The first lessons we learned as social entrepreneurs
Let’s face it : it is not easy to integrate social entrepreneurship in our highly competitive, thoroughly optimized, and profit-centered business world. Although there is no contradiction between having a positive impact and being profitable, those goals can be tricky to align. And above all, gaining people’s trust as a legitimate and competitive actor isn’t easy for a startup branded “for good”. It has been quite a journey, and we have learned a lot. We strongly believe that we are on the right track and are here to share our lessons learned as social entrepreneurs for anybody with the same ambition to act and innovate for a sustainable world.
The first lesson we learned : if it looks too good to be true, triple check
It came at the start of our “make masks save lives” campaign: our first customer to register on our website, a wonderful doctor by the name of “Benoit Dadolle”, showed was a “Médecin généraliste” living in the Sentier area of Paris. He was asking for 100 masks to distribute them to his patients who would need it. The perfect fit on the first try, right?
Right? Well, of course, it seemed so. We just had to send him the masks, and he would distribute them to those who needed it the most, qualified by an expert doctor on top of it! All the lights did seem to have turned green for us.
However, we did something funny then: we checked the doctor on Doctolib’. You know, to know a little bit more about what he is doing, where he is and all. And first surprise: no result. So, we did some more research about him. His Facebook? Well, it looks like he doesn’t use Facebook. LinkedIn, then? No such doctor. And Google searches? no results.
So now this is strange : you are saying that a doctor with not enough informatics skills to have an online presence just found our shiny new website? At a time where it was not yet properly referenced by Google, was barely mentioned in a few targeted Facebook groups, he managed to place an order on it?
Something didn’t add up.
Hence, we investigated:
- There is a Benoit Dadolle that exists on LinkedIn. However, he is the CEO of some unrelated company. The name could be famous enough for somebody to think of it when looking for a fake name.
- The phone number on the registration is incorrect (or, you know, invented)
- A search on street view of the address shows no doctor on the door, but a textile shop
So, yes, you have guessed it just like we did back then, here it goes: our first customer was a scam. This little textile shop was trying to aggregate free masks, probably to sell them in turn.
What lesson did we learn as social entrepreneurs ? Well, of course, we didn’t learn that fraud is a part of humanity. We just didn’t expect to meet it so fast. As a social project, you are especially exposed to it. There is a sort of mentality of “those people are doing things for free, it means they have money to lose, so It’s moral for me to get some of it for myself.” One has to be aware of this mentality, and check where you are giving what you are giving, otherwise, you are just losing time and money.
The second lesson we learned : ask something in return to strengthen the bound
The second of the lessons learned as social entrepreneurs actually came from an older volunteer.
After the scammer, our first real customers came soon enough, though. Learning from the first lesson, we did background checks. We sent masks, wrote handwritten notes, went every day to queue at the post, and carried on for about a thousand masks.
However, we got to a pretty demoralizing situation in the process : nothing was happening after dropping the envelope in the mailbox. No thank you emails, no messages, no relay on social media, nothing. Just a postal receipt as a testimony of the hours of cutting and stitching. The had lived consequence could have been forecasted :
We got demotivated
We lost track of why we were doing it, and only got going through inertia mostly. I think it is fair to say some gratitude was due to us, and we were deprived of it.
Of course, expecting something in return when giving out something is counter-intuitive (doesn’t it go against the definition?). However, we had with us a volunteer with many years working for social organizations who gave us a very good advice : “ask them to be involved in return, or they will take what you give as their due“.
We applied the advice at our own level, and started asking for pictures of the masks or feedbacks before sending the masks, which we sometime got, sometime didn’t. Those bits of gratitude really went a long way to keep us going.
What did we learn? Well it’s easy to forget that you are not a machine when all of your focus is to give. A human being needs something in exchange for his personal balance. Know what is fair to ask, and not only will it be more gratifying, but others will appreciate more.
The third lesson we learned : quality is the key to social entrepreneurship
In the midst of this pandemic, we were far away from being the only ones to give masks. Many stitchers were doing the same, some for their own families and close ones, many to sell them online or to their network, and a fair amount joined the administration effort to provide masks to all.
Now, when the free government masks came out, a fair amount of testimony about #masquesgratuits showed some “mop – masks”, that anyone would be embarrassed to wear (and maybe that anyone should be embarrassed to have made). This is an understandable result : even in our volunteers, at a degree or another. It comes from a mentality that the mask receiver is not paying, so he has no legitimacy to expect anything really, and shall be happy with what he gets.
This mentality has strong limitations.
By undermining their results, they actually nullify the utility of whatever effort was provided, and betray trust. The effort is nullified because the user will not use the mask or not value it. Hence the product which is given is nothing but textile ready to become junk and impact our environment. The trust is broken because it reinforces the logic of an “I can’t expect anything and won’t respect” mindset from the receiver, who cannot expect the mask to do what it was supposed to do and isn’t more protected than if nothing happened.
We have decided to take a different road on our donations. Convinced that it’s not because it free that quality doesn’t matter, we made masks which definitely don’t shy away from any paid versions of the masks. Our motivation is that the masks should be something of value for our customers, and that they should not just be another component of today’s fast fashion.
As a result, we have had some overwhelmingly positive feedbacks for our masks, and have been able to create meaningful relationships with those who needed the masks. This is what justifies all the effort and no pay.
So what did we experience? We experienced that quality is the key allowing a change in the mindset of the customer. Without quality, nothing is irreplaceable, everything is to be consumed, and your work was for nothing.
The fourth lesson : your social values can open doors
A significant distinction between us and other masks making initiative is resides in our approach to it. Many people took the situation as a profitable opportunity ( there is a shortage and I can supply, so my pricing can go higher). On the other hand, we decided to take this project as an opportunity to apply our values and test them on a real-world project.
As a result, we were able to communicate over a very clear identity that we shared. We could present ourselves as an eco-responsible company here to transform fashion that doesn’t lie about its values. And as such, we have had some amazing feedbacks which took proportions that we were absolutely not expecting.
For instance, we got support from Dan Pontarlier. Dan is a well-recognized influencer whose stand in sustainable fashion echoes many of our views on the topic.
So we contacted him directly, presenting our values, vision, and implementation of it. And any background checks you would do would actually confirm our stance. He answered, and we got thanks to him an exposition we would never have hoped to get as a modest student-sized initiative.
All this would not have been possible without having strong values and an utter confidence in them. Any brand can brag about being eco-responsible. However, a lack of foundations to those claims always surfaces. By presenting ourselves and acting as a fully eco-responsible initiative with social impact, we got relayed to tens of thousands of people, which is more than what we could hope to reach.
So what can we recommend ? Be true to your values. In this process, you will get long term allies that money can only buy for a time.
Fifth lesson learned as social entrepreneurs : not reaching your target doesn’t mean you have failed
This social entrepreneurship lesson actually was brought to us through a failure. After having donated a thousand masks and calculated the costs to continue, we decided to launch a crowd-funding campaign on Ulule, called “des masques pour tous”. This campaign failed dramatically : out of the 2000 € target, we only got a third of the money needed.
We can find the reasons to justify it : we launched the campaign a little late, by the end of it the mask shortage was no longer a major problem, and we did not get the reach we hoped for. It was however a great learning, and many people came to our help through other ways, by lending us old bedsheets to make more masks or by helping us making the masks.
Looking back, had we succeeded in doing the crowdfunding campaign, we would have to do masks as of now, at a time when it is more relevant to focus on new upcycling projects. But not doing the crowdfunding at all would not have been good either, as the campaign brought us a much-needed support, even though not a monetary one.
Our adventure gave us a few precious learnings, and our main lessons learned as social entrepreneurs are as follow :
- If it looks too good to be true, triple check
- Ask people to contribute back to strengthen the link
- Quality is the key
- Your values will open doors
- Not reaching your target doesn’t mean you have failed