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How to Start a Purpose-Driven Venture

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!

5 Guidelines for MBA Programmes to Support Impact-MBAs

Before I came to the MBA, I was a service designer and user researcher in public sector innovation labs at the White House, World Bank, and later the City of Austin, working on making public services more user centered and user friendly. I came to the MBA at Oxford to complement my design skills with the business and operations skills I needed to take my prototypes to scale. 

When I got to the Saïd Business School, I joined the small but mighty group of “social impact” MBAs looking to take our work to the next level with business skills. Over my year as a student, and now as an intern at the Skoll Centre working on impact talent development, I’ve learned a few lessons that I think apply to any business programme hoping to support their social impact students: 

1. Understand your “impact-MBA” personas, and design programming accordingly

There are a lot of us that get lumped together as social-impact focused MBAs.

This includes;

  • the impact-curious who are looking to enter the field
  • those who are committed to impact but looking to move into a new sector
  • and those who want to accelerate their careers in their sectors

The same support doesn’t work for everyone. 

A lot of MBA programming around impact assumes that we need to be convinced that social challenges are worth caring about and working on. That is effective for the impact-curious, and converts some who are on the edge, but it doesn’t cater to the impact veterans who are already convinced.

That’s why one of the key, but more difficult choices we’ve had to make at the Skoll Centre this year, is to focus the Impact Lab on those who have deep impact experience. This might feel exclusive, but in fact, it ensures that different impact MBAs with different needs and expectations get what they want and need out of the programming. The more we realize there isn’t a single, one-size fits all “impact-MBA”, and design programming that serves more niche needs, the more meaningful students’ engagement will be. 

2. Look beyond impact investing and impact consulting

Just as there are different impact MBA personas with different levels of interest and experience, there are personas that bring different skills, experiences and interests within impact. There are former policy makers hoping to bring back a business perspective, software engineers looking to lend their skills to a social tech firm, marketers wanting to help rebuild trust in business… the list goes on. Yet, the MBA impact career pathways can tend to mirror those of the broader MBA, and overemphasize finance and consulting. 

It’s important that all MBAs, especially the broadly impact curious who might be convinced to pursue a career in impact, see that they have a place and role in the impact ecosystem. Impact investing and consulting are each fulfilling and prestigious careers, but they certainly aren’t for everyone, and don’t begin to cover the breadth of options and needs in the impact space. 

Keeping this in mind, this year the Skoll Centre is collaborating more closely with the careers team at Oxford Saïd to help MBA students navigate through the many different pathways and careers in impact. We’re particularly focused on engaging our incredible network of impact MBA alumni working in every sector from government to NGOs, tech companies, and marketing agencies to banks and consulting firms to share their learnings and advice with the incoming MBA class of 2019-20. 

3. Don’t let us lose sight of the humans

There’s the danger that when students are taught frameworks and tools for impact, they come out bordering on technocratic. It’s hard not to drink the kool-aid and believe that an impact consulting framework, or a human-centered design sprint could help us fully understand and solve the problem. Or that using rigorous financial and impact analysis will certainly help us identify the social innovations that will scale. And when we’re sitting in our future jobs sending fancy PowerPoints or building elaborate models, it has the risk of reinforcing what’s happening really is this simple! The optimism of the MBA is great, but it’s important to keep us connected to the humans at the core of all the challenges we want to address. 

This is where the Skoll Centre is looking to deepen its ties to our community. Oxford has a tradition of walling itself off, and we’re working on breaking this down and connect with the community. A great example was through Map the System. When my teammate and I analysed the system that caused inequality in early childhood in Oxfordshire, we found through our research with a local community organization, the Oxford Hub, that promising solutions never made it to implementation because impact reporting frameworks didn’t match the phase of solutions. It’s easy in a classroom to be convinced that impact measurement is important (and it is!), but the nuance comes from interactions with the real world. Creating those opportunities leads to understanding (and employability!).

4. Help us be as rigorous about our personal impact as we would be about an organization’s

As a school focused on responsible business, Oxford Saïd’s theory of change is to pump out business leaders who can create change from within even the most “traditional” companies. But these leaders can’t live up to this vision unless they’re critical about their organization’s and their own activities and intentions.

The same theory applies within impact as MBAs join impact organizations like the United Nations, development banks, and corporate sustainability teams. These traditional players are the natural and prestigious next steps befitting an MBA, and it’s certainly possible to make significant change through these positions, but it’s important that we’re as rigorous about our impact and intentions going into these (or any other) organizations, as we are about our actions as a responsible leader working for an investment bank or consulting firm. 

That’s why in Impact Lab over the next year, we’re putting a finer point on developing a critical perspective on different themes within impact. With every activity, our objective is to help leaders to challenge their assumptions and ask themselves and others the critical questions necessary to ensure they are having the impact they promise. Importantly, we’re extending this perspective to being self-critical, so that students examine the biases and privilege they’re bringing into this work, and how they can overcome and utilize them to help create a fairer, more sustainable and prosperous world.  

5. Mainstream impact

Finally, the most important thing that a business school can do to create a fairer, more sustainable and prosperous world, is not only to support students that are interested in impact, but also to mainstream impact within the broader business curriculum. Oxford Saïd did a great job of this within the core accounting course this year. Each week, our professor had a group of students research, critically reflect and present on different themes within extra-financial accounting and reporting. The school also organized a mandatory union debate that examined the merits and limitations of mandated sustainability reporting. It was exciting that ESG factors and sustainability were thoroughly mainstreamed within our curriculum, and eye-opening (at least to me) to see how most corporates are thinking about sustainability and impact. Students were able to leave the accounting course, not only understanding the basics of accounting, but understanding the current state of extra-financial reporting, and how we might build on this progress in our careers. 

It would be great to see similar mainstreaming in other core courses like analytics, corporate finance, and technology and operations. The school already offers elective courses and co-curricular activities like the Skoll Centre’s Impact Lab for those who are interested in impact, but it’s all too possible for students who don’t come in with this interest, to avoid any content and reflection around impact at all during their MBA degree.

If we want to support every student to become responsible leaders and to pursue purposeful careers, a critical, human-focused, impact education is key for every MBA student.

Head shot image of Puja Balachander
Puja Balachander, Oxford MBA 2018-19 student.

Puja Balachander is an Oxford MBA 2018-19 student. She is also the co-founder of Devie, a trusted digital service platform that guides parents on their journey from pregnancy to parenthood, equipping them to become their child’s best first teacher.

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Achieving critical mass for impact investing

In October, find Oxford MBA student Karen Ng attended the Critical Mass Conference in London. This key conference brings together prominent speakers from major organisations in the social entrepreneurship and impact investing fields to discuss major developments and trends. Karen NgHere, pilule Karen gives us her key impressions and takeaways from the event.

“In one month this year President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron and the Pope all talked about impact investing…Not only in rhetoric but also on the ground. Impact investing is making a difference to people’s lives,” said Antony Bugg-Levine in his opening speech at the Critical Mass Conference.

Critical Mass conference

Source: Pioneers Post

You can imagine my excitement about meeting Bugg-Levine for the first time. He is the current Chair of Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) and CEO of Nonprofit Finance Fund, and is one of the individuals who coined the term “impact investing”. Along with 400 delegates from across the world, we spent two days in London to discuss the key actions required to achieve critical mass for impact investing. Some of my key takeaways:

Building trust and empathy

To achieve critical mass, it is crucial to build a community where all stakeholders, including social enterprises, businesses, governments and civil society can trust each other and work together. Kevin Lynch, the former President and CEO of Social Enterprise Alliance, admitted that “it’s really easy for the do-gooders on one side to look at big business and systems and say “you’re wrecking the world” and we here in the impact space are here to correct that”.

The importance of trust and empathy is also stressed by Bugg-Levine, who urged us to “step back and acknowledge regulations and bureaucracy in government for example, as well as the key barriers facing investors”. Michael Green, the Executive Director of Social Progress Imperative, also echoed the sentiment. Given it is hard for the government to go against popular opinion, “the civil society needs to create a conversation and reframe the agenda” on how we define progress of a society.

Communicating impact to a wider audience

PWC total impact measurement management

PWC TIMM
Source: PWC UK website

There are now numerous tools and frameworks to help us collect data and measure impact. However, it is still challenging for businesses to communicate their impact in a simple way to facilitate decision-making. The “big-four” firms have all developed their own tools to take on this challenge – such as PwC’s Total Impact Measurement and Management (TIMM) framework. TIMM places a value (positive or negative) on 20 impact areas under 4 quadrants: society, environment, tax and economics. The combined result is presented in a wheel to help businesses and investors to make decisions and track progress.

In addition to improving the way we communicate impact, it is also important to increase access to such information. One successful example is, Diana Verde Nieto, who founded the website Positive Luxury based on the belief that consumers desire to be connected with brands with aligned mission and values. The website now works with over 200 brands to assess their social, environmental and philanthropic performances.

Embracing technology to deliver scalable social solutions
The last panel I joined was entitled “The real innovators: using science and technology for social progress” – a great way to end the conference by looking into the future. Technology is an increasingly powerful tool to improve access and reduce the cost of achieving social impact, as well as reducing the time to achieve scale.

Chaired by Paul Miller, a partner at Bethnal Green Ventures, the panel featured 5 impressive startups that leverage technology to achieve social impact, including

• Ecosia: a search engine that donates 80% of its revenue to plant trees
• Gravity Light: a light powered solely by gravity
• Desolenator: a solar powered desolenator for household use
• Do Nation: an online platform to help individuals commit to behaviour change
• Walacea: a crowdfunding platform for scientific research

And if you think you are too old or too technologically challenged to embrace technology, I have met the Founder of If Everyone Cares. She’s a self-proclaimed “Grandma in Tech” who is building a location based online directory for all social services in the UK!

Managing hype and stay grounded
In the words of Bugg-Levine, the world of impact investing has “the highest ratio of words spoken in comparison to deals done”. Amidst of all the positive progress made, he warned practitioners to be wary of the 5 dangers, including “futility, expediency, timidity, comfort and self righteousness”. Rodney Irwin, the managing director of World Business Council for Sustainable Development, advised fellow practitioners to “stay humble and keep it real based on metrics”.

Perhaps one of the best ways to stay grounded is to remind ourselves of the real motivation behind all these trends and actions – they are based on real needs and urgent issues. Vimlendu Jha, the founder of Swechha in India, called upon the audience to stay close to the ground: “All these discussions are driven by men, but the most deprived and affected are often women and youth” – a note for all of us.