Most social entrepreneurs think their social venture is unique. In fact, it seems like numbers of social entrepreneurs who promote their venture on the basis that ‘no else is doing this’ vastly exceed the numbers promote their venture on the basis that it’s really good.
This may be partly due to the funding climate in the social sectors, with both grant-funders and government backed innovation schemes keen to prove that their money is going towards developing the new and the different.
The mainstream business world is generally less keen on doing things that no one else doing. A quick check of the biscuit aisle in your local supermarket will reveal that there’s a phenomenal range of biscuits containing or covered in chocolate but no biscuits containing or covered in parsnips. Perhaps the nation’s shoppers are waiting for a visionary entrepreneur to create ‘spicy parsnip crunch – the genuinely healthy alternative’.
The investors on TV-based investment circus, Dragons Den, also tend to steer clear of groundbreaking ideas –memorably rejecting opportunities to invest in an armchair that’s also a gym and a bed sheet designed to prevent couples cuddling.
Mainstream business people take decisions about launching or investing in product or services based on whether there’s a market (or a big enough market) for the product or service. Social entrepreneurs might have a different starting point – based on delivering positive social change rather than (or as well as) making money – but ultimately if a social venture is going to work (at least part of) your aim is to get people to pay you for something.
If no one is currently doing what you’re doing, you shouldn’t be celebrating your genius and/or good fortune, you should be asking why. Some possible explanations include:
(i) No one has ever thought of the idea before because they’re not as clever as you
(ii) Some people have thought of the idea and decided not to do it because they couldn’t find the money to get started and/or didn’t think anyone would pay for it
(iii) Some people have thought of the idea, tried to do it and failed to generate enough income to keep going
(iv) It’s a really bad idea
As a social entrepreneur who passionately believes in your venture you’re unlikely to believe explanation (iv) however many people tell it’s the correct one (and there’s not necessarily any reason why you should).
All the other explanations present you with some really big problems. Explanation (i) is unlikely to be literally true. It’s amazing how many social entrepreneurs claim to have found an exciting new solution to a social problem having apparently failed to spend 20 minutes on Google checking whether other people are either doing or have tried something similar before.
On the other hand, if (i) is true and your idea has never been seriously considered before, then that (at best) tells you nothing whatsoever about the likelihood that (a) it will work or (b) anyone will pay you for it but it does mean you have no one else’s experiences to learn from.
If, for example, you’ve come up with a plan to tackle youth unemployment through the disruptive combination of skateboarding and environmental action, you need to work out (amongst other things):
(a) Whether combining skateboarding and environmental action is an effective way to tackle youth unemployment
(b) Whether unemployed young people are interested in taking part in a project that combines skate boarding and environmental action
(c) Whether anyone – grant funders, public sector agencies etc. – will pay to run this project at all
(d) Whether you can generate enough income to cover the costs of running the venture on an ongoing basis
Your starting point is that you don’t know. Having unanswered questions is nothing to be ashamed of – a key part of being an entrepreneur is finding things out – but, when it comes to working out whether you’re social venture can be effective and sustainable, the fact that no one else doing what you’re doing is as much a problem to be solved as a selling point.