As a social enterprise operating in the tech hub of the Tannery District in downtown Kitchener, it’s easy to see how much our not-for-profit culture clashes with the for-profit business world around us. On the surface, for-profit entrepreneurs build businesses with the ultimate purpose of making money, while social entrepreneurs build their enterprise to impact social change. While perhaps true to the CRA, I think the entrepreneurial community, writ large, is much more nuanced than this. Even if at the surface there is such a fundamental difference, it is also important to note how much can be learned from one another, and more importantly how we can concertedly stimulate this knowledge exchange.
I recently had a discussion with Mike McCauley the co-founder of BufferBox, a start-up out of the new Velocity space at the Tannery that solves the problem of failed parcel deliveries. Their first kiosk is now live at the University of Waterloo’s Student Life Centre. We discussed what it means to be an entrepreneur, what lessons can be shared between the for-profit and not-for-profit communities, and how a collaborative work environment can help set the stage for this exchange.
First, Mike talked about the purpose of starting a business and becoming an entrepreneur, notably combating the notion that a business’s purpose is to make money. He states that, “any organization is started to solve a problem in society, and to simply make lives better.” Borrowing a popular quote, “profit is like oxygen…you need it to live, but its not why we live.” Both for-profit entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs consistently deal with financial challenges, but in the end it is all meant to make a positive impact on the problem they’re tackling.
We also discussed some of the major strategic challenges start-ups face in their early stage growth. Similar to Sustainable Waterloo Region’s early challenges, BufferBox identified gaining “early adopters and champions” as one major hurdle in its growth. He suggests that, “you need supporters on board early in order to engage them in the design and implementation of new ideas and products. Those who are engaged early and involved in its growth are those most invested in the company’s success.” Sustainable Waterloo Region faced this exact challenge in the spring of 2010 when it decided to convene an External Working Group (EWG) to inform the Regional Carbon Initiative (RCI) framework. To date, over 85% of EWG participants are now members of the RCI. People want to be apart of that which they create.
Finally, Mike discussed the irreplaceable benefit of collaborative workspaces. He suggests, “early stage company development requires outside opinions, expertise, and support.” Starting out at the Accelerator Centre, BufferBox quickly saw that there was much to learn from those in a vast array of industries, and company sizes around them. At its core, “everyone is trying to create a successful organization, and everyone is facing the same high level challenges to achieve this.” Extending this further, as a social enterprise surrounded by for-profit businesses, Sustainable Waterloo Region has all sorts of friends and supporters to discuss strategic decisions, such as how to secure seed funding, how to communicate a value proposition, how to manage new hires and compensation plans. None of this is unique to either the for-profit or the not-for-profit world, and certainly more diverse opinions you receive, the more creative solutions you can come up with.
As entrepreneurs, we need to support this organic knowledge exchange in a much more concerted manner. As much as the Tannery, the Accelerator Centre, and Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation have been successful at galvanizing cross-sectoral collaboration, continuing to create spaces where social entrepreneurs are interacting on a daily basis with for-profit businesses will undoubtedly lead to much more creative solutions to some of society’s larger challenges. As the downtown core continues to experience growth, and as the Tannery and the neighbouring Breithaupt Block build new programs into their collaborative workspace model, I am hopeful of a more conscious effort to stimulate collaboration and shared learning across the social and for-profit start-up worlds.