I’m not your rich founder. The point of this article isn’t to tell you that I’m oh-so-great, and that you should learn from me, but I hope that this article shares a little more about the journey of founding a social enterprise, and how painful that has been.
Because, trust me.
This journey is not for the faint-hearted.
In October 2021, I quit my job to go fulltime into my business. I had no idea what I wanted to do. All I knew was that I didn’t want to work in my previous job as a social worker, and I wanted a change.
But I wasn’t exactly sure how I would make money.
Fortunately, before quitting, I had been side-hustling since 2018, in university, as a writer, and a speaker.
In June 2020, during Singapore’s lockdown, having nothing much to do (and realising that I could complete my fulltime job in 2 hours a day, instead of the 8 hours), I incorporated the company.
This wasn’t in the realm of thousands of dollars. It was more like $100 per article written.
But I concluded that if I just ate from tuna cans, and lived with my parents, I would survive.
And for the first 4 months, I constantly worried about money.
I want to be honest here about the amounts of money I earned, because I think if I wasn’t, you might mistakenly think that anyone could start a business.
It’s true that anyone can, but not everyone, should. There’s a big difference between can and should.
If you can see from the numbers above, you can see that there were big spikes, and big drops.
Whilst I wouldn’t say that I’m a success in terms of entrepreneurship, as a first-year fulltime founder, I haven’t died.
In fact, I’m closing to the amount I earned in my last fulltime job, at about SG$27,300 earned from business, as of October 2022.
I don’t say this to boast.
The first reason why I want to be clear about the numbers is because starting a business is ‘cool’ today.
But no one really tells you how much they earn.
And for those who really tell you how much they earn, their numbers are stratospheric. You may not think you can ever reach them.
So these are my real numbers.
Mind you, you don’t need training in business
I have zero experience learning about business plans or economics. I took social work in university, which taught me how to work with non-profits.
Starting a business seemed to be the most far-off thing I could ever do.
But not having a business plan helped me to stop thinking too much, and to just do it.
No market analyses, no framing of offers, just learning by doing.
So how can you make your own social enterprise happen?
Should you quit your job? (My answer is yes.)
I say this because I want you to know that if you really want to make something happen, there’s no motivation quite like quitting your job.
When you have no money, you have no choice but to make money. There’s no more time to sit down, procrastinate, and think about the next best idea. You just have to go out and make something happen.
Secondly, when you have a job, you would always have a backup plan. And when you have a backup plan, you would inevitably find yourself putting in less effort than you would.
Because there’s always something to fall back on.
Start with no business plan
This might seem foolish.
But the best laid plans are, pardon me, sh#t, when they meet the real world.
You simply have to go out there to sell something to someone, that generates money in.
Focus on the money in
For all the theories about business, the one metric that counts for our team, is money in.
If there’s no money in, there’s no business. You need to decide at the start whether you want to make a business, or a charity. As much as we can talk about how social enterprises are about the double bottom line, comprising both profit, and purpose, I’ve come to see that focusing on two different bottom lines will distract you from getting your business to a healthy enough space to make an impact.
It’s thus an enterprise-first approach, rather than taking the ‘social-first’ approach.
When we first started our business, one of our models was selling the kitbag (seen below) for money. What we realised was that people didn’t want to pay for them.
It was only when we started to focus on what was earning us money, that allowed us to begin thinking about how to make impact.
As mercenary as this sounds, we realised that a key maxim was
Focusing on the service or product that people actually pay for, will help. When people pay you, they are demonstrating that they see sufficient value in your work to put up their hard-earned money.
Whilst we can say that doing charitable (free, no payment) things does not necessarily mean that there’s no value, it is a different model of change.
Build paying offers
Our initial product offer looked a little like the one below. We had two lines of business, with a service and a product offering.
But we realised slowly, that the service business was something that people were paying more for.
Today, our product offer looks a little more like this.
And slowly, as painful as it was, we started to divert more resources away from the ‘social’ aspects of our business, into the money-making aspects.
It’s important that you build paying offers. Because as much as it’s nice to tell people that you’re a social enterprise, our experience here in Singapore, is that ‘feature’ has not necessarily gotten us more deals.
When you tell people you’re a social enterprise, their first thought is,
does that mean I get a cheaper deal?
Building a paying offer is about constantly adjusting your offer.
You can cross-subsidise your ‘social’ products
You want to do good.
Earn more money, so you can subsidise the rates of the social things you want to do.
In our business now, we charge charities less, (about 72% less) for the content that we create for them.
We also run workshops for charities at a third of the price that we usually charge other clients.
Build a team around you
But most importantly, don’t go it alone.
Building a team around me has helped me to overcome the loneliness of being a solo founder.
It is hard. Because some of the team members you work with, may not meet your expectations, and you may eventually have to fire them.
Don’t flush that dream though
Whatever your decision is, start something that matters.
Life is short. Don’t spend it sitting behind a desk, thinking what if.