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5 Common Mistakes Made by New Social Entrepreneurs

A person looking at mountains and the ocean.

During my time here as an editor at Idealist, I’ve interviewed hundreds of social entrepreneurs. Hundreds. No joke. I’m a fan girl, to say the least.

I’ve spoken with them about how they’ve made their ideas happen, the successes they’ve seen, and of course, the dirt on what’s been challenging.

What they all have in common? Mistakes.

You will make mistakes as a first time entrepreneur. While not necessarily a bad thing, here are five common ones to keep an eye out for and how you might deal.

Mistake #1: Thinking funding will magically appear

So you’ve got an amazing idea, a solid plan, the right people on board, and good timing. Yet funders are hardly giving you the time of day. And you can’t imagine quitting. So now what?

How to deal: Whether it’s creating side hustles, seeking fellowships, or creating a crowdfunding campaign, there are tangible ways to get the cash you need.

It’s also good to have the intangible in mind, however, and remember social capital can yield real capital - if you have patience, that is.

Mason Richards, director of The Seawall short film, knows this firsthand. Richards has been able to support his career by various connections he’s made over the years - whether through random introductions, fellowships, fiscal sponsorship, and more.

“I think a mistake people make is thinking that you need money right away to make everything happen. I disagree,” Mason says. “I think that if you have a strong alliance of the right people who are passionate about what you’re doing and who believe in your goal, then money will come.” 

Mistake #2: Thinking you can do it all

You’ve spent days, weeks, years even birthing your perfect project and no way in hell are you going to let someone else come in and mess it up. I get it. It’s your baby, after all.

But you’re quickly realizing that there’s no way you can manage volunteers and create a Kickstarter campaign and plan that event and get some shuteye to boot.

How to deal: At some point, you’re going to have to let go. That’s the truth. If you don’t, you’re going to burnout or give up completely.

Ask for help. Have an informal kitchen cabinet of people to reach out to or a more formal advisory board. It might take a little more effort on your part, but in the end you’ll be grateful for people you can bounce ideas off of, delegate tasks to, and potentially connect you to the right funders (see above).

Off course, managing help is a learning process in and of itself. Jordyn Lexton from Drive Change, a food truck that employs formerly incarcerated youth, can attest.

“This project hits so close to home for me. I’m trying to balance the areas where I lack competency by getting the right people involved, and then have the confidence in those people to let them to really take over those roles,” she says. “I’m also learning to delegate and allocate tasks in way that’s effective, which means only saying yes to help if I have concrete things to do.”

Mistake #3: Thinking the larger social context is too big an obstacle for you to contend with

Most likely, your idea is disrupting the status quo is some sort of way. You wouldn’t be doing what you’re doing if it didn’t.

But sometimes your idea is so radical it results in strange glances from funders, raised eyebrows from families, and apathetic nods from friends. They can’t even imagine what you’re talking about because, according to them, it would never work. Then you start to believe it.

How to deal: Realize you’re not going to “change the world.” That’s one of those big, fluffy, overused phrases anyway. Start small, and work from there. 

Benzi Ronen from Farmigo, a website that bypasses supermarkets and offers farm-to-neighborhood food, understood there were embedded cultural attitudes about ordering produce online he had to confront if Farmigo was to work.

“The way we’re tackling this is not trying to get whole world to shift and buy online. We’re focusing on small communities and early adopters."

In other words, baby steps.

Mistake #4: Thinking your story doesn’t matter

You spend so much time on the what of your venture that you’ve neglected the why, which is crucial to making people actually care about your project. Maybe storytelling isn’t in your skillset. But as the founder, getting comfortable with communicating who you are and the heart of what you’re doing is key.

How to deal: There are countless opportunities for perfecting your story, from online resources and local workshops to more public events such as Ignite and The Moth. The more you tell your tale, the better you’ll become.

When starting The Design Gym, a design thinking consultancy, Jason Wisdom realized the power of storytelling early on and have included it as part of their workshops and events.

“You can come up with most amazing product, but if you can’t tell a compelling story about how you got to that solution, then nobody cares. That buy-in is absolutely necessary,” he says. “It’s all about practice. People who actually tell stories on a regular basis become good storytellers.”

Mistake #5: Thinking you have to be original

It’s normal to want to go down in history books as a trailblazer. No shame in that.

How to deal: Differentiating yourself from other ventures is a good thing, yes, but you don’t have to start from scratch. Find inspiration everywhere. Then apply it to your own work. Saya Hillman from the life affirming events company, Mac & Cheese Productions, has these words of wisdom:

“Steal ideas. I’m the first to admit I’ve stolen a lot of my ideas. That’s a big rule for me. It’s okay to take an idea and tweak it to how you want it.”

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By Celeste Hamilton Dennis

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