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Sociability (ˌsɒ ʃəˈbɪ lɪ ti) • n.

The skill or quality of being social, of interacting well with others.
1545–55; from Latin sociābilis, French sociāre “to join, unite”, socius “an associate”.


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Four mistakes social entrepreneurs make

29 Oct 2012 Comments

This week my increasingly useful Linkedin news feed brought me an interesting article by Scott Annan in Business Insider about the mistakes young entrepreneurs make that waste time and money. I’d summarise Scott’s list as:

  1. Sell your product quickly rather than spending ages developing it
  2. Don’t worry so much about people stealing your idea
  3. Find out what your customers want rather than assuming they are like you
  4. Don’t get distracted from selling things by the endless possibilities of new ideas

It’s a nice piece and I think Scott’s list is very useful for anyone starting out on an entrepreneurial career. It occured to me that it might be worth writing another list for “social entrepreneurs”. The normal lessons of business obviously apply to anyone seeking to use it to improve society, but there are a few particular pitfalls that I have noticed social entrepreneurs seem to fall into more often than their commercial brothers and sisters.

So here are my top four mistakes, in my experience, that first-time social entrepreneurs make.

  1. Looking for funding rather than looking for business. Most social entrepreneurs aren’t doing it for the money. Unfortunately that means they often spend far too long trying to win the approval of influential people like funders and journalists when they should be working. If your idea of success is getting investment, no-one should invest in you. If your idea of success is to be self-sufficient so you can put your next plan into action, then you might actually get somewhere.
  2. Thinking you know better than your customer. If commercial entrepreneurs start by identifying something that people want to buy, social entrepreneurs sometimes start with the opposite: a desire to get people to buy something they currently don’t. There are far too many “shoulds” in social sales pitches. Remember that if you want to be a business, you need to sell what the customer wants, not what you’d like them to want. Do business in the world as it is, not how you’d like it to be.
  3. Overestimating the market. Most social entrepreneurs think they’ve spotted a niche that no-one has ever seen before, but in many cases the market they have spotted is either hard to profit from or just not ready yet. A lack of competitors can be a sign that you’re missing something. If you are years ahead of your time, be realistic about how much time and money you’ll need to reach profitability, and how many new competitors you’ll have when the time finally comes.
  4. Taking too long to issue the first invoice. Business is about selling things to people for money. If you aren’t doing that, you are just preparing to do business. The quicker someone pays you money for something you’ve done, the quicker you know what line of business you’re really in. Questions of organisational structure, financial planning, marketing and scalability only matter once you have figured out how to make money.

None of this is rocket science. And let’s face it, most of us have made these at one time or another. But as a wise man once said, the trick of life isn’t to learn from your own mistakes: any idiot can do that. The trick is to learn from other people’s.

I wonder what Google+ will do next?

Help us fight tuberculosis in Africa

Hello. I have a favour to ask.

In these stringent economic times, it can be rather sobering to remember just how much worse life can be for people who are ill and suffering in the poorer parts of the world. So I’m asking for your help on behalf of a small charity who are fighting tuberculosis in Africa.

Whilst the UK argues about the effect of tuberculosis on cattle, Africa is facing an explosion of drug-resistant TB that is killing 2000 people every day.

  • 80% of Africans are now latently infected with tuberculosis and could develop the symptoms at any time.
  • That’s 640 million people.
  • Millions may already be carrying strains that are resistant to first-line drug treatments and will therefore have access to no effective drugs for their disease.
  • extremely difficult to tolerate, unpredictable and cost an unaffordable $4,500 per person or more, with survival rates as low as 52%.
  • Complications of HIV make tuberculosis a more deadly disease than ever, and further increase the risk of both infection and development of active disease.

With no resources set aside to combat this unexpected epidemic, most of these sufferers will die.

Moxafrica is a charity founded in 2008 to trial moxa for patients in Africa with tuberculosis. “Moxa” is a traditional East Asian therapy which works by heating the skin on acupuncture points to enhance the immune system and reoxygenate the blood. It was used to treat tuberculosis in Japan in the 1930s and ’40s prior to the discovery of modern TB drugs.

Since I was introduced to Merlin Evans and Jenny Craig who run Moxafrica earlier this year, I’ve been impressed by two things: the colossal extent of the problem they are fighting, and the remarkable simplicity of their solution. In a sector that can often feel overwhelming with the scale and impossibility of problems, this strikes me as one simple innovation which could be taken to the scale needed to tackle this massive issue. If there was ever a case for radical innovation, this is it.

Jenny and Merlin are working with Makerere University in Uganda and local NGOs to begin robust clinical trials to find out whether moxa can be effective for treating drug-resistant tuberculosis, both for supporting patients to live well and also to improve the efficacy of first-line medications. This trial, which began in September, is independent, clinically-endorsed and will be peer-reviewed. They genuinely want to find out if this treatment will work, and they need resources to do that.

Moxafrica need $20,000 by January 2013 to complete the trial.

That’s why I’m asking you to donate whatever you can so we can research how moxa can help the millions of African people suffering with tuberculosis. Every little bit helps, and every penny you pledge will go directly to fund the research in Uganda.


Thanks for your support.

Three ways to change the world

How do we tackle inequality and exclusion? How do we have high quality but affordable public services? How do we provide dignity and care for an aging population? How do we modernise our infrastructure? How do we stabilise our economy?

As we plough through Party Conference season, questions like these are perplexing our leaders and policy researchers as we struggle collectively to see a route to a stable and thriving society. What you will notice, though, is how rarely these problems are tackled head-on by leaders. They will talk about the things they believe in, and their desire to tackle the tough problems facing our country, but the solutions they then propose seem to be so much smaller in scope and limited in impact. Too often it seems that the problems exist on a much bigger scale than the tools and techniques we have to solve them.

Last month though, Matthew Taylor of the RSA outlined an interesting framework for approaching such problems in his Chief Executive’s Annual Lecture.

In it, Matthew argues that there are three fundamental drivers of social power:

  • hierarchical authority“I’ll do what I’m told”
  • social solidarity“I’ll do what everyone else is doing”
  • individual aspiration“I’ll do what I want”

All three are fundamental to our nature as human beings, but the balance between them has changed considerably over the last century.

Hierarchy has been enfeebled, by our loss of faith in our leaders and institutions, and by the social technologies that now enable us to mobilise against them. Our trust in strangers and solidarity with our neighbours has been stretched by increased social diversity, the fracturing of the class system and growing social inequality. Of the three, individualism is now the strongest, but it has become narrow and materialistic, undermined by the inefficacy of markets to organise our needs, and by the lack of strong hierarchy and social solidarity to restrain it.

The result is a growing fatalism about problems that cannot be solved through individualism alone – problems like climate change, the pensions crisis and the economy. Our leaders proclaim bold rhetoric designed to appeal to our other social drivers, such as the appeal for solidarity in the “Big Society” movement, but the solutions they propose don’t match the rhetoric.

We are not creating the kinds of solutions that can tackle our problems, Matthew argues, because we are not designing solutions which make use of all the sources of our social power.

To solve our biggest social problems, we must build up the strength of all three of these social drivers, and harness them together to create solutions that involve everyone. And he argues that to do so, we need a design mindset, not a policy one.

(There’s a lovely story about the sociology of queueing around 18 minutes too.)