(this blog post was authored by Ingrid Spielman, a Startup Weekend NYC volunteer)
New York City will host its first Social Impact Edition on July 25-27. In anticipation for this event, a Startup Weekend NYC Social Impact Panel was held on June 26 at Google’s Chelsea Market location. The panel was moderated by Cyndi Knapic from the Startup Weekend NYC organizing team and featured four speakers including Vincent Polidoro from PublicStuff , Divya Kapasi from GoodList, Ryan Gist from BioLite, and Emma Schain from DonorsChoose.org.
During the panel, Cyndi and the audience asked some great questions. The discussion boiled down to three main topics: monetization, the social impact mission, and building a startup.
Here is a summary of some take home messages from the panel:
Money is always a big question for startups, especially those with the mission of social good – whether it is a question of obtaining funding, designating the company as a for-profit or non-profit, or deciding whether the final product should be distributed for free.
1. Making money validates your startup. Vincent Polidoro, CTO at PublicStuff – a company that helps citizens bring immediate awareness to local government of problems in their community, said that charging money for their app helped to get local governments in over 100 cities to put in the effort to learn to use the product.
2. Divya Kapasi from GoodList added that raising money is helpful for product traction. GoodList is a database of socially responsible companies, curated and maintained by Divya.
3. Making money allows for company growth, which in turn helps companies to address larger and substantial world problems. Ryan Gist from BioLite, a company that brings controlled cooking flames to places off the grid or with intermittent electricity, shared that the revenue that comes from selling their camping products helps fund and subsidize distribution of their products to emerging regions. As such, for-profit model can be viewed as a healthy, sustainable option that allows for scalability, growth, and continuous social impact.
4. Emma Schlain from DonorsChoose, a non-profit that connects public school teachers to donors interested in funding school supplies or projects, said that the company is is self-sustaining (through 15% overhead charges) and are able to fulfill 74% of the requests teachers make to fund projects and supplies. DonorsChoose attracts employees who are willing to work for a cause rather than the bells and whistles that often come with for-profit companies.
The Social Impact Mission
The classic chicken or the egg – which comes first, innovation or identifying the problem? Does a company start with their social impact idea or do they develop a product and later realize that it has the potential to do social good?
1. In the case of BioLite, the problem started out as a “first world problem”. The founders tried solving their own camping problems and in doing so, simultaneously developed a tool that with the right kind of follow-up and distribution system, will help meet the energy needs of people across the globe. (Biolite builds self-sustaining wood burning stoves).
2. In order to not distort the company mission, it is important to remain selective about resources and carefully choose board members with values and ideals that align with the company mission so that it does not become diluted.
3. It is often difficult to find people with the same vision to build up a company. While there is no substitute to building solid relationships with other entrepreneurs in order to find the right people to build a startup that solves real world problems, networking with like-minded people is a great place to start looking for your next team member.
Building a Startup (Prototypes, Customer Validation, and Pitching)
1. Two things: start early, iterate quickly.
2. Don’t be afraid to put something together that isn’t perfect. Divya started her Goodlist site using Squarespace. PublicStuff started out using screenshots of maps and only later (after many requests) developed a mobile app for their company.
3. Customer validation is key! Learn from colleagues, competitors, and your consumer. Tools and services built by startups need to fit into your consumers’ lives. Biolite aimed to create a product that families in developing countries would find easy to use and similar in concept to the cooking tools that were already familiar to them.
4. Networking and timing! First-to-market doesn’t guarantee success. Successful startups require the correct environment, support, and network. Finding evangelists who really “get it” or early adaptors willing to try out the product isn’t easy. Finding people to work on a high impact project is also difficult. However, one strategy is to pitch hard to graduating students and ask them to give up a few months before they start corporate positions to help bring a startup to life. This is especially helpful for startups with lean budgets and a compelling social cause.
5. Don’t reinvent the wheel and partner with companies that are already successful. DonorsChoose has collaborated with larger companies like Starbucks to reach out to teachers. Biolite uses distribution networks that are already built-in and sales models that have already been validated in order to bring their product to third world locations.
6. Pitch compelling arguments. Vincent frames PublicStuff as crowd sourcing data collection. “The easier it is to find potholes, the easier it is to allocate resources.” Emma says that for teachers, word of mouth is really powerful. It is really old fashioned but it can be the best way to let teachers know about DonorsChoose.
In closing, Cyndi asked, “What are some examples of your favorite social impact companies that you would encourage people in the audience to take a look at?”
The discussion panel was a great success and a great way to network. Hope to see you at the Startup Weekend NYC Social Impact Edition.
Ingrid Spielman is a biophysics microbiologist at Brooklyn college who studies how bacteria move. In her spare time she is learning how to code and is training for an Ironman next year.