Mike Quinn is a 2007-08 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA alumnus, he is also the co-founder and former CEO of Zoona, one of Africa’s earliest fintech companies. With other 10 years of experience running a successful social business, Mike shares his hard-learned tips and experiences on how get a purpose-driven venture started.
In October 2019, I had the privilege of being a Social Entrepreneur in Residence at Oxford’s Saïd Business School. I delivered three talks and coached dozens of entrepreneurial MBA students who were seeking practical advice on how to start, build and scale a purpose-driven venture. This blog summarizes my first talk, ‘How to Start,’ with the others to follow.
Start by falling in love with a big problem
When starting a new venture, there’s a lot of
pressure to come up with that one novel idea that nobody has ever thought of
before. It can be discouraging at the idea formation stage to hear comments
like, ‘Oh that’s not very unique!’ or ‘There’s another company already doing
that!’ This pressure can lead to you spending a lot of your time trying to come
up with a unique solution before choosing and understanding the problem you
want to solve.
This is a backward approach for a few reasons. First, it’s almost impossible to come up with an idea that someone else hasn’t thought of or tried already. Second, if another company is already doing it, that means there is a real-life analog to learn from. And third, trying to come up with a solution before fully understanding the problem is the fastest way to start-up death.
A better approach is to spend time up front falling in love with a big problem. Pick a problem that you are passionate enough to spend the next decade of your life solving. Make sure it is big enough that no one solution will solve it completely. And be confident that if the problem no longer existed, the world would be a better place and you would be proud to have contributed to the solution.
Falling in love with a big problem is what will keep you motivated through all the investor rejections, people challenges and product failures that will surely come.
Pick the right co-founder(s)
There is a saying that ‘Founder’ is the loneliest number for good reason. There is so much to do when starting a new venture that having a team of 2-4 co-founders can make a huge difference in both the venture’s success and everyone’s well-being. However, finding the right co-founder(s) can be fraught with challenges, especially for first-time entrepreneurs.
Before you look to find others to work with,
you should start by finding yourself:
What is your purpose?
What are your core values?
What is your personality type?
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Which tasks do you jump out of bed for, and which drain your energy and cause you to reach for the snooze button?
I like to capture these on a ‘Me on a Page’ document that I review monthly to keep me grounded.
Next, understand that the ideal co-founder(s) enables you to be the best version of yourself (and vice versa). Find people who share your passion for the problem, resonate with your values and are equally committed for the long haul. Make sure they have complementary strengths and weaknesses and are people you enjoy being around.
This is a high bar to meet, and so it should be. Over my ten years at Zoona, I spent as much, if not more, time with my three co-founders as I did with my wife. We experienced exhilarating highs and gut-wrenching failures together. We had to work in a pressure-filled environment that was never stable, even when things were going well. Working in a start-up will either bring co-founders together or destroy relationships, so it’s critical to be purposeful about the people you will share this special bond with.
It takes time to know if you have the right co-founder(s), so in the interim there are some practical steps you can take. For example, ‘try before you buy’ by agreeing up front to test for fit and working relationships before formalizing anything. Build in staged check-ins and exit off ramps where people need to either commit or leave. When splitting equity, introduce share vesting so that a departing co-founder returns their unvested shares back to the company. Have honest conversations and learn how to give each other feedback. This all takes courage and maturity but is absolutely necessary if you want to build a successful venture.
Rapid prototype to discover product-market fit
With the right problem and co-founder(s), you will have solid foundations in place to shift your focus to discovering product-market fit. Your goal is to develop a minimum viable product (MVP) that solves a major pain point for your targeted customers. You also need to validate that they are willing to pay for your product above what it costs you to deliver it. If you’re lucky, they will start telling other people who are like them to try your product, and you will achieve lift off.
A lot of things have to come together for this to happen, and it’s typically a race against time and running out of cash. If you spend all your time building a perfect product in your office, you are destined for failure.
Rather, take a rapid prototyping approach. Start with a small and consistent customer segment. Get to know who they are, their pain points, and the root causes of their pain points. Learn from them about how they already overcome these pain points on their own. Then, design hypotheses for how you could help reduce or eliminate their pain. Test hacked solutions that require the least amount of time and money to develop and seek quantitative and qualitative feedback. Make adjustments on the go and keep iterating as fast as possible until you have a working MVP and delighted customers.
With any new venture, there is never a
guarantee of success and always a high probability of failure. But if you get
these three foundations right – falling in love with a big problem, picking the
right co-founder(s), and rapid prototyping to discover product-market fit, you
will be off the starting blocks and living the entrepreneur lifestyle!
Skoll Scholar 2018-19, has spent the last year in Oxford studying her MBA. To
end the year, she reflects on her own personal learnings and passes them onto
you to take forward on your own journey.
I love to ask questions to deepen my understanding. I believe asking great questions is an awesome skill to have. This year, however, I discovered that I am an activist: I raise my voice in matters that contradict my values. And it happened a few times. I also had the wrong impression that many people think like me and I assumed that my MBA colleagues and I think alike. Instead, I learned there are endless perspectives that I need to acknowledge and that the ‘18-19 MBA cohort at Oxford Saïd are not as vocal as I expected.
Here are some stats: this year
we were 315 people from 62 countries, average age 28, with 24% of us coming
from finance, 17% coming from consulting and the rest 59% coming from 16+ other
fields, with an average of 5 years of experience. Wouldn’t you expect these
young people to make their voices heard?
In some sections, many were
silent during lectures and didn’t ask clarifying questions. Some possible
reasons: they didn’t want to disturb the lecturer’s flow, or they thought that
their question might be “stupid” and might not bring value to the rest.
Culture, personality and English proficiency also play a role. And then there
were people who might have been experts in their field.
I experienced many times the impostor syndrome.
However, it didn’t stop me from asking brief questions in class: it shows the lecturer
where I am in my learning, it helps me clarify my thoughts and other people can
benefit too. Even more, given my years of groundwork, I could potentially bring
a new perspective on interpreting industry practices and academic research. I
kept my computer open many times in class to make sure I get a gist of a
concept like debt/equity ratio and use it correctly in my question, but
that didn’t stop me from taking my understanding to the next level with a
question. The worst thing that could happen was to leave the classroom without
understanding the foundation of what was taught.
Question the default – Courage to ask Why
In a world in which “business as
usual” – with profit as the single end goal – doesn’t seem to make sense anymore,
we need courageous leadership who dares to question the default practices. I
actively decided to practice this courage. Don’t be afraid to ask in impact
investing class why we assume that tools of traditional finance can be
transferred as they are into impact investing. Don’t be afraid to ask in
economics and finance, why the perpetual growth assumption is not questioned.
Speak your mind
How many of us question the
things we hear from lecturers and speakers? Being at Oxford, we had access to
amazing speakers: in class, at the Oxford Union or at events around the campus.
Amazingly reputed people come to Oxford, and that’s a great privilege. But
Oxford also teaches you to speak your mind, not to get intimidated by the
reputation of the speaker. We might have valuable insights. Politely
acknowledge someone’s effort to share their story in front of a class of
students and then speak up. Just remember to speak with humility!
Always remind people that every management decision
It’s not about the merger post
acquisition, it’s about two teams of dedicated people learning how to work
together. Thinking about people can help you better understand the expected and
Speak with your heart but wrap your position
in data: every time
I learned this the hard way. My friend, an editor with The Economic Times, showed me how to keep my emotions under control and use data instead to make the point. It does require a bit more (home) work. I tend to let myself taken away by emotions. When I hear something that contradicts my core believes, such as anti-refugee statements or opinions about “the poor’s ignorance”, my blood pressure goes up. Some perspectives out there really clash with my genuine belief that humanity is equality distributed in every one of us.
When things go rough, remember to be assertive. One of the best take-aways I have from my year is the Even Fish Need Confidence (EFNC) framework that I learned during peer-support training: explanation, feelings, needs, consequences. Use this framework to communicate openly to someone who might use words that trigger negative emotional reactions in you: explain what happened (facts), express your feelings about what happened (vulnerably), state what you need (to make this relationship work), state the positive (and negative) consequences if your needs are (not) met. Communicating with this framework builds respect between people and reduces the risk that someone gets hurt. Difficult conversations are healthy and important. Constructive conflict, if orchestrated, can help everyone learn how to be a team player. It’s not an easy task to orchestrate conflict but it might be worth it. We are all on a discovery journey to become a better version of ourselves. Enjoy yours!
You run a growing social business and
things are going well. But you soon realise that with a little extra business
knowledge and global connections, your business could be so much more
So, you decide to take some time to
study your MBA.
But what happens to the business? You
think, ‘surely there will be plenty of time to run my business remotely, it’s
the 21st Century for goodness sake, it’ll be like I’m practically in
the office with all this technology at my fingertips’!
Well, sadly, most of the time this is where our Oxford MBAs can quickly get overwhelmed. In their hopes to do both, get an Oxford degree and run a successful business from 5,000 miles away, only one will prevail in the end.
So, what can we learn from those who
have come before?
Mohsin Mustafa, Oxford MBA, Weidenfeld-Hoffmann Scholar, and Skoll Scholar 2018-19, offers some handy advice for any prospective MBA looking to keep their business ticking over whilst they take a year out to study.
I run a healthcare business in Pakistan. We have pediatrics Clinics and we run those clinics in partnership with schools where we provide preventative care services. My enterprise Clinic5 is three years old and we have a team of 15 people. One of the biggest concerns I had when I was leaving for the Oxford MBA was what would happen to the business in my absence. So, I would like to share with you my experience and what worked. For advice on this aspect I would really like to credit Sidhya Senani, MBA 2017-18 who faced a similar dilemma as I did whose advice was crucial in helping me plan my transition this past year.
What to DO:
Have a lead in place
Having one person to contact while you’re
away makes it much easier for you to administratively manage affairs in your
enterprise. Also having one second in command makes it easier for your other
stakeholders (suppliers, clients, rest of the team) to know whom to contact in
case they want an issue to be solved.
Pilot not going to the office for at least
This pilot helps everyone in the team see how things happen in your absence. If you’re the cofounder, its quite possible that you were always available, both in person and with your time, now that you would be gone for a year, the gap would be felt so it’s always better to first give a feeler to the team and troubleshoot the issues that come up. Trust me this will come!
Set aside dedicated time for a weekly
This is very important. Face time with the team every week makes them see you still care about the work. It’s quite likely that the ownership you feel towards the business is much higher than anyone else. Feed the team with that energy every week. Additionally, during these calls, keep negative feedback to a minimum. Primarily serve as the motivational speaker or the cushion for their stressors. Let them speak. At your end reiterate the achievements during the year and how much longer the team must go before you join them and what’s waiting in store for the team after you join. Sharing the vision goes a long way.
You will get a few calls from your primary
point of contact every now and then. Prioritize that call. Important for your
primary point of contact (your lead) to feel that you have their back.
Also, if other team members call, try and
route them through your primary lead. If there’s a call, document it
immediately through an email so that everyone in the team is aware of what was
discussed. This practice reduces the chance of misunderstandings. This year
will be a real challenge of your business leadership skills.
Set aside cash flows so that your
business operation does not suffer.
It’s possible you might get cancelled clients, it’s possible that your business development plans for this year do not work out. The cushioning of cash flows for your business should be greater than what you keep. You need not share the exact level of cushioning with your team. It’s more as a safety net for rainy days.
What NOT to do:
Don’t intervene in operational matters.
Let the team on the ground deal with them
and TRUST their decision even if you think you would’ve done things differently
let it be. Unless and until you think a certain decision is an existential
threat, resist the temptation to intervene. This is essential to empowering
Don’t get involved in office politics
Some will happen inevitably. When that
happens try not to take sides
Don’t give negative feedback over a
Call if you must do it, do It one on one
Don’t plan to scale your work this year.
It exerts immense pressure on the team
A year later, I could safely say, things
went by quite smoothly for Clinic5. I would give this credit to my brilliant
team: Dr. Taha Sabri, Dr. Selina Hasan, Muhammad Irfan and Syed Kareem.
Additionally, my father kept an oversight on financial matters which took a lot
of stress off me, so thank you Abbu!
This time away might have been a blessing
in disguise since people took up more leadership responsibilities within my
organization and now when I go back, I can really focus on scaling.
If you’re taking part in the Oxford MBA this
coming year, brace yourself for an intense and exciting year.
Puja Balachander is an outgoing 2018-19 Oxford MBA, a member of the inaugural Impact Lab, awardee of the Skoll Venture Awards 2019, and social entrepreneur. On Friday, 11th July, she attended the Business Fights Poverty conference at the Saïd Business School. Here she shares her own personal experience.
Having spent my former life working in the public sector, I have to admit I’ve often been frustrated by the narrative in business circles around social impact. The message is often implicitly or explicitly that government and philanthropy have failed, and therefore business needs to step in to save the day by bringing the “rigour” to the impact sector that it desperately needs.
I walked into the Business Fights Poverty 2019 conference prepared to hear the same rhetoric again, and found it refreshing that rather than painting business as the cure all, the conference theme this year was around “Purposeful Collaboration.” It brought together players from major corporations and the third sector, and emphasized a systems approach to problem solving, where business wasn’t the solution, but it was part of the system of solutions necessary to address the complex global challenges we face.
Yet I couldn’t help but notice the irony of what I saw compared to the expectations I had encountered in government. I was always told that we needed to adopt more rigorous “private sector” methods to understand the ROI of the resources the government spent on social impact. But the conference showed me that the private sector is being far more lackadaisical about their impact efforts than government ever was.
The need to move from defining a corporate purpose, to creating structures, processes and culture that actually facilitate that purpose were repeated in nearly every session, yet the examples cited and celebrated at the conference seemed tokenistic and only superficially impactful. The keynote speaker for the day from Unilever gave a presentation that seemed to equate socially inclusive and progressive marketing with Unilever’s social impact. In a corporate intrapreneurship workshop, speakers from major companies told us about their social innovation initiatives to surface ideas and potential ventures from within their employees. And while I’m sure there might be positive social outcomes that come from these efforts, they sounded more like employee engagement than social innovation.
I’m not sure that celebrating these efforts is helping move companies towards more ambitious and rigorous social impact efforts. At the same time, I’m aware that being overly critical of companies’ incremental efforts could be counter-productive. Incremental progress is better than none at all, and who’s to say that companies won’t throw up their hands and figure that if they’ll be criticized, either way, they might as well go back to a pure profit-maximizing focus?
So rather than a critique, I left the Business Fights Poverty conference with questions. How do we encourage companies to be more ambitious and rigorous about their social impact efforts? Celebration and commendation like we did at the conference felt disingenuous, and like they wouldn’t catalyse the urgency and scale of transformation needed to address the challenges we face. Critique has the potential to scare companies off, or put them on the defensive, stopping them from engaging with the academics, public servants, and third-sector players that might be able to help them in their transformation. Is there a middle ground between these that might put companies under an optimal level of pressure, and provide the optimal support that will spur them forward in their impact journeys?
Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.
Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA Candidate 2016-17, Ashley Thomas, draws on this year’s Skoll World Forum theme in relation to social impact business models.
There is a fault line between models of international development financing. On one side, there is the traditional donor and philanthropic capital that utilises grant money to support projects. On the other side is the social enterprise space that seeks to create sustainable impact through revenue generation. There has been a lot of excitement in utilising grant funding for social enterprises to build and tweak their business model, but to date there has been little appetite for true hybrid models of ongoing subsidies for social enterprises.
This is a conversation that I had in numerous sessions and coffees throughout Skoll World Forum. It was also one of the key themes from the session hosted by Mercy Corps and USAID on sharing the learnings from their investments in the Innovation Investment Alliance. There is a common ground emerging; these conversations are hinting at the start of innovative new business models that allow for hybrid grant and revenue streams.
Social enterprises are addressing market failures. They bring products or services to underserved markets, often at low margins, and often at high costs. However, market failures exist for a reason; many companies are realising that even at scale, high volume low margin products are not able to generate the revenues that are necessary to be sustainable. However, social enterprises often sell themselves on this vision- that with initial capital to pilot and build systems, they will be financially sustainable at scale.
Philanthropic capital- which does not require financial returns, can help bridge this fault line, and maximise the potential impact of social enterprises. This does not mean we should revert to the large scale unsustainable development models of the 1990’s, but use philanthropic capital as way of targeting the market failure and allowing social enterprises to maintain their focus on their mission and outcomes. This hybrid model is being utilised in the FundiFix hand pump repair service designed by Dr. Rob Hope out of the University of Oxford. The model uses monthly user subscription payments to pool capital to finance prompt hand pump repairs. However, the willingness to pay only accounts for 2/3 of the cost of the service, and the remaining cost is subsidised through grant funding. This is also used in much larger social enterprises. Ella Gudwin from Vision Spring spoke about how their model has shifted from seeking to maintain cost recovery- and retailing glasses at increasingly higher prices, to minimising the “philanthropy per pair” and serving their target customer. They were able to do this under a scaling innovation grant from USAID and Mercy Corps, demonstrating that donors are also recognising the need for the pivot into these hybrid models.
It is increasingly clear that there is not one single model for social enterprise, and a single-minded focus on achieving commercial sustainability may limit the impact. Innovative hybrid models that use the social enterprise ethos of cost effectiveness in combination with smart grant funding that can subsidise the product can address the market failures preventing social enterprises achieving impact at scale. There is immense opportunity to achieve scale and impact through creating this common ground.
Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.
Allegra Day, Oxford MBA at the Saïd Business School gives her perspective on the Skoll World Forum session “Business as a Catalyst for Poverty Alleviation”.
In the Opening Plenary of this year’s Forum, Winnie Byanyima of Oxfam International revealed the fault lines in the capitalist model that have enabled 8 men to own as much wealth as half of humanity. Winnie was unequivocal that the system is rigged against the majority and a new economic model is needed that is fairer and more sustainable for all. This echoes a theme that has reverberated across the Forum: business is central to poverty alleviation, but the current legal structure and incentives underpinning big business need to change.
Throughout the week, we have heard from organisations championing this change through investments in staff, suppliers and innovation. Hamdi Ulukaya, CEO of Chobani, spoke of providing a living wage for his employees, one fifth of whom are refugees. During the Business as a Catalyst for Poverty Alleviation Panel, Charlotte Oades of Coca-Cola outlined the company’s aim of supporting 5 million women entrepreneurs to grow their businesses and eventually enter the supply chain of Coca-Cola and other companies through the 5by20 initiative. Fellow Panellist Cherie Blair CBE, QC spoke of her Foundation’s work with financial institutions in markets where women are viewed as “risky” customers training local staff to understand that women are generally good borrowers and should be considered for loans.
But is all this enough? Those spearheading the B Corp movement would probably say no. Panellist and Co-Founder of B Lab Company Bart Houlahan reminded us that in many places, directors are liable under company law for not returning maximum profit. The B Corp model offers a solution: a new legal structure enabling directors to incorporate community engagement, worker involvement and environmental footprint objectives alongside profit maximisation. We now need greater adoption of the B Corp model and adaption of the model to suit multi-national corporations. Alongside this, Ms Blair and Mr Houlahan called for greater education of bankers, investors and lawyers to understand the changing role of business.
Beyond legal reform, the Panellists described two key ways in which businesses can play their role in tackling poverty. The first is more support for women-led businesses in addition to women-owned businesses, given the challenges associated with ownership of assets for many women. Panellist C D Glin of the US African Development Foundation described this as a critical tool for economic growth that dovetails with the safety and security aims of the US Government. The second is support with scaling up enterprises. Ms Oades spoke of the role Coca-Cola can play in scaling enterprises through identifying and sharing learnings across its network that can be adapted to a local context.
During the Forum’s Skoll Awards Night, Bono said that capitalism is “not immoral but amoral: we have to tell it what to do.” Conversations at the Forum have made clear that we as leaders, consumers and human beings must challenge businesses to modernise and innovate in line with moral and ethical standards to create more common ground for us all to share.