Sustainability is hot. However, for entrepreneurs who really want to make a difference, it is no longer a strategic option, but simply a must-happen. Not only because they want the best for the world, but also because they need to survive. And that is only achievable with products that are profitable in the long run. What differs successful Dutch impact entrepreneurs such as Henk Jan Beltman (Tony Chocolonely), Jasper Gabriëlse (Seepje) and Tom van der Lubbe (Viisi) from other entrepreneurs? For the book ‘LiEF – Succesvol ondernemen voor een betere wereld’, my colleague Mandy Kraakman and I spoke with 29 impact entrepreneurs. These are the five lessons I learned.
Be obsessed about making impact
Obsessive behaviour to do the right thing and thus make an impact is one of the things that successful impact entrepreneurs have in common. Most of them already wanted to change the world at a young age. As a youngster, they dared to think critically and question anything that was considered as ‘normal’. This applies to Roebyem Anders (Sungevity), but also to Maurits Groen (Kipster & Wakawaka), Kees Aarts (Protix) and Jaap Korteweg (Vegetarische Slager & Those Vegan Cowboys): sustainability and creating impact are deeply rooted in their DNA. But luckily, such insights and corresponding obsession can strike at a later moment. As proven by Bert van Son (MUD Jeans) and Kees Kruythogg (The Livekindly Co).
These impact companies’ successes are firstly due to the enthusiasm of the entrepreneurs. They set course, energy and a feeling of urgency to the mission of the organisation. By doing so, they do not only move forward but their employees, customers and stakeholders as well. In the startup phase, many impact companies deal with additional challenges, because they attack an existing market with a new concept – often with lower margins and higher complexity. Therefore, you need drive and a strong belief in the higher goal, to push through where others would stop.
Realise it is still a company
This drive to improve the world can only make a difference if your business is in fact profitable. Or as Merijn Everaarts indicates: “Impact entrepreneurship is in the end still entrepreneurship” and “if you want more impact, you need to make more revenue”. According to Idriss Nor, director Participations at the DOEN Foundation (Stichting DOEN), ‘doing good’ and a commercial way of working go hand in hand. However, it still leads to a challenge. “The extraordinary passion by which impact entrepreneurs start- and lead their company, is at the same time a pitfall. You can only win if you play both the sustainable- and the commercial game. On the one hand, there is your social mission to make an impact and on the other, people would rather pay not more for a product.”
Therefore, look at growth and efficiency as means. If you grow enough, you can make an impact. It is better to have a light green product that creates a movement, than a dark green dot that is standing still. Create a commercially successful revenue model. Only if you are profitable, you can reinvest for fast growth. Besides: if an idea is not commercially successful, it is by definition not sustainable. Therefore, be an entrepreneur who aims forward. Properly design your commercial process. A gold move within this scope: find the right partners who can contribute to your company’s growth goals. And make sure that all are in agreement, so everyone is pursuing the same goal and considers this mission their top priority.
Create a(n accessible) top product
Companies that want to reach a wider audience, create an appealing brand and make smart use of storytelling. In their branding and story, they focus on the quality of the product itself, which obviously needs to be excellent. Customers should be happy with your product because it is outstanding in doing what it needs to do. In other words, just being sustainable is not enough. As mentioned before: for most people, a dark green story is not that sexy.
The most successful impact entrepreneurs have an accessible product. Customers love convenience. As Nor states: “Calling your product a contribution to the world, is not enough. The product needs to be that good, that consumers cannot ignore it. The story needs to be right.” Thereby goes: an exclusive product competes with other exclusive products, which makes a slightly higher price acceptable.
Build a strong and inspiring business culture
If there is anything that applies to impact entrepreneurs, it is that they are driven. And this drive strongly attracts others. With intrinsically motivated people, creating a strong culture and core values is much easier. Your DNA as an entrepreneur – or your company’s ‘why’- sets the base. The larger impact goal connects the employees and creates a positive culture, in which the collective goal is more important than the company, the entrepreneur or secondary employment conditions. Make sure that the mission is sensible in your organisation. Then, it will flow through to the outside world. In the end, intrinsically motivated people in positive business culture, form one of the most important ingredients for long-term business success.
Communicate clearly and powerful. And a lot.
A lot of clear communication is essential for success—both internally and externally. By doing so, the mission and the product will get their well-deserved recognition. Companies with a strong culture and a clear mission, who defend their DNA no matter what, are the most successful.
Continuously use the sustainable story in the marketing(communication) of your company. All the entrepreneurs I spoke to, were passionate and unique in telling their story. They acknowledge the force of the independent media and have a good relationship with the press.
In short: to become a successful impact entrepreneur, a strong intrinsic drive stays the most important condition. With that drive, you collect the right people around you. Thereby, you are able to build a company – with the help of a strong culture and free pr – with a positive message. And do not be too humble. The most successful impact entrepreneurs are not known for their modesty or their careful attitude – or they’ve learned to let go of this kind of behaviour throughout the years.