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!
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Image source: World Economic Forum/REUTERS/Ben Nelms
Jeremy Sigmon is currently pursuing his MSc in water science, policy, and management with the School of Geography and the Environment. He joined Oxford with 15 years of experience in the U.S. green building industry which is when he had his first of many inspiring sustainability conversations with global food waste expert and entrepreneur Marc Zornes, co-founder of Winnow, one of the top 100 fastest growing companies in Europe.
Whether in our homes, at the market, in transport from farms, or at the restaurant, food is so often wasted. In developed countries, most of the waste occurs in kitchens or is left on the plate, since the food supply chain has been generally optimized so that minimal food is wasted from farm to market. In less developed countries, the inverse is true: food may spoil at ports, in transport, or at the market due to inefficient supply systems, but the food that is purchased by consumers is usually consumed.
With a fast-growing global population and increasing pressures on global resources exacerbated by climate change, some have begun looking at increasing the end-to-end efficiency of our food system, from farm to fork, as an essential way to ensure we can feed the world today and tomorrow (see also McKinsey’s Resource Revolution, which Zornes coauthored). What’s more, Marc Zornes has also discovered that fixing the problem is good for the environment and profitable, too. I sat down with him to learn more about it.
Jeremy Sigmon (JS): Food waste appears to be a much bigger issue than I had previously imagined, and you think a lot about it. What keeps you up at night?
Marc Zornes (MZ): Food waste is one of the biggest environmental issues we have today. We now know this because our data on the scale of the problem are getting clearer. 30% of all food that is grown is never eaten. This is a $1 trillion problem that will grow to $1.5 trillion by 2030. What keeps me up is how we scale solutions to address this issue. This is one of the clearest win-win opportunities in environment and business. We save money by throwing away less food, it is better for the environment, and it’s morally the right thing to do. Fortunately, there are a growing number of solutions out there that can be scaled to address this issue.
JS: How is circular economy thinking finding its way into the food industry?
MZ: The Ellen MacArthur Foundation just
released a major report that explores this topic: ‘Cities and Circular Economy for Food’. For starters, nature’s food system is circular. The question is how to reorient the
industrial food system we’ve built. Fundamentally,
this begins with redesigning systems that radically minimize waste. We then need robust systems for nutrient
recovery rather than disposal. Landfills
release lots of methane gas and – for safety reasons – are actually not
designed for decomposition. We’ve found
nutrient-rich cabbage in a landfill still trying to decompose decades later. We need a coherent, systems approach to
ensure we neither waste food nor lose its nutrients.
JS: I understand you’re focused on commercial kitchens. What’s your approach?
MZ: We focus in on commercial kitchens because they have a big economic opportunity in food waste prevention. Kitchens throw away about 15% of the food they buy, and the majority of the waste happens before it even gets to a plate. By providing analytics on the waste generated and supporting the production planning process of the kitchen, we ultimately help cut the value of food waste in half or more. This leads to big cost savings for the kitchen – from 3% to 8% of what they spend on food. Of course, this is also a very attractive investment. We deliver a 200% to 1,000% ROI to our clients in the first year.
JS: I just read about a new Winnow technology that could be a game-changer. Tell us more!
MZ: The original ambition of Winnow was to use artificial intelligence (AI) to measure and
analyse food waste in kitchens. In order
for food waste monitoring and measurement to be seamlessly integrated into a
very busy commercial kitchen, you really need a fully automated system. When I
founded Winnow in 2013, this automation wasn’t possible, so we built a system that
asked staff to identify the food wasted on a touchscreen tablet. Winnow Vision, our latest product, is the
realisation of that original ambition.
Winnow Vision is a camera-based system that looks into the bin and uses
computer vision to identify all food being wasted. It really is a game-changer for our business
and a great, practical example of AI for good.
JS: What parting words of wisdom do you have for students of the circular economy and social enterprise?
MZ: There’s a massive opportunity in helping the world transition to a low-carbon, more circular economy. My biggest advice: if you have something you believe in that needs building, build it. We don’t have a lot of time and we need more solutions to scale. It’s hard work for sure. That said, it’s the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.