There’s a lot to be learned from those who’ve been there, done it, and know what works. As applications open for UnLtd USA’s first cohort of social entrepreneurs in Austin, TX, I want to share what I’ve learned from some of the most effective social entrepreneurs across the country.

Last year, I drove 5,000 miles across the US meeting start-up social entrepreneurs. Along the way, I learned about their challenges, the ups and the downs of a social start-up, and what they wish they knew at the beginning. After hundreds of conversations, I’ve boiled down the top 5 key tips I’ve learned from social entrepreneurs across America.

Spend more time listening than telling.

Eric Sorensen, the Executive Director of Carbon Roots International, explained that starting a social venture inevitably involves making people believe that your product is worthy of their purchase. Eric believes in investing your energy in listening instead of telling. He says, “It sounds obvious, but your market has the answers to your assumptions, not the other way around.” During their first phase of product testing in Haiti, Eric and his team were frustrated that their customers were continually using their product incorrectly and found themselves spending a lot of time explaining to their customers how they were “supposed” to use the product. For several months, they struggled. Finally, they stopped telling and started paying attention to what they were hearing. Customers were constantly asking if they could use his product to cook. “It was like they were hitting me on the head with the answer, over and over again.” Carbon Roots International has now pivoted to account for this user feedback.

Your market has the answers to your assumptions, not the other way around.  Tweet This Quote

The main thing is the main thing is the main thing.

According to Derek Snook, the founder of IES Labor Services, one of the top three challenges an entrepreneur faces when starting up is distraction. He says, “If you were to sit down with our accountant, attorney, director of operations, director of HR, and director of business development, and ask them what the most important thing IES has to accomplish, there’s a chance that each of them would give you a different answer.” It’s too easy to build an idea on top of your mission before your most basic product or service has even been tested. The best advice? Stay simple, stay focused, and spend your time with your customers. If you’re still testing and it’s not absolutely core to your ‘main thing,’ it probably does not deserve to be awarded a major part of your time, your team’s time, or your budget.

Focus on personal effectiveness.

Stay simple, stay focused, and spend your time with your customers.  Tweet This Quote

Gray Somerville, the leader of a start-up bootcamp shared the following wisdom: “Prioritize learning to become more personally effective, especially in the first year.” This goes beyond building a well-designed product or service. To be a successful social entrepreneur, you need to be personally effective at communicating what you do, why you’re the one to do it, and why other people should join you. You need to be personally effective at learning from your customers, team members, mentors, and mistakes. You need to be personally effective at leveraging resources, building networks, and recruiting and managing a team of dedicated, driven top talent. Most importantly, you must learn to effectively manage your own time and energy. If you can’t master this, you won’t have a social venture to manage in one years’ time, effectively or not.

Know your priorities and know your needs.

So many start-up social entrepreneurs who I’ve met have a convoluted “big picture” plan. They’re unable to simplify this when someone asks how they can help. If you don’t have a quick, confident, and actionable answer for those seeking to help you, you could miss an opportunity to engage someone who could become a long-term supporter. Create lists. In my own work, I keep three lists open on my computer at all times: 1) our top long-term priorities, 2) our top current needs, and 3) the top things to complete this week. This keeps me focused on the long-term vision, what we need to get there, and what the next step forward is.

Write things down, religiously.

Many entrepreneurs “know” the value of writing everything down. With growing inboxes, growing workloads, and the growing stress to keep up with it all, their willingness to actually practice this falters. One method I’ve learned is tracking what happened and what you learned. Here’s an example:

What Happened: Nate Olson, whose organization 1 Million Cups operates in over 30 cities in the US, says that he always takes notes during meetings. Then, he sends out a meeting recap to everyone in attendance. It serves as a reference document to hold people accountable for what they agreed upon, and is the single best way to verify everyone gets the most out of meetings.

What I Learned: My new, non-negotiable, strategy is to track what we learn religiously. After my meetings with entrepreneurs, partners, funders, advisors, mentors, I write down the most important thing I took from that encounter. This helps me mentally digest and internalize what I learned so I can then set that learning into motion. Putting thoughts to paper (or screen) helps you process, organize, articulate and, as one entrepreneur said, “separate the junk from the gems.”

Although it’s last on this list, write things down was by far the most common tip I heard from social entrepreneurs across the country and I believe it will have an exponential impact on your work. Why? This feeds directly back into numbers 1, 3, and 4 of this list, and is perhaps one of the top ways you can become more personally effective starting today. If you don’t believe me, read Cheryl Heller’s post, “Why Innovators Need to Write & 4 Steps for You to Start.”

Track what you learn religiously. This should be your non-negotiable strategy.  Tweet This Quote

Burning Quesion:

Which of these keys do you wish you would have known starting out? Add them to the comments!

About the author

Zoe Schlag

Zoe Schlag

Zoe is the Founder of UnLtd USA, backing entrepreneurs tackling our most pressing social and environmental challenges. She has worked with social ventures across the US, India and Argentina.