When small business owners get advice on competing with their enterprise rivals, much of it tends to focus on their disadvantages: the lack of a Fortune 500-sized marketing budget, the struggles that come with thin operating margins, and other growing pains. Yet small businesses have a few distinct advantages up their sleeves precisely because of their size. Unlike large companies, who often have multiple departments and layers of approval to work through, small businesses possess an agility and adaptability that lets them ride the wave of innovation much sooner than a slow-moving enterprise can.
One place to look for inspiration: social entrepreneurs. Unlike most small business owners, who focus on business risk and financial reward, social entrepreneurs assess the value of their work in terms of positive social impact as well. For them, social responsibility intersects with profit potential, which means their dedication to solving problems can take on creative, ethical, and sustainable dimensions—and that often leads to breakthrough ideas.
To a social entrepreneur, the status quo only means that someone, somewhere, abandoned the quest for true innovation. While other people unblinkingly follow the rules, social activists and trailblazers disregard conventional wisdom and view existing norms and expectations with dissatisfaction. They just don’t think like other people—and that can be a very good thing.
Take a look at the three mindsets common to successful social entrepreneurs and see how they can transform your small business.
1. Think Wrong
Don’t panic; logic will still play an important role in your decision-making. But instead of focusing on what’s working in your system, you’ll want to turn your attention to the roadblocks that are stopping it from being better. Remember the saying, “the good is the enemy of the great?” That’s what we’re talking about here—refusing to settle for mere efficiency and aiming instead for true greatness. Just like a social entrepreneur, look for what’s wrong or so-so, and then work to make it right.
2. Think Backwards
We all want fresh and innovative solutions, but sometimes our usual brainstorming processes just don’t get us there. To really come up with groundbreaking ideas, social entrepreneurs will approach problems by working in the opposite direction from what seems to be the obvious solution.
Yes, this sounds just a bit counter-intuitive and abstract, so here’s an example of what we mean. Phoenix entrepreneur Jon Irons of SitGreen identified a problem: he noticed that furniture waste was damaging the environment. He hypothesized that if furniture was recycled, we could live in a less wasteful world. The most direct solution, of course, was creating a system to help people recycle their existing furniture. Yet that only alleviated the symptom and not the real problem, which is that most traditional furniture is difficult to recycle. To bridge the cognitive gap between sustainability and furniture, Irons began making chairs, benches, and other furniture from recycled materials and marketing his products as sustainable alternatives to conventional furniture designs.
3. Think Fast
Starting a new business means staying nimble and dynamic as you navigate its early-growth phases and changes. Your value proposition may change, your target market may drift out of scope, and you may even reassess the nature of your business. This is especially true of social entrepreneurs, who both respond to exciting developments in technology and society and create their own innovations that regularly shake up the landscape. Being a success is good, but social entrepreneurs aim to be agents of change within a larger community that values invention and progress. Their ability to think fast and pivot on a dime for maximum relevance and reach helps them appeal to the market—a lesson every small business can capitalize on.
The next time you dream of your business’s future, go ahead and dream big, but don’t be too quick to discount your small size. By thinking like a social entrepreneur, you’ll find that being a small business gives you tools and strategies the big leagues can only envy.
Published: February 3, 2014