NGO : Well intentioned folks who believe they can change the world, or some part of it, through their selfless efforts. Usually in poor clothes, poor offices and working from grant to grant.
Social Enterprise : They’re not not-for-profit. But don’t want to make too much of it, or at least aren’t focused on it. Usually try solving specific problems at scale through products and services around that problem.
Corporate Social Responsibility : What big companies do for PR, a brand image as a do gooder and at best feeling better. Usually a matter of adherence to stated policy and in some cases, soft laws.
The above, in order of do-good-ness associated with them – are a rough summary of how we see the social side of our organized effort in society. The trade-off between walking the talk on good intentions and running a viable, successful, profitable ‘business’ is implicit and accepted.
Yet, it’s not necessarily the only way.
Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, founder of Tata Steel had a vision that went way beyond his business. “Be sure to lay wide streets planted with shady trees, every other of a quick-growing variety. Be sure that there is plenty of space for lawns and gardens. Reserve large areas for football, hockey and parks. Earmark areas for Hindu temples, Mohammedan mosques and Christian churches,” he wrote in a letter to his son, Dorabji, about his vision for the township that would eventually become Jamshedpur.
It’s about you, as an entrepreneur. Its not about the scale of your business, or the type of entity its registered at. The “do-good-ness” becomes part of the DNA in whatever you do, and one must remember why the whole dance around businesses exists – its finally about the people it serves and the people that run it. We hear of crony capitalism, rampant greed and the unsustainability of all.
How do you not fall into the same trap?
Live by the “Don’t be a Jerk” philosophy.
This is the founding principle of all do-good-ness. If you measure every action, every decision on this, chances are you’re doing good already.
Is the food chain you’re entering better now that you’re part of it?
In any business, unless you’re addressing a fundamentally new need (or maybe even if you are!) you’re entering a food chain that comprises producers, transporters, financiers, traders, and of course, consumers.
By participating in it, is your startup or business merely exploiting something in the short run, or actually making it healthier, more efficient, robust? A mobile recharge company recently sold bus tickets at a huge discount. The inventory was bought through a second level aggregator. And none of these knew about the bus industry, or impacted it in any positive way! Indeed the move might cause harm to bus operators and those powering the back ends both on the ground and online – getting consumers used to untenable pricing isn’t healthy for anyone!
So don’t talk the language of “exploiting resources” – in fact that very term is at the root of many a problem. Vendors, employees, partners – think how your business can create as many long term, healthy wins for anyone it touches.
Don’t go with “market salaries”
Sure, a tiny startup cannot afford to pay folks too much.
But how do explain a well funded behemoth paying those at the bottom of their ladder – but the only human face of the company the customers actually see, and who need to respond appropriately, collect money and manage the immediate feedback without too much dissonance (and do this!) – almost 90% less than what a lot many mid-level managers make in the company?
Employees deserve a special thought. Share plans, share goals and vision, and share the upside you see without trying to hide behind “what the market will pay”. People at every level connect with business cycles if you include them, and respond positively to it. Trying to get away with the minimum possible gets a bad message across, and sets up a needless us-vs-them tension internally. A promoter run business that has grown a lot has had pretty much the same fixed salary for folks for a few years now with minor tweaks – but a huge, and regular, variable component that sends out the message that the business is willing to carry folks along, not merely “use” them as needed!
Consider “impact”, externalized costs
Plastic packaging is cheap. Because you pay little to procure it, it reduces damage of goods during shipping.
But only because you do not have to deal with its disposal. Landfills are filling up, burning the waste is releasing toxins into an CO2-already-at-400-ppm atmosphere. There are costs that are being paid all the time – just that the current economy works in unfair ways to let those with the root cause responsibility for these costs get away without paying for it.
Think what your business is impacting this way. Think of how you can reduce it. Of course, as a small entrepreneur working within the limitations of current economics you cannot solve it all, but just being aware will help.
Leave space for R&R, Rejuventation, Biz Consolidation
I’m probably being repetitive, but at all times remember you’re dealing with human beings. The transactional approach assumes an impossibly high level of consistency, reliability and quality.
Cut slack. Everyone has downtime – just like you do! Make it easier for folks to be honest, as long as they realize and accept a bad patch and are ready to fight back to normal. And always support people through their tough times – personally, financially, professionally. You don’t have to “lose money” on them – they’re often looking for faith and support more than money itself. Sure, there’s the risk of feeding complacency and inefficiency, but that’s a fine line that’s worth treading.
Similarly, building some leeway into the business plans for rest, rejuvenation and even business consolidation (there’s always a bad patch – plan positively for it!) is a very practical, sensible thing to do. At my current business, I’m even mulling upper limits on certain profit driving metrics – I need my frontline staff happy and unstressed! Its nicer for them, and its better for business. Can’t let short term “growth” trump long term health, after all.
Have a clear answer to “why” the business exists, and keep revisiting it
A business exists for making profits is what you’ll hear very very often. I tend to vehemently disagree with this premise. A business needs profits to meet its goals, but profits aren’t what it exists for. There’s a need it tries and solve, and in doing so, there are people who make a living, use and improve their skills in delivering the solution to that need – and hopefully even enjoy doing this! All around, there’s people, communities and society that’s impacted in various ways by your efforts. I think visionaries like Tata got this instinctively, and many current business leaders, investors and mentors don’t.
Yes, the data’s important and the analytics should be your guide for what to do, grow and focus efforts on. But pray, do not be so completely driven by those alluring numbers that you forget what you started it all for. You’re an entrepreneur, and you have the space, the ability and choice to do it differently.
So let your business and startup be a force of good in every little way it can. The heavy duty tags can wait.
What are your thoughts?