30 Social Entrepreneurs Share Their Best Advice for Scaling Your Social-Good Business

Alexandra Nemeth

Content Marketing Manager at MovingWorlds.org

“Experience is a master teacher, even when it’s not our own.” Gina Greenlee

By using the power of the market to create sustainable social and environmental good, social enterprises have the potential to transform our global economy. And as those working within social enterprises know, realizing that potential is a constant process of trying, failing, learning, and trying again. With each repetition of that process, you’ll gain new learnings and experiences to inform your next move on the path to scale. 

Experience is indeed a master teacher, and for those early on in their social entrepreneurship journey, one of the best ways to learn is from the experiences of others. While there is no universal magic formula for achieving success at scale, there are certain themes that come up again and again. To support you along your path to scale, we asked 30 successful social entrepreneurs: “What is the best piece of advice you’ve received on your social entrepreneurship journey related to scaling your social enterprise?”

Here’s what they shared:

1. Focus your offering and value proposition

“The more that you can focus your offerings as an entrepreneur, the better you will be at scaling. While it is exciting to have a large portfolio of products/services, every new market segment and product line requires a specific investment in time and resources. We found that being able to offer various products to several different types of customers made us generalists, and with limited resources, we had a limited reach. Once we learned to focus our offerings, we were able to invest our resources and become experts in our product with dedicated marketing, which led to scaling of our solution.” – Wesley Meier, EOS International

“The best piece of advice I have received so far is to focus on one thing at a time. Be sure the specific goal of each project is clear, and that its scope is limited to one issue or a specific skill-set. Giving yourself fully to one project at a time allows you to deep-work on it, to concentrate your limited resources where they can make the biggest difference, and to give the attention needed to internal and external stakeholders to secure its successful completion.” – Like Gom Koudjaho, The Youth Centre for Development and Peace (The YCDP)

“FOCUS! Can you explain your business in one sentence? One word? If you can’t, your key stakeholders will also have difficulty understanding why they should engage with your products.” – Paul Whitney, African Bronze Honey

“If you want to scale as a social enterprise, you want to focus on scaling impact. Before you can do this, you need to have a very good understanding of how you are generating impact. Only when you understand what part of your organisation represents the ‘fulcrum’ to get the levers of impact moving will you be ready to scale. You can compare this to a wheelbarrow. The fulcrum is the wheel. The input force is represented by the handles and the output force is represented by the mass inside the wheel barrow. For every unit of output you want to spend as little time and effort on each unit of input. The organization with the highest input/output efficiency will attract the donors/investors that help them scale the model.” -Gideon Blaauw, Coomacovalle

[Editor’s note: Learn more about how to focus your efforts in the right place in our Complete Guide to Growing & Scaling Your Social Enterprise.]

2. Take a human-centered design approach to product development 

“Don’t sell a service or a product to your customers, offer a solution to their challenge(s) and/or problem(s). Creating value is what allows you to attach a price to your product or service. Your product needs to be addressing a specific need of a particular group.” – Augustus Kagyene, Curtin Child Learning Center (CLICCS)

“The best advice I have received as a social entrepreneur is that scaling a social enterprise involves solving social problems based on the beneficiary’s own needs with innovative forms of existing solutions. Take a human-centered approach to keep your beneficiaries at the center of your work.” – Charles Umeh, Parkers Mobile Clinic

“This quote from Seth Godin about maintaining a kindness (human-centered) approach has always stuck with me and our Mexican outfit: ‘It scales better than competitiveness, frustration, pettiness, regret, revenge, merit (whatever that means) or apathy. Kindness ratchets up. It leads to more kindness. It can create trust and openness and truth and enthusiasm and patience and possibility. Kindness, in one word, is a business model, an approach to strangers, and a platform for growth. It might take more effort than you were hoping it would, but it’s worth it.’” -Damon Taylor, Psicología y Derechos Humanos PSYDEH A.C.

“Always engage service users in the design of the next phase of your product development. Your users know a lot, they know what they need, in the contexts they are living in, and that insight can save you time and nerves.” -Servane Mouazan, Ogunte CIC

“You can design what you think is a great product or solution, but if there isn’t a market for it, it won’t get you anywhere. In the early stages of one’s business venture it’s important to really get a solid and realistic grip on your social reality as it relates to your business model. Define whom your benefactors are going to be (the Theory Of Change Model is a great tool to structure your ideas) and find niches of early adopters and/or truly motivated individuals to start off with. Starting like this will give you the opportunity to test your assumptions against reality, learn through trial and error on a small scale, and then make adjustments along the way. Be patient, and if successful others will follow down the line.” – Pim van den Hoven, Naturally Divine Peru

[Editor’s note: Learn more about the human-centered design process, and how it can be applied to build sustainable solutions that make the world better, in our #LearnHCD series.]

3. Build the right team, and continue to develop internal capacity

“Find the right team! Start by identifying your own strengths and skill-sets, as well as your weaknesses and missing pieces. Then, fill those gaps with people who excel in areas where you do not. It can be easy to get caught up in trying to become an expert in everything that your business needs (especially when costs are tight). ‘I am not good at everything, nor do I want to be,’ became my mantra. I love working collaboratively with people and the ideas that come from a group mentality. Trying to develop a business in a silo, without anyone to build and bounce ideas with, becomes a longer, harder, and less knowledge-informed process. This approach requires us to be extremely honest with ourselves and be open to building a business model around our flaws, just as much as it is built on our strengths. This is a journey I am still on, and these words continue to guide me.” -Cara Boccieri, Akamae

“Win inside to win outside. Our objective has always been to build internal capabilities – that was a piece of advice which we still follow today. When you want to scale your business 2x, you don’t need to incur 2x the cost, nor do you need to double your manpower. As long as your team is competent and willing to learn, a lean team can succeed doing anything.” – Si Hui Lim, Glyph

“Building a trusting and motivated team is key to building key business relationships and partnerships.” – Ada Yip, Urban Spring

[Editor’s note: Check out this article from our CEO in Next Billion, Managing the Managers: Nine Tips to Help Social Enterprises Build Outstanding Management Teams, for more tips on building the team behind the entrepreneur.]

4. Embrace partnerships – don’t try to go it alone

“Some of the best advice I’ve received is that scaling means different things; it is not just about producing services on a conveyor belt. It might mean adapting an evidenced-based programme in another setting and collaborating with local stakeholders who are better placed to grow a programme locally. Don’t imagine you can do everything on your own. This is how we delivered the ‘Make a Wave’ incubation programmes in the UK and other locations around the world, as well as on-line. This growth readiness programme was focused on Women in Social Entrepreneurship and we delivered it from Jamaica to Japan in partnership with local authorities, and other funding organisations! Collaborating with others was paramount to stay relevant for participants locally. Lived experiences change from place to place.” -Servane Mouazan, Ogunte CIC

“Strategic partnerships are critical to the success of social businesses.The benefits of strategic partnerships are multifold: capacity building, and training, development of sustainable distribution models, and access to sustainable financing, among others.” – Ziwa Hillington, Green Bio Energy Ltd.

“We initially steered away from partnerships, thinking we should prove ourselves first. However, a mentor just kept repeating the mantra ‘you have to love partnerships,’ and eventually I understood why.” – Meg Wirth, Maternova

[Editor’s note: Watch this webinar featuring Partnerships expert Steve Schmida to learn more about what it takes to build effective partnerships that deliver world-changing outcomes.]

5. Operate with a sound financial model 

“The first piece of advice applies to those pursuing a for-profit social enterprise model. To scale your impact, you’ll also need to scale your revenue. Therefore, it’s of the utmost importance to become economically solvent before you try to scale. Never lose sight of the `triple bottom line’, triple being the key word here. As an entrepreneur one can experience financial hardships, especially in the early days if you`ve gone all in from the get-go and don’t have a second `back-up’ income stream. Operating at an economic surplus will not only secure the future of your endeavour but will also provide you with the means to reinvest profits to scale your impact. Don’t try to scale before you’re ready – we learned this early on, and found that we could only take care of others once we could really take care of ourselves (as a business).” – Pim van den Hoven, Naturally Divine Peru

“You won’t be profitable right away, and that’s ok. Profitability or sales numbers are not the most important metrics – the first thing you need to monitor in your company is cash and cash flows. Keep a very strict eye on your cash flow every day.” – Guido van Hofwegen, Nazava Water Filters

“The best piece of advice we’ve received to date on scaling our social enterprise was to separate our experiential financial books from our digital product books. This allowed us to create more clarity in how to use our financial resources and best support and grow each of these offerings.” – Lisa Arie, Vista Caballo LLC

[Editor’s note: A helpful tool to validate your business model is the Business Model Canvas. Read this article to learn how to use the Business Model Canvas as a social enterprise.]

6. Remain agile 

“One of the key lessons I’ve learned is: don’t be afraid to pause or pivot. As new information becomes available, don’t be afraid to modify an existing, proven solution, even if it deviates from your original plan. Not being afraid to make a change will result in positive outcomes for not only your beneficiaries but also your company.” -Beth Carls, OneSeventeen Media, PBC

“Everything takes three times as much time and money as you’d hope!” – Nell Derick Debevoise, Inspiring Capital

“The best piece of advice I was given was that as the CEO the role, my role will change from time to time as the organisation grows and evolves. Some of these changes I might like, others not. I will have to learn to adapt and accept this. What helps with these ever changing needs and environments is to hire competent people who can take on leadership roles. I have seen this play out at 321. At first I needed to be very hands on and deep but have been more strategic and advisory more recently.” -Gaurav, Singh, 321 Education Foundation

“Innovation is key to success, be resilient” – Diego Olivero, Meso Goods

[Editor’s note: Find related resources and inspiring examples of agility in adversity in our September social impact roundup.]

7. Don’t let fear prevent you from taking action

“Our organization is a Peruvian non profit. Due to the isolation of our project locations, we strongly hesitated about whether to start or not. But one of our mentors pointed out that the positive impact we were planning to have was going to compensate for all of the effort it would entail, and encouraged us to take the risk. It has been almost 6 years now, and every time I think back to that moment I know we made the right decision. Without any doubt, I can assure that the challenges we found have been (and still are) bigger than expected, but without that advice we would have never started. I think with a combination of willingness to take risks, patience and hard work, we will accomplish our goal.” – Maricarmen Valdivieso, Nexos Comunitarios

“The best piece of advice I’ve received about scaling our social enterprise is to embrace our “ugly baby” of a product. We can take all the time in the world to prepare and “perfect” our product, but at the end of the day, what matters is our ability to share our work in a way that helps others. So at times when I think we’re not ready, or our product isn’t “good enough”, I remember to think of it as an ugly baby. One that is beautiful in all its imperfection.” -Rebecca Jacobs, Anika Works

“Walk in your own lane. Don’t compare your progress and journey with others. At various points in your entrepreneurship journey, you may feel downtrodden, you may wonder why you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel yet — at this point, don’t look at the lane next to you and wonder why someone else seems to be doing better. Your time will come, just keep working hard, doing the right thing, and doing all things with integrity.” – Sasibai Kimis, Earth Heir

“Don’t feel pressured to scale before it makes sense for your company. Scale at your own pace.” – Juvita Tatan Wan, The Tuyang Initiative

[Editor’s note: For more inspiration, check out these lessons from Brenee Brown about courage and vulnerability.]

8. Think long-term from the start

“We have had the opportunity to become familiar with many social and cultural organizations during the last 14 years. We have seen how organizations who have dedicated the time to planning the evolution of their initiatives have survived at a much higher rate. This was not specifically a piece of advice that we received, but rather has been based on observation and talking directly with the founders of many of these organizations.” – Tony Evanko, Fundación Casa Tres Patios

“The best piece of advice has been to think big – to not be afraid of a “moonshot” approach, and to believe in the potential of your business. Sometimes entrepreneurs, especially when they start very small, tend to find it very difficult to think big, and this can actually block the real growth potential.” – Claudia Castellanos, Black Mamba Foods

“The best advice that I received is to institute effective internal control mechanisms from the onset. It is never too early to create internal controls…it can only be too late! It is also important to remain focused on the project goals. Create and adhere to a project budget but stay flexible and adopt impactful changes where necessary. During the pilot phase especially, try varied options and maintain those that yield the best results. Employ well defined M&E tools at clearly defined stages of the project and document review outcomes for later use in the project.” -Richard Waindi, Agewatch Africa Foundation

“Scalable social enterprises differentiate themselves from existing competitors/models in the field with innovative solutions that also have the possibility for replication. Have a clear set of short and long-term goals, and a strategy for reaching those goals in a way that is sustainable in the long-term.” – Shankarappa Donner, PARIVARTHANA RURAL DEVELOPMENT SOCIETY

[Editor’s note: Find more tips about measuring impact to drive improvements in our Complete Guide to Growing & Scaling Your Social Enterprise.]

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The path to scale for each social enterprise is unique, but you can set yourself up for success by keeping these tips in mind:

  1. Focus your offering and value proposition 
  2. Take a human-centered design approach to product development
  3. Build the right team, and continue to develop internal capacity
  4. Embrace partnerships – don’t try to go it alone
  5. Operate with a sound financial model
  6. Remain agile
  7. Don’t let fear prevent you from taking action
  8. Think long-term from the start

Looking for more support scaling your social enterprise? Apply to our social enterprise accelerator and revenue growth program, S-GRID