Building a social enterprise is hard work, but Kim Alter of seToolbelt is making it easier with free, accessible tools for social and green entrepreneurs. As a social enterprise for social entrepreneurs, she’s keenly aware of the challenges of launching and building a socially aware organization and has lots of wisdom to share. We interviewed Kim to get her perspective on the task of being a successful social entrepreneur.
What inspired you to start seToolbelt?
We started seToolbelt after we had been working in the field with social enterprises for many years and realized that there are a lot of business building resources for the private sector, and a lot of resources out there for the nonprofit sector, but not a lot specifically addressing the unique challenges of business with a social mission. We ended up developing a lot of our own resources, which are on the site, and we are partnering with other content creators to aggregate already existing material. We also surveyed a number of social enterprise practitioners and found that most of them had created their own resources as well. seToolbelt intends to be the place where these previously unpublished tools will live.
What got you started in the social enterprise sector? Did you study anything related to social entrepreneurship in university, or did you just dive in?
When I “dove it,” it was long before one could study social entrepreneurship at university. I studied International Relations as an undergraduate because I wanted to go overseas, as a result, one of my first jobs out of college, was helping to launch an organization that we would later call a “social enterprise.” Vision in Action, celebrating 23 years this year, was created to send western volunteers to African countries to work in international development. The organization was bootstrapped and eventually self-funding, in fact during my tenure we never received any grant money. During this time I learned a lot about running a social enterprise in a baptism-by-fire way.
I later worked with one of our client organizations, a cooperative running social enterprises in Zimbabwe (a hybrid rose export business, an indigenous craft business, among others). It was during this time, I had a mentor who told me that if I really wanted to make an impact in international development, then I should study business. So (much to my chagrin) I went and did an MBA some years later.
Did you raise funding to launch seToolbelt, or are you self funding this project?
We have been mostly self-funding the project since its inception a few years ago. We received start-up funding from Care Canada and a market research grant from the Skoll Foundation. This year we have received a grant from USAID to expand seToolbelt and ground it in practice in India.
Do you have a monetization strategy, or do you intend to rely on grants and donations?
We intend to have a revenue model, but at this point we are still trying to solidify the value of the site and its on-ground counterparts. We do firmly believe that all the resources on the site should be freely and openly available to anyone who wants and needs to use them, so any monetization will come from activities other than the provision of tools.
Where, how do you get your content?
At first, Virtue Ventures provided much of the content from our own work in the field and teaching at the Said Business School at University of Oxford. Now we have several content partners such as REDF in the US, Enterprising Non-profits in Canada, and Grassroots Business Fund, SP Jain and others internationally whose content we have aggregated. Our next goal is to gather “grey literature”–previously unpublished tools and resources developed by social enterprises, primarily in developing countries.
What is your long term vision for seToolbelt?
We hope to make seToolbelt a comprehensive learning platform, complete with distance and community learning, along with tools, resources and a local, on-the-ground presence and partnerships with technical assistance providers
What strategies did you find to be most successful for marketing, especially in growing your email list?
We’ve used a number of social media and partnership strategies for our initial outreach. Our plan is to create content that is startlingly useful to our target audience, and our reach will grow from there.
Are there any mistakes that you made on this entrepreneurial journey that you would like to share with other green entrepreneurs?
Many! And we are sure to make more. Our model is constantly changing as we talk to more people and try to capture the real value. I think the best learning to take from any entrepreneurial journey is to stay in tune with your market and provide a service that addresses the needs and wants of your audience, even if it ends up looking completely different from your original idea.
What advice would you have for other aspiring green and social entrepreneurs?
- Concept – Make sure your idea is actually a viable social enterprise concept. Vet your idea to be sure that it has legs before you embark on implementation. Vetting can be done during a feasibility study.
- Purpose – Remember why you are going into business: “the business that you are in” is your social mission–the social problem or concern that you are trying to solve–and the vehicle is the business, whatever you good and services are selling. These two are not necessarily the same.
- A lot of work and time. Don’t quit your day job (yet). Starting a business is difficult, so is starting a social organization. Starting a social enterprise is often twice as difficult because you have multiple bottom lines (sometimes in direct conflict with one another) that you must manage to balance. It will take time, patience, conviction during dark hours, and time. Many of the social enterprises that have received notoriety struggled for many, many, many years first.
- Get Support – Social entrepreneurs need a host of resources to help them
succeed. I recommend having a mentor and a board of advisers to help you with business questions and leadership challenges. A mentor and/or board should help you navigate disappointment, weather mistakes, assess opportunities, set strategy and raise money.