I can’t imagine a more impossible business model than the one I created; a for-profit, for-purpose business that serves clients living a non-profit life. However, to this day I don’t know what other options I had to get the service I was passionate about to the people who needed it most.
The most successful businesses pay their staff and make a profit. We do, too, but our profit margins are often significantly smaller and some years we may break even. For years this was conflicting to me as I didn’t feel we were successful by the traditional standards of growing a business. I heard many comments such as, “If you are not making enough of a profit, then your business is just a hobby,” or, “Oh isn’t that a sweet job.”
What I learned over the years is that we had a different measuring stick for our business. Instead of staying focused on the bottom line, we base our decisions on our topline: our core mission to improve the lives of the people we serve. People who were struggling through many situations of life including difficult transitions, loss of limbs, sudden neurologic impairment, or depression after a death in the family. Facing these needs it never seemed right to focus on the money. I felt there had to be another measuring stick.
That is why when I first learned of the term ‘social entrepreneurship,’ I felt a kismet reaction. A social entrepreneur can be described as society’s change agent – a pioneer in innovations that benefit humanity.
Unlike the initial scoffs I heard from some people around me, the term didn’t sound weak to me; it sounded like a massive endeavour with huge potential to help my business move through some of the problems I had been facing, match my natural business mindset, and help me achieve the lofty objectives I had set out to reach.
As a social entrepreneur, my accountability lies beyond myself. I have known many people who believe that if we look after ourselves then all will be well. However, this is not necessarily so. Great success can come from approaching the world with a mindset that values the needs of others. As Barack Obama puts it, “we must heed the ‘call to sacrifice’ and uphold our ‘core ethical and moral obligation’ to ‘look out for one another’ and to ‘be unified in service to a greater good.’”
I feel the two most common practices all businesses can learn from a social entrepreneur are:
1. Focus mostly on what you do well and provide the resources your team needs to feel successful in your company’s pursuits.
“ Success is achieved by developing our strengths, not by eliminating our weaknesses.” -Marilyn vos Savant
One clear way to gain a competitive edge is to become great or exceptional in your field and this is particularly true for the social entrepreneurship who must be competitive to survive and fulfill their goals. In his 2008 book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell discusses the concept that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in any field. With only a limited amount of lifetime it makes sense to focus on developing one’s natural talents and abilities rather than wasting time developing areas where we have little natural ability. The social entrepreneur takes this a step further and is mindful of the needs of their team and the clients they serve. The strengths of these key stakeholders is how the company views its competitive advantage. Although profit may not be the primary driver for the social entrepreneur, the mission certainly is. Providing context to why a project or goal is important, and how it supports the mission of the business, is critical to creating accountability and obtaining results. “When team members understand why their role is meaningful, they are more likely to feel personal ownership,” says Jacob Hagberg of Orange Fox.
2. Focus on relationships, not transactions. Many businesses will say this is important, however, it is difficult to find one that truly models it. In a company like ours, where our clients range in age from 2 months to 104 with a variety of diagnoses and considerations and an array of goals they hope to achieve, it is impossible to see them as a transaction. Yes, they pay for every hour of service we provide, and yes that money goes towards our growth, but it is their goals that are paramount. The relationship we have with a client often lasts years and organically leads to many more transactions – this is not something we need to focus on.
My goal is to help small business leaders like you feel good about what you are doing so you can turn around and make an even greater impact in your community. There is no single philosophy to running a business. If the lens of social entrepreneurship resonates with you, stay tuned to this Good Work series as we go deeper into the stories and insights that fostered the growth of JB Music Therapy, Inc.and what has philosophically and strategically helped our growth.