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To say the least, I was surprised to be nominated for, let alone win, the Conrad Entrepreneur of the Year award. My company isn't a tech start-up at all. I only recently bought my first smartphone, and I can barely code. My company—CANGO Consulting Inc.—is a social enterprise that provides management consulting services to philanthropic funders.
I couldn't have made up a less sexy-sounding business. I feel very lucky to have been selected, and I wanted to share my story and thoughts on entrepreneurship.
I've spent the last few years studying the marketing and communications capacities of non-profit organizations in the Waterloo Region. It's a sector that has more than its share of problems worth solving—it often lacks a strategic approach or the business skill-sets to move forward—and I saw it as an interesting opportunity for a start-up.
When I began the Master of Business, Entrepreneurship, and Technology (MBET) program in September, I learned a little more about markets and competition, and realized that my approach to supporting the non-profit sector was all wrong. While the non-profit sector had a lot of work to be done, there were barriers to getting started.
For one, non-profits themselves didn't have a lot of money. The sector is huge—roughly 10% of the North American GDP—but funds are too thinly spread to have proper paying customers and maintain a business with this target market. As well, the province of Ontario was moving in a different direction: there are too many non-profit organizations fighting for funding, some providing redundant services, and the province wanted to merge or amalgamate these organizations, not keep them moving in separate directions. I didn't want to contribute to the sector's problems by helping every non-profit that sent me a cheque, so I kept looking for a new target market.
To find my new market, I worked my way down the value chain. Non-profit funders controlled a sizeable amount of the non-profit sector's assets, had money to spend on consulting, and were burdened by all the same problems as the non-profit sector. In 2012, conversations with philanthropic leaders helped me understand the nuances of the barriers that funders experience, and build an effective team to address these issues. Working with funders solved the same systemic problems I had hoped to address, but did so more fruitfully and effectively.
A lot of what I learned was learned through failing, so here are the most valuable things I learned in the past year (in case it saves anyone a bit of time or stress):
1) There are often multiple solutions to any problem, but an entrepreneur's job isn't just to find an answer to a problem—an entrepreneur's job is to find the answer that generates a sustainable amount of revenue.
2) Moving your business forward is mostly about relationship-building. Whatever the business, there are countless people already actively engaged in the sector. I wouldn't have been able to move CANGO forward had I not built relationships with the talented and well-connected people in my industry. Buy people coffee, and ask them lots of questions.
3) You can't do everything. As entrepreneurs, you need to focus everything down to a pinpoint: your offering, your target market, the work you do to build your company.
4) Don't underestimate B2B (business-to-business). B2C (business-to-consumer) is far more appealing, but it's often easier to get one very large sale instead of 1,000 small sales. To reframe this concept through the relationship lens, it's easier to build 1 relationship than 1,000 relationships.
5) Don't underestimate service-based companies. The biggest barrier to getting a company off the ground is cost, and services are generally less expensive to provide than a tangible product.
6) Don't just know your value proposition, know your value discipline. It's great to know what makes you different, but knowing your value discipline—whether you're competing in terms of operational excellence, customer intimacy, or product leadership—is very helpful when you're determining price and how you position your company. And only pick one—you can't compete in terms of price if you're also trying to compete in the quality of your product.
7) Don't give up on social enterprise. It is harder to make money and do social or environmental good, but it feels pretty darn good when it works out.
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