Heather Fleming

R.I.P. Social Ventures?

“How do you know when to pull the plug on your idea?” That’s the question Kiwanja.net’s Ken Banks posed to me after swapping stories one afternoon about our respective startup organizations. Nurturing and implementing ideas demands a physical and emotional investment. Once you’ve put that much into it, it becomes hard to know when it’s appropriate to throw in the towel.

The lack of financial capital isn’t a concession factor for most social ventures. Successful social ventures were born seed funding was available, and some of the coolest new organizations out there are funded by friends and family. For them there is no drain of funds that signifies the death of an idea. When organizations are fueled by personal capital and sweat equity, the finish line gets hazy.

It’s an increasing dilemma. Consider the growing number of student classes working on social impact design projects. Stanford University’s Design for Extreme Affordability is one of the more renowned programs for graduate students in design, engineering, and business that connects student teams with a non-profit “client” for five months to develop a product solution serving the needs of bottom of the pyramid consumers. The class is responsible for spinning out a variety of social entrepreneurs – Ignite Innovations, d.light, Embrace, Driptech, to name a few. Each of these organizations came into existence because their “client” was unwilling or unable to take the final idea forward. Five months of work wasted? It’s not hard to see why many student teams decide to implement the solutions themselves.

In addition to student teams, there are thousands of individuals and groups out there with ideas, solutions, or prototypes, each often building new organizations to support their solutions, some with more concrete plans than others. The problem arises after these teams/individuals/groups develop a solution, but then become unsure what to do with it. Solutions, after all, still need to be implemented and roadblocks prohibit organizations from getting their solutions into the hands of people who need them. The usual culprits: lack of funding, on-the-ground presence or implementation partner, or the time and motivation required to drive activity.

A great case in point is the Pepper Eater, a device produced by Samuel Hamner and Scott Sadlon. Their aluminum prototype uses a hand crank to crush chili peppers into chili flakes. The prototype processes one kilogram of dried peppers in about thirty minutes, a fraction of the time required to do it by hand. The women in Ethiopia who’ve field-tested seem to like it, and have even purchased the prototypes.

But the designers behind the project are not ready to quit their day jobs to make pepper grinders. They’re not interested in the complexities of building a company around this technology – they just want to see it end up in the hands of people that can and will. Funders don’t give money to ideas without implementers, however, just as investors don’t fund ideas without a foreseeable return. As a result, the Pepper Eater sits in development purgatory waiting for something to happen.

How to help them? Something I could think of was featuring them in this blog to let readers know that they’re looking for partners to manufacture and distribute the design in Ethiopia.

Any takers?

This brings back the core issue Ken Banks raised in our conversation: how do you know if you’re forcing an idea? And is there a place for the solutions that don’t make it past the roadblocks?

The irony is that a lot of people with ideas or interest in this field are asking how to get started. My answer for folks is usually fuzzy and unhelpful, but the most forthright answer I’ve heard came from Sally Osberg of the Skoll Foundation. She said, “If you’re asking that question, then you’re not ready. Get some experience, learn from those who are doing, and put yourself out there.”

It’s true. But now that we have many people getting started, the harder question to answer is: how do you know when to stop?