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The Top 7 Lessons Learned from 2015 for Social Entrepreneurs (Hint: #3 Will Save You Lots of Heartache)

Posted on December 30, 2015 by Damian Graybelle

As I sit down to write this article, I’m still not quite sure what to make of 2015, and I'd imagine that I’m not alone in that sentiment. On one hand, I reached the tops of the tallest peaks that I've ever experienced professionally, and on the other, I sunk to the bottom of a few valleys as well. But I believe that there is a great deal of value in what I learned this past year, and that these lessons can be beneficial to all social entrepreneurs – from the greenest to the most experienced.

First, let’s start with the highs: You can't plan to be part of a news story that goes viral around the world. Making the decision in June to hire Madeline Stuart, a young, aspiring model with Down syndrome, to be the face of EverMaya, happened organically. I loved her courageous story, but I never would have predicted that she would become one of the trending social media stars of 2015. One of the early articles on People.com was shared more than 100,000 times - it was everywhere! Our team was proud to play an active role in promoting inclusion in the fashion industry, and to witness the emotional responses that people had to our marketing campaign.

One of the indelible moments was being in attendance as Madeline became only the second woman with Down syndrome to walk in New York Fashion Week. When Maddy broke the norms and high-fived the crowd as she glided down the runway, the audience roared with approval. 

(L to R. Gabriela Carranza-Graybelle, Madeline Stuart, Damian Graybelle)


Now, the low point: As a for-profit social enterprise we need to sell our products (beautiful handmade goods from Guatemala) in order to survive, grow, and better support our social causes. I made the mistake of not sufficiently taking the temperature of our customers and it led to us over-ordering a line of handbags that were not received as well as I had initially anticipated. And idle inventory for a new business can be a killer.

"The bottom of the valley is sitting in your office surrounded by an overabundance of product that is moving at a trickle's pace."

So that leads us to the 7 lessons learned in 2015:

1. Don’t listen to the naysayers:

I promise you this – there will a be a long list of friends, family, and colleagues who will talk to you at length about why starting out as a social entrepreneur is too hard, too time consuming, and doomed for failure. This is exactly why you should do it. It is the reluctance to strike out on their own that creates opportunity

2. But listen to the naysayers:

I received some sage advice from very experienced business people, including my mother-in-law, not to place large orders without having a commitment from prospective customers. I’ll admit that I was blinded by enthusiasm. Swept up in the moment, I over-ordered and tied my organization up in inventory which limited our ability to pivot into other directions until later in the year. Which leads us to #3.

3. Ask your customers, and ask often:

As I re-read these 6 words on the page, it seems so simple and clear – find out what your customers want by asking them first. Yet we don’t always choose the most obvious option. I learned the hard way the value of finding out where your engaged followers are willing to put their hard-earned money. Start by reaching out to them on social media or e-mail and asking them what they'd like to see next. Perhaps something that they have been looking for, but unable to find. Use survey software (like Survey Monkey) to provide several options and to uncover which path they would prefer to follow you down. Important: Include open-ended questions as well as multiple choice, so that you can get more insightful feedback.

4. No one can promote your organization better than you can:

There are some really reputable public relations firms that specifically work with social entrepreneurs and know how to promote your brand without exploiting your cause. That said, in the early days of an organization I would not recommend starting with a contracted PR strategy. Your passion for your project is likely to get you far more mileage with journalists, and it's a line item expense that you can use to prioritize in more crucial areas.

5. Learn how to leverage virtual resources:

For any social entrepreneur that is just starting out or simply working on a tight budget, you should already be leveraging virtual resources. If you’re not, start immediately. I consistently use sites like Upwork, 99 Designs (we ran a contest with them to design EverMaya's logo), and even Fiverr to efficiently complete tasks at a fraction of what they would typically cost. These resources should become your new best friend.

6. Become one with your cause:

The cause or causes that you support are the lifeblood of a social entrepreneur’s organization. When your energy is dwindling, you’ll need your cause to refuel your passion. At EverMaya, our causes are Education for the Children (a foundation which supports at-risk youth in Guatemala) and the National Down Syndrome Society. Whenever I hit a wall of frustration, I think about how our work has a direct and positive impact on the lives of children living in poverty and individuals with special needs.

7. Build a network of peer support:

This lesson is something that I plan to put into greater action in 2016. Find other social entrepreneurs that are also in the trenches (Mastermind groups or Meet Ups are a good place to start), and as transparently as possible share with one another what is and what isn’t working. To that end, I am trying to take a leadership role in this area by creating the Social Entrepreneur Network, a resource for organizational leaders who use innovation to solve social problems.

Here’s to a fantastic 2016! If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested to read: EverMaya Goes Viral. Also, please share with us the top lessons that you learned in 2015. I'd love to hear from you!

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