Lessons from a Social Enterprise with a Successful Business Model Pivot: Louise Bleach of Desolenator

Rebecca Mitsch

Communications strategist working with MovingWorlds

Louise Bleach, Business Development Manager at Desolenator, has spent her career working with social enterprises on world-changing ideas. Her time with Desolenator has led her to develop 7 tips on the best ways for social enterprises to develop corporate partnerships, shared in a recent webinar for MovingWorlds’ S-GRID program.

Original Desolenator solution

The story of Desolenator is similar to many other social enterprises: a couple people had a simple idea to solve a big problem. In Desolenator’s case, its founders were seeking a sustainable desalination process utilizing two readily available ingredients – sun and seawater – ultimately envisioning a small, household product that increases access to clean water for the millions that lack it. As a result of a lot of work and a little bit of luck, Desolenator is now in a place that all social enterprises hope to be: a team of 20 spread across 3 countries, over $10M in funding, and productive corporate partnerships. 

Desolenator’s current solution for water desalination

Today, Desolenator is very different from its first product: it grew from a small scale household desalination tool to a technology that can process thousands of liters of water a day.

Desolenator in the field

Read on for a few tips from Desolenator’s path to success:

  1. Be visible. A lot of connections are a result of a chance encounter but you can stack the odds in your favor by getting out there as much as possible, looking for a platform that will get you in the same room as your future customers. Once you’re in the room, focus on the conversation. Meaningful conversations start with an observation of what the potential partner is doing, and establishing common ground. Make it relevant to them and then gradually link back to your work. Take the solution selling approach, rather than a direct sales pitch: talk about the shared problem and revert back to the big picture solution. 
  2. Vision and values + value. Seek long term partners with vision and values, and then show your value. Do they have a complete vision and are they working towards a big picture/high purpose? Is sustainability a box to be ticked or is it ingrained into everything they are trying to do? This typically becomes apparent when talking about budget. As you evaluate potential partner’s vision and values, how can you reframe your organization’s value in a language they can understand? Crucial to Desolenator’s success has been finding the right corporate partner in Carlsberg Group. Beer and desalination processes don’t have much in common at first glance, but there is shared vision and values between the two organizations. Carlsberg Group has strong, achievable 2030 sustainability goals with total company alignment and it is interested in innovation and is willing to put budget behind innovative CSR opportunities.
  3. Find a connection within the potential partner organization who is open to talking, receptive to your value, and will be your internal champion. For corporations, it’s a big risk to work with a startup. So, mapping opportunities is crucial because you can show how you derisk the partnership for corporates. Taking the time with the right person in the organization to map the opportunities and figure out the department responsible, the best timeline and location, etc. gives you the ability to test the waters and also calibrate your sale. 
  4. Customize your pitch. Your social enterprise should either already have or be in the process of creating a baseline value proposition, which is developed by coming up with hypotheses and then testing those hypotheses through conversations with your market segment. Customizing your value proposition to your potential partner and their customers is key to demonstrating your value because it shows that you are learning from the market and developing your product for the market’s needs. 
  5. Find your process. For Desolonator, organizational maps are crucial to its strategy in terms of figuring out which stakeholders will be less receptive, and planning for that. Giving stakeholders a clear understanding of the steps required as early as possible, with data readily available is their key to success. No matter what, your process should involve the impact you and your potential partner can have together. Depending on your company/product, you can create an automatic tool (as simple as an excel with formulas) to add different partner’s inputs and then calculate impact, providing a real time example of what is possible together.
  6. Remember your spark. You have the fire and passion that big corporates likely don’t have. Show your energy because that will be appealing to potential partners. Don’t be scared to propose off-the-wall ideas, outside of their typical framework, as that is the spark that will attract them. You also have the ability to think differently and de-risk the relationship in ways the other organizations cannot. For Desolenator, grants have been important to closing corporate partner deals because it derisks the funding aspect of the partnership. 
  7. Learn, pivot, and sell. As you learn about new opportunities, if you see a new partnership opportunity, you might have to pivot your product or service. Listen to what you see and hear so that you can pivot your product , and ideally enter into new partnerships where these partners help you fund your ongoing evolution and growth.
Desolenator partnership with Carlsberg
Desolenator has built partnerships with some of the world’s biggest brands

For scaling social enterprises, building partnerships isn’t just sales. It’s also learning about the real market needs and pivoting your product/service to deliver a solution that the market needs and will reward. The best way to grow your social enterprise is through earned revenue, not speculative investments. Building partnerships that help you do that is key!

Interested in receiving more insights like these from global leaders? Check out MovingWorlds’ S-GRID program specifically for social enterprises.