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Six lessons from six months of building a startup social enterprise

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Here are some of my learnings while setting up my social enterprise, Young Change Agents.

1. Finding the right co-founder is like winning the lottery – and you should treat it as such

My co-founder Jonathan Srikanthan and I met at a social enterprise networking event, so it was really a twist of fate that we met at all and that in such a short period we connected over the idea of helping youth see problems as opportunities.

One thing we decided on early on was that everyone who works for Young Change Agents is in a sales role. If we are to be a social enterprise then we need to always be talking to potential customers, listening to their feedback and pivoting our solution as we need to.

We also agreed to get over any disagreements quickly. Of course, not everything is smooth sailing but if you are not in it together then why would anyone else want to be part of what you are creating.

For me, finding a co-founder was the first step in validating the idea.

2. Validation is everything

In our programs we talk about that concept of “moving from fantasy to reality”. Your idea is worth nothing if people aren’t interested in it.

For our schools-based product we initially talked to a director of NSW Public Schools, some principals, teachers and even received positive feedback from the newly established NSW DET Futures Unit.

For our youth-focused organisations we spoke to our contacts at various well-known NFPs including the Australian Red Cross, Muslim Women’s Association, Cerebral Palsy Alliance and Youth off the Streets.

Overall we have had great constructive feedback, especially around the levels of the students/youth, the format of our content, and how to better involve teachers and youth workers from a train-the-trainer perspective.

3. Pilots are a golden opportunity

We decided early on that our aim was to pilot the Young Change Agents program in two schools and with two youth-focused NFP groups.

The catch was that they all needed to be “paid pilots”. We felt that a free pilot did not prove to us that our service was valuable enough to be sustainable unless someone was willing to pay for it. We are currently running our third paid pilot (with the fourth starting next week) and treat each of these as a co-development model with our clients.

This means that are they clear on the fact it is a pilot and help us by providing feedback and ideas. There have been times during the pilot where we have had to stop and say, “this isn’t working as we thought. Let’s try it this way”.

This means as we scale we have the best model moving forward. We have also found that our co-development clients are also keen to help us promote the program by giving us access to photos and stories to use in our social media accounts.

4. Get the admin and marketing organised efficiently and quickly

As part-time co-founders, we’ve had to get better at working smarter and efficiently, quickly.

We also know that embedding the right processes and tools from the outset will make it easier as we scale. Access to free or low cost technology has been a fantastic enabler, from collaboration software (to help us work remotely, documenting processes), through to using Google Apps for our calendar and emails.

5. Be careful with your money

There was a moment last week when I was boarding a bus for a Young Change Agents program, juggling a number of boxes and suitcases full of program material, and I thought, “why am I not getting a taxi?”.

You have to really value your money in a startup, as it doesn’t come easily and there are so many costs to take on.

Our biggest expenses to date have been our logo (which we ran a design for on 99 Designs), our t-shirts we wear when presenting and our printing and stationery needed to run our programs.

6. Don’t risk everything

I have often watched the TV show “Shark Tank” where they have questioned the full commitment of the founders if they have a part-time job.

For me it is a smart choice to keep some income coming in for the very early days of a new venture. It also provides an outlet so you don’t think constantly about your startup.

Of course it’s a personal choice, but it would be much more stressful for me not to be able to pay my rent than it is to work a couple of days a week doing something other than my own thing.

It also gives you perspective and the chance to meet different people and learn new skills. This works for me because I am more efficient when I have less time to do something. So if I know I only have three days a week then I get it done in three days.

I would be lying though if I said a startup doesn’t mean working evenings and weekends, because it does. And that’s okay because for me – Young Change Agents isn’t a job.

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Margaret O'Brien is the co-founder of Youth Change Agents and a business consultant.
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