Don’t be your competition

If you’re so busy keeping up with your competition, how can you be innovative? We started tbd* because we felt there was a real gap in the market. We wanted a digital place to go that was fun, innovative and interesting - while being in line with our values and helping us to create meaningful change. 

We try to be the best at doing what we set out to do. Yet we realize that we can’t do it all. Others will be better at some things and that’s the way it should be! If we all start doing the same thing, it’s going to get pretty boring.

As long as you know what’s important to you, keep your head down and excel at that. There will always be copy-cats, but basically, you just gotta do you. 

" If you’re so busy keeping up with your competition, how can you be innovative?"

3. Do make decisions 

With responsibility comes decision-making. It’s easy to put off big decisions. This is something we’ve struggled with. Why? Because it’s fucking scary! What if you make the wrong decision? But no decision definitely isn’t the right decision. Usually it will result in you being stuck and wasting time. 

In 2015, there was one big decision that we struggled with. Namely, what was our long-term vision for tbd* and how we were going to execute it? We got pretty deep into negotiations surrounding a potential investment/partnership/merger deal. It brought out a lot of uncertainty about the future direction of our company and what professional success and happiness mean to us. We spent countless days (and sleepless nights) thinking about it. 

In the end, we decided against it. Instead, we chose to take a loan from the philanthropic foundation, Benckiser Stiftung Zukunft. This bought us time and allowed us to stay independent until we found our way. (A huge thank you to them for not only recognizing potential but actually putting their money where their mouth is.  tbd* probably wouldn’t exist today were it not for them. If we could have one birthday wish it would be that more foundations and “impact investors” would use the huge potential they have for social change by supporting other social businesses in the same way.)

Throughout the whole process, we lost a lot of time. In total, the negotiations stretched over 7 months. The longer we went without making a real decision, the bigger and more complicated it all became. 

" No decision definitely isn’t the right decision."

Now we know what we want. At the moment, we’re looking for a social investment to scale tbd* globally. We believe in social entrepreneurship and want to operate as a social business. We know that our autonomy is important to us. We believe we’re on to something that has the potential to transform not only the social sector but the private sector too, and we are willing to fight to see it through. 

So next time you’re faced with an important decision - get your team together and agree you’re not going to leave until a clear decision has been made. You can still make a different decision down the road. But at least you’ll be moving forward in the meantime.

4. Don’t get too comfortable 

Ah yes, you work, work, work, work, work for weeks, months even, and finally release that big project that’s been consuming your every minute. You’re done. Except you’re not. With that off your chest, it’s time to get back to all the other things you’ve been neglecting at work. And once those are taken care of, it’s time to start the next big project. Because this, my friends, is the life of an entrepreneur.

You are never done. Your product is never finished. You can never sit back and put your feet up. Sometimes this kind of sucks. But it’s also what keeps it exciting. Knowing that there is so much out there that could still be done. Knowing that there’s so much potential to change things for the better. 

But what’s important to remember is that it’s a marathon and not a sprint. You can’t be running on 180% ALL the time, because at some point something, or someone, is going to crash. The beauty is in the balance. Take breaks, celebrate your successes, allow for a reset, and then get back in the game. 

5. Don’t be afraid to say no

People are fickle and that’s OK. They will say yes when they want to say no. They will make promises that they cannot keep. But at the end of the day, this doesn’t help anyone. 

If there’s something that’s consistently true across the entire social sector (well, mostly), it’s that people are busy. We commit to things that we shouldn’t commit to. Whether it’s a new partnership or an offer to write an article - in the moment it sounds great but when it comes time to execute, suddenly it feels like too much. We’re guilty of it too. 

In the beginning, we said yes to everything. We said yes to every event, project or offer that we could get our hands on. It was awesome and critical to our success.

At the time, it was the right thing to do. But at some point, we could hardly keep all the “yes balls” in the air. We were spread so thin and the quality of our work suffered. To be honest, we kind of suffered. 

We believe in generosity, it’s one of the core values of our business. But what happens when it comes at your own personal expense?

It was time to make a switch. We had to go from being on the offensive to being on the defensive. By being more selective, we tried to only commit to the things we knew we could really deliver on. Sure, sometimes it’s scary to think of a lost opportunity, but usually, the things we didn’t really feel like doing were also the ones that we executed most poorly. 

Know your limits. Respect other people’s limits.

6. Do take care of yourself 

With the above in mind, perhaps our biggest learning in year two has been that we need to take care of ourselves. Before you can improve the well-being of others, you have to take care of your own. 

" Know your limits. Respect other people’s limits."

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine life “before tbd*”. When you work tirelessly on building something it’s easy to lose sight of where the company begins and you end. Regardless of whether it’s a good thing or not, it becomes part of your identity. It’s a beautiful thing to give yourself so fully to something - especially something that is so rewarding - and to have a part of you reflected in something palpable. But it comes with a price.

There was time when we forgot to have fun. And that, we decided, was no fun. 

Though it would obviously make a better story, we can’t truthfully say that it’s all sunshine and rainbows right now. We’re still working on finding the balance. But just knowing that FUN is a shared value makes things considerably rosier. 

Maybe we’ll get it down in 2016? Check back in next year’s edition of this article and we’ll let you know how it went.

Originally published April 4, 2016