The Competition Conundrum

Read this post on United Prosperity this morning. It reminded me of Nathaniel Whitmore’s self-proclaimed snarkiness on Twitter a few weeks back at the announcement of “yet another” web-based social change content aggregator. I reacted:

This looks sadly like a manifestation of one of the downfalls of our current philanthropic system. Why, when a project like Kiva already exists, has crossed numerous startup hurdles, and is well on their way to actually making it in to the mainstream, would someone choose to create a competing organization with no significant competitive advantage (that will spend money on redundant overhead, not to mention having to learn many of the lessons already learned by their predecessor) instead of throwing their energy, passion, and whatever innovating ideas they have behind the existing successful project!? It’s hard to see that as anything other than ego getting in the way of the best interests of the cause.

It was an honest question. Still is. But it’s got me wondering something else.

Does everyone who’s thrown themselves behind an idea develop a competitive advantage blind-spot?

Some days I think I have. Someone sends me a link to a site I’ve looked at dozens of times and I can fire off a response email with half a dozen points of differentiation without even looking at the screen. I even find myself getting impatient when others don’t seem to see how clearly different the Tipping Bucket is from this other site they’ve come across.

When it comes to assessing the “competitive landscape,” I’ve pretty much stopped listening.

I’ve spent so much time analyzing, evaluating, classifying and subdividing the players in this space…I’m so familiar with the subtleties of distinction and overlap, that I hardly listen when some well-meaning associate starts a sentence with “Oh, it’s like…”

Thing is, it’s those perspectives that really matter. These cursory, uniformed, unsophisticated perceptions shape the market, and social entrepreneurs (myself included) would do well to pay attention to them.

Social Venture Startup: Lessons Learned(?)

Had some fun with a presentation for a group of students at BYU last night.

For those who don’t have 4 whole minutes, or who just find my voice annoying, here’s a quick recap:

Be Social.

This isn’t referring to some sort of holistic life balance—since I obviously haven’t figured that one out. I’m talking here about the social life you give your idea.

When something truly innovative and exciting takes root in us, a lot of people have this really counter-intuitive reaction to protect it, to be afraid to share it, to put it out in the world. Trust me. I did this. All it took was one person asking me “what’s to stop Causes from just implementing this next week?” and I panicked. I deleted the blog post I’d put up about TB, I didn’t attend any of the social venture competition networking events. I really guarded that idea.

And I regret it.

Talk to people. Share with them, ask for feedback, let your idea have a life. The chance of someone actually stealing it is a tiny price to pay for what you’ll gain by talking to people.

The second way I would tell you to be social is to purposefully engage with social media. That means you have to get beyond Facebook stalking  You don’t have to produce a lot of content, probably the best thing you can do is listen to other people, and then let them know that you’re listening in meaningful ways.

And, if you haven’t figured out Twitter yet. You need to. Period. Let me just say that I the two most lucrative and beneficial connections I have made to date both happened through Twitter. You’re missing out if you don’t get it yet.

Double-Dip at Every Opportunity

Second piece of advice is to double dip whenever you can. Please don’t apply this at parties—that’s not what I mean…
I just mean that you should find ways to get credit for your work. Better yet, find a way to get paid for it. If you can’t make the things you’re doing that you’re passionate about fit into your studies, your work, etc. it may be time to change your major/job. There’s a lot more flexibility to the academic system than most students take advantage of.

“They’re more like guidelines anyway…”

Speaking of flexibility. Your business plan is a working document. Remember that.

Use ALL the resources that are available to you to get ideas, mercilessly edit your own work, and perhaps most importantly, do everything you can to get things as concrete as possible—the numbers you need are out there. And if you carefully track both your sources and your assumptions, you’ll be much better able to adapt when things come along and change your plan—and trust me, they will.

Oh, and remember to put your contact information in your business plan. We got all the way through the competition without catching that little detail.

ASK!

The last thing is to ask for help. There are people out there just waiting to get excited about your idea and jump on board. Open your mouths. My favorite question has become “what would it take to get this for free?” After getting into a few $1500 conferences in exchange for a few hours manning the registration desk (an awesome networking opportunity anyway!) I ask this question all the time now.

You’ll be surprised what you can get.

Tipping Bucket Baby Pictures: 6 Months

This is a quick snapshot of some of what’s happened since May.

Since the SVC:
Miles flown – 39,564
Nights spent in airports – 12
Conferences attended – 5
Presentations given – 8
Business cards distributed – 262
Thank-you notes written – 65
Project partners invited – 11
Partnerships negotiated – $158,500 (approx)
Bones broken – 2

I’ve LONG since lost track of hours spent on things like web-design or re-working financials or just trying to figure out what order to do things in. And I’ve long since lost track of the number of people who have helped and encouraged me in various ways…but I guess we know it’s at least 65…and I’m behind on thank-you notes, by the way.

There is, of course another way to look at the last 6 months.

Since the SVC:
Websites launched – 0
Applications launched – 0
Donations processed – $0
Buckets tipped – 0

…somehow I don’t get the same feeling from this one. They tell you that it always takes twice as long and costs twice as much as you think it will. They’re wrong. So far I’m thinking it’s more like 3-5 times as long.

But we have made some significant progress. And with the momentum from the past several months, we’re realistically looking at a launch in the next 90 days. Stay tuned!

Networking 2.0 : “Tools to Put More In”

Nathaniel Whitmore of Change.org blogged this week about a next-generation approach to networking. He concluded by describing social media platforms and utilities as “tools to put more in.” Thought I’d pick up where he left off with a few thoughts about how

LinkedIn: Write reviews. Be generous in your acknowledgment of others strengths, accomplishments and contributions to your success.

Twitter: RTs and mentions are a valuable form of social currency–spend liberally.

Blogs: Do more than just read–even simple comments, 1-click tweets, diggs, or trackbacks can help boost a contact’s credibility and profile. Keep in mind the 4 Cs to help build authentic online conversations.

Facebook: Here again, small is beautiful. Use Fb Share buttons to promote good content, go ahead and become a fan of someone’s venture…who knows, you might just find a legitimate use for that “suggest a friend” function.

It may come as a revelation to some of the “wired generation,” but networking doesn’t actually require a URL. Some of the best connections, and the best contributions, you can make still happen the old fashioned way–face to face.

  • When meeting someone for the first time, make it a goal to ask three meaningful questions before saying anything about yourself.
  • Build a mental ‘map’ of the space you live and work in. Pay special attention to the gaps, places where you might be able to facilitate connections.
  • When you receive a business card, take a moment to note one ‘gift’ you could give that person–an introduction email you could write, a link you could pass along, even a book you could recommend (or send).

Above all, be sincere. To borrow from Nathaniel again, today’s networking is all about building layers of connection and reciprocity…less transaction, more legitimate network.

Lost and Found

On the poster-sized post-it calendar on my living room wall, I called this “the Month of Jetlag … or How to Write a Prospectus at 30,000 Feet.” And, though I am no closer to clearing that particular academic hurdle than I was a month ago, JetBlue’s “all-you-can-jet” pass has proven quite an adventure. Here’s a quick recap:

Number of Flights: 20
Cost/Flight:
$29.95
Miles Flown: 39,248

LOST/LEFT/MISPLACED

  • 1 black half-zip REI layer jacket
  • 1 pair of fuzzy green slipper socks
  • 3 sets of miniature shampoo/conditioner bottles
  • 1 set of scriptures (left with CouchSurfing host on first NYC visit)
  • 1 Pilot G-tech C4 pen. Dangit.
  • Cell phone (temporarily—on the seat of the car that had just dropped me off at the airport—thanks JetBlue ladies and Jessi)
  • A couple hundred hours of sleep 🙂

FOUND/GAINED/DISCOVERED

  • A new allergy
  • How to walk on a fractured foot
  • The best place to spend the night in JFK.
  • Not the best place to spend the night in LGB.
  • 1 set of scriptures (delivered to airport by CouchSurfing host last night in NYC-thanks, Julie!)
  • A fantastic spot for home-made whole-wheat vegetarian pizza in Portland
  • Great 4/$1 dumplings in Chinatown in New York
  • The “historic nub” of Boston (and it only took about 2 hours to get there…from across the highway)
  • Increased appreciation for the designers of public transportation systems
  • Half a dozen fantastic organizations with whom to collaborate on a social entrepreneurship curriculum
  • Great new vocabulary words like “sector agnostic” (more on that later)
  • About a hundred follow-up emails to write

I’ll be attempting a return to “normal” life this week and anticipate blogging will be an integral part of processing this past month. Stay  tuned.

A New Prescription for Innovator Growing Pains?

Aaron Sklar’s exposition on the potentially analgesic effects of integrated evaluation really got me thinking. He points out that innovation is by nature uncomfortable, and suggests carefully-defined and continually re-defined meaningful metrics can play a role in easing that discomfort by clarifying the”end” to keep in mind.

Perhaps there’s even more to it than that:

So often in life, discomfort is the result of poorly managed expectations: It’s the classic “this won’t hurt a bit” you hear from the well-meaning nurse as she jabs a 4″ needle into your hip, the regularly-spaced reassurances of how important your call is while you wait interminably on hold, the gut-wrenching panic when you try on “your size” at a new boutique only to discover you can’t even button the trousers.

In addition to, or perhaps as a result of providing structure in a new (ad)venture, integrated, authentic, continual evaluation creates a different set of expectations in an organization. We expect to discover things that don’t work, we expect middle-of-the-ride course corrections (and the accompanying jolts), we expect transparency and honest critique, and we expect iteration.

It’s amazing the levels of “discomfort” we can adapt to if we expect it, and the performance we have the capacity to achieve through it is even more exciting.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants–at least for an hour!

They call it Power Hour–after-school tutoring for at-risk kids–and it works wonders. Connects kids to positive role models, keeps them of the streets and passing algebra, and fosters social adjustment and self-esteem.

I figure I could use a little tutoring (not to mention positive role models who understand the “algebra” that is the intersection of business, social change, technology and media) to prepare for some of Tipping Bucket’s next adventures. So, I’m launching my very own PowerHour!

This next week will be a big jump-start, but I plan on 1/week into the foreseeable future. For now, we’ll meet on BYU campus; Tanner Building W139 conference room. Come in person if you can, but Skype can work wonders for you geniuses outside “happy valley.”

Here’s the tentative lineup for next week (starting the 13th).

MON: Target Market/Market Sizing
TUES: Branding/Messaging/PR
WED: Social Media Strategy
THUR: Development (Prospects List/CRM)
FRI: Strategic Partnerships

Please leave me comments with the topics you’re interested in, your broad availability next week, your lunch/snack suggestions… and vote here on the best time slot for you going forward.

Let’s see if this works as well as it does for the 4th graders!

Vibrant Young Social Venture Seeks…

wanted

Things with Tipping Bucket are, well, typical…I think. Bursts of excitement that keep me up at night dreaming of trips to Boston to interview fellowship candidates and trips to Botswana to interview newly-trained midwives interspersed with nights where I feel like the massive parasite of doubt and indecision writhing in my gut will certainly finish me off by morning.

Mostly it’s somewhere between the two. And lately I feel like there are so many “next steps” that I spend most days playing the social entrepreneurship edition of DDR; stomping around, mostly off-rythm, ending up right where I started, but really tired.

So, here are a few of the hats I wish fit me and the “next steps” I could use some help with…

HR Master

  • Develop policies for hiring, performance reviews, etc.
  • Create job descriptions for employee and volunteer positions

Market Analysis Wizard

  • Create target market profiles/personas
  • Conduct market sizing research

Development Guru

  • Outline a “prospects list” management strategy
  • Build foundations prospects list
  • Build individuals prospects list
  • Develop fund raising action plan

Technical Sensei

  • Research/recommend/configure CRM solution for prospects list management
  • Research/recommend partner for project sites construction and maintenance

PR Genie

  • Outline TippingBucket launch PR strategy
  • Outline tTB branding strategy
  • Create messaging guidelines
  • Write press releases
  • Generate/refine messaging and content for the website (how it works, about us, etc.)

#75 … Check.

We incorporated the Tipping Bucket as an official non-profit in UT sometime around 10pm this Wednesday. I didn’t actually even realize I had another check mark to add to the list until my sister Molly congratulated me on crossing another one off. Several reflections on this:

First, and rather simply, how grateful I am for people who keep me in touch with my dreams!

Second, and slightly less simply, how important it is to be patient with dreams. Now, in now way am I qualified to extolling the virtues of patience. But there was a little lesson in this experience for me. See, I started the list–wrote the first 60+ items–as a gawkish 13-year-old in Mr. Maddox’s 8th grade science class. I’d capped it off at 100 before high-school graduation.

I haven’t the slightest idea how I’m going to accomplish most of the items on my list (reading all the Caldecott, Newbury and Pulitzer prize-winning works since 1900, for instance). But that’s never bothered me.

Far more vexing have been the times I’ve been tempted to “revise” my dreams. See, I no longer wish to have anything to do with purebred Persian cats (#4) nor do I particularly relish the idea of #52 (Watch all the Star Wars movies in order) after literally plugging my ears through the last half of episode 3 so as to be spared any more of the tortured dialogue. Continue reading