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.

  • KevinThomson32

    This is a very beneficial article, thank you for writing this. To me, I think #1 and #4 are the most important. When you are first starting a company you do not really know how to do so, so I believe you must listen to people who have been in your situation. Also, I believe #4 is very important because you must know your priorities and your needs before you start. If someone took a completely different route than you and you know for a fact you do not want to take that route than you can almost eliminate that right away.

  • Eunice Lam

    This was a great read. I agree with tip 1; people should spend more time listening to their customers. Many companies don’t realize how important it is to listen and communicate with their customers, and so they focus on just telling their target market information about their company and products. Companies should listen to their customers’ reviews and comments in order to figure out what their customers want. And even if you’re not a social entrepreneur, tip 4 is really important to do in order to stay organized and get things done.

  • I’m good at following #5, but horrible at keeping up with the stuff I write down. Right now I have notes and ideas floating in notebooks, email draft folders, and post it notes.

  • Amen to write things down religiously. An entrepreneur is tasked with juggling a million things, especially early on in the business’ lifetime, and even those boasting impressive memories can miss critical action items.

    During meetings, I like to use the Behance Action Pad by Ghostly –

    Helps me keep action items recorded and organized. Highly recommended for creative professionals.

  • Leija2014

    I really liked this article because it lays out the basics, no bullshit. I think you hit the nail on the head with your five tips. I especially liked the tip on writing things down because I’m someone who’s always doing that. Which one of the tips you provided do you favor more?

  • Leija2014

    I’m the same way with the writing. I write everything down and it’s all very unorganized!

  • dsukohardjo

    This article is really great! It really gives some useful tips to be successful in doing business. I agree on #1 so much because we can always learn something if we starts to listen more. Tip #4 also keeps us to stay focus on our priorities, I tend to buy things based on what I want and I regret it later most of the time.

  • Mika Huang

    I like these 5 tips because they are all useful and helpful! I think what I need to work on is “Personal effectiveness” because it takes time to build up this leadership skill from life experiences.

  • Zach Perkins

    These 5 tips definitely are worth taking down in writing. It gives the nuances that many people need to utilize. The thing about this article is that it puts things in perspective. Looking at this list, it is very simple. However, these simple steps could help us bolster our business to new heights.

  • Angela Hoch

    Zach, I agree that these tips are most definitely worth taking down. The steps are actually pretty simple and very doable. My favorite was tip number one because we can always learn something new if we listen. I feel that sometimes a lot of us feel like we know already what we want, but it’s important to stay open to suggestions and tips on how to become even more successful. I liked how you said that this article puts things into perspective but it absolutely lays things out for us and makes one realize that there’s always room for improvement.

  • Brittney Glende

    Hi Angela, when reading through this article I agree with you that tip number one was my favorite as well. If you spend more time listening then telling you are in good shape. Listening is such an important factor in life, and it is important that everyone becomes a good listener.

  • Tyler Russell

    This is a really great article. I feel like step number one is the most often overlooked. Without truly listening to those you aim to help you are shooting in the dark. This can lead to waste of a plethora of different resources and have little effect. This can all be remedied by simply listening to those your product or service is aimed at. As you said they have the answers. Thanks for sharing!

  • Andersonjc16

    Really good article, I feel so strongly about number one and how you need to do more listening. With many things people tend to want to feel in control or in chage and they tend to speak more but in this setting listening is very vital and being able to connect with those who might want your product is very important and showing that you can listen means a lot to those who want to invest in your product.

  • amykahl8

    I think a great way to get your point across to people would be to make little pamphlets so that even when you leave a situation the people you were speaking to can remember your ideas after you’re gone. People don’t want you to waste their time so I think it’s most important to be short and to the point, they also don’t want to hear unoriginal ideas. Also, people want to know how your product might apply to their life, not just somebody’s life.

  • Jake Eckhardt

    Tip #1 reminds me of the scene in Joe Dirt with the firework stand. “It’s not about you, it’s the consumer.” I always find it funny when someone has a failing business, but is too stubborn to change the way they do things just because they like it.

  • Jake Eckhardt

    Very true. There’s a student who graduated from UWW and started a crowdsourced brewing company. I always thought croudsourcing to at least some extent is very important to just about any business.

  • Jake Eckhardt

    I agree. Writing things down about anything helps to keep my head clear and removes stress. Also helps me remember things and I can look back at it for reference if I need to.

  • Jake Eckhardt

    Same here. I have post-it notes all over my the place in my room, and while I think they will be useful when I’m writing on them, I barely actually use them. It would definitely help if I could form a habit of paying attention to what I have written down.

  • Jake Eckhardt

    It always amazes me when companies don’t take their customers’ thoughts very seriously. What better way to learn about what can be improved than to go straight to the customers?

  • Amanda Laatsch ?

    I think the best advice is spend more time listening, than telling. As many other people have said, most people have a hard time with the listening part. Everyone just wants to talk talk talk, rather htan listen to what other people have to say. Lisetning is a very hard task for a lot of people to do, and they need to work on it.

  • Amy Rink

    Thank you for posting this article! I think all 5 of those points are very important! The one that really sticks out to me and I think is most important is number 1: Listening than telling. It is crucial whether you are in the business field or just everyday life. Without listening to what is being said leads to miscommunication and that can cause major problems. Out of these five tips, which one do you find to be most important?

  • Amanda Laatsch ?

    I completely agree. A lot of people not only want to see that you can talk about what you’re going to do, but listen to what they have to say as well.

  • Evan Hibbs

    Great article Zoe. I really agree that when I plan my day out and write things down my day is structured and I seem happier. By writing things down it helps me put my priorities before my needs. Thank you for the article.

  • Palecekb

    Amy, I agree with you on Listening than telling, your point on miscommunication is exactly what the problem is. I think that if I can check and have them relay the information I gave them back to me, it helps me see that they have understand the exact point I’m trying to get across. Do you think there are more ways we could solve the problem of miscommunication?

  • cecillia yakub

    It’s a great article! I believe all those five points are essential, however, I like number 1 the most out of all. We should spend more time listening rather than telling by paying attention to what we hear. This indirectly would allows us to absorb more information and resources needed for our business too.

  • Amanda, absolutely – being able to rally mentors and supporters behind you means demonstrating that their inputs will actually translate into real impact. And that necessarily starts with listening to what they’re saying, then either incorporating their feedback or addressing their concerns.

  • Thank you, Evan! I totally agree about taking the time to structure your day – each morning before even opening my email I sit down and write out the top things I need to accomplish that day. Helps me stay focused!

  • Thanks Zach, I’m glad this helps put things in perspective! These are all very simple changes of mindset or practice, but if you commit to these 5 tips on a daily basis, I *guarantee* you will start to become more personally effective in your work.

  • Amy, thank you for your thoughts! My perspective: tip #1 is the most important mindset to adopt and tip #2 is the most important daily practice to adopt. For example: when I go into meetings, I don’t just plan out what I want to share with that person about our work, I also pick out a few key questions I know they are uniquely placed to provide feedback on – that’s mindset. During meetings, I take notes religiously, then review them and send out a recap email with next steps – that’s practice.

  • Too true! The best entrepreneurs are determined, persistent and laser-focused even in the face of failure, but there’s a line between resilience (including the ability to learn from your mistakes) and being too stubborn to see what the data is telling you.

  • Evan Hibbs

    That’s a very good idea Zoe. I may have to steal your idea and try that myself! This was a helpful article for a college student like myself, because not only will help entrepreneur’s become better people, but also college student’s learning about ways to present themselves effectively, manage their time wisely, and gather new tips on how to become the best people we can!

  • Alyssa Borgrud

    I agree with your comment, Amy. I think that in order to be educated, you need to learn to be a good listener. Too often we as individuals worry about getting our ideas out there, but if we listen to others we can realize that we do not always have the best ideas. Sometimes, two people can even mesh their ideas together to make an idea that neither of them originally thought of.

  • Josh Pritchard

    What they need to do is change the business so that it helps the people. A business that helps the outside world tends to succeed. People are too ignorant nowadays. They want everything for themselves and if they can’t have it their way, then too bad. So I agree with you!

  • GraceFelion

    Thank you for your post! It really seems like all of these steps stem from communicating and listening. You can’t figure out what is important unless everyone is communicating and listening, taking notes helps you to communicate better what was said, and understanding your consumers comes from clear communication with them. It truly is amazing how much it does matter and how much of a difference that can make!

  • tjbaumeister08

    Thank you for sharing this article. These were great tips, and I think they can be used beyond a business setting and in a person’s everyday life. I also agree that number five can be used with the other tips and can help one be more effective, but what if the individual isn’t good at listening and taking notes? Some people are better at retaining information by just listening because they don’t pay as much attention when they’re trying to write stuff down too. Any tips on how to help someone be able to listen and write?

  • Andrew Wirawan

    This is a very good article. I totally agree with all the five key tips to be a more effective social entrepreneurs, but the one tip that would be the most useful for me as a young entrepreneur and I need to continuously work on is “know your priorities and know your needs.” It is very important to be able to know our long-term goals, what we have to do to achieve it ( implementation), and what we are currently doing and going to do in the immediate future. This allows our potential investor to put more trust (money/funds/capital) in our business. Thank you Zoe for the amazing article!

  • PKroening

    Thanks for sharing! I love the first point. For me that is something I do daily because i’m not much of a talker anyway so it’s good that i’m already on the right path. Also, I like the last point because when you write stuff down you basically never forget it because you can always look it back up in the future.

  • PKroening

    Completely agree. Listening is probably the most important thing a person can do in life. You learn so much more by listening than talking.

  • PKroening

    I agree with you. Most people are talkers and never even think about listening to someone else. They always need to be heard and can never take a second to listen and learn.

  • aulm92

    Thank you for the article! The first point really hit home for myself. I feel like i’m always trying to tell people and convince them why they should be interested in “X” or “Y” instead of first listening to my audience. That is something I definitely need to work on.

  • aulm92

    I completely agree with you, I find myself sometimes getting so caught up in trying to tell people what I believe they want to hear instead of listening first and truly telling them what they want to hear

  • Austin Dorman

    Great article! Thank you for writing it. I really like the idea of writing everything down. I find myself remembering more and focusing more when I write things down. If I write things down that I actually take the time to reason out what I need and what I want. It is a very effective tool through the day. Thank you again for the article!

  • Austin Dorman

    That very point is something I need to work on too. I always find myself trying to push why you should be interested in a certain thing because of my own beliefs. But I find that when I listen to my audience that sometimes either they have the answer or perhaps they have different concerns or ideas that I never thought of. I just need to remember to ask more questions and listen to answers before I finish my talk.

  • Anthony Urbanski

    Great advice! I often struggle with step 5. Too many times do I neglect note taking only to regret it afterwards. All these tips are useful, are any of them more important that the rest? I’d say numbers five and one are the big two.

  • Andrew, absolutely! Especially when social entrepreneurs talk to investors, it’s critical to be able to break down what kind of funding you’ll need, when you’ll need it, what you’ll use it for, and what kind of long-term impact that funding will yield.

  • lepkowskjj29

    I am in the same exact boat with note taking. I’m always too lazy or find an excuse as to why I don’t need to take notes but then later I am always regretting it especially while taking exams.

  • lepkowskjj29

    I agree I believe it helps with decision making and decision fatigue and I have kind of started to write things down or try to at least because I have notice my dad writes everything down and I have seen it bring him much success.

  • steffiangelina

    Awesome article. We should work with customer because they the one who will buy our product. This is number one “spend more listening than telling” because “your market has the answers to your assumption not the other way around”. The next one is number four “know your priorities and know your needs”. A lot of social entrepreneurs only know the big picture. They should prioritize by making long-term goal or priority and need. It has to be detailed so they can focus about what they will achieve.

  • Kevin Weber

    I agree that these steps can stem from communicating and listening. Communication is one the most important things in business. Without clear communication, your business will not reach its full potential. Even small things that may not seem like much should be communicated.

  • jkailing

    To me #4 is really the thing that I need to work on the most. If you know what you want and you know whats the most important then when people bring up opportunities you can either go after it if thats what you want, or let them slide if you would rather go in a different direction. I think everyone needs to know there priorities not just people that are trying to start up a business.

  • Daniel John

    I agree steps 5 and 1 are the most important. I often struggle with step 5 and i often regret it. I often ask questions to make the information more personal to me and easier to remember. I have learned to do a better job of tracking what I have learned, what have you learned Antony?

  • Steven Bichler

    I will admit the first point about listening more is something I’m not the strongest at, but it makes complete sense when I read it. Listening to people talk about the topics that interest you can provide great insight as to how you can improve yourself or your products/ideas (especially when it comes to your customers!).

  • Steven Bichler

    Listening to others is extremely important I agree. If you don’t listen to the other person you are shutting down ideas that could have helped you improve yourself, your ideas, or your business.

  • Steven Bichler

    I agree 100 percent. Sometimes I may not be the best listener, and I’m sure it can annoy some people. However it is an important skill almost any successful person needs and is something every person should strive to improve on, myself included.

  • Matthew Gust

    I agree completely! Things go so much easier when I write them down. If I write it down it just makes things that much more easy to remember. I get a lot of crap for it, but I live through my planner. It just makes things that much more organized. I am able to stay on top of things.

  • Austin Dorman

    I catch a lot of grief from my friends too. “Can you even live without your planner?” I get that all the time. But when they forget about different events or due dates and I don’t, well that’s when I get the last laugh.

  • Austin Dorman

    My inspiration to write everything down came from my dad too. He’s constantly writing down ideas or important dates, and he has great success. I, at first, made fun of him for documenting everything, but after I tried it myself I found great success.

  • lex_alwaysMIA

    I agree, listening more is something that everyone could do more effectively. It is one of those things that takes time especially with customers. You cannot please everyone but you can get an idea and better understanding of were they stand.

  • Drew

    Hey a planner is key to a successful day. Without it I’m basically lost also! I create about 3 different ones a day because my head scrambles so much that often times i forget some things and have to create a new objective list. I love when that last part happens but then i find myself helping them out just so that everyone is on the same page!

  • Austin Dorman

    Yeah I do end up helping my friends out when I can. But I always make it a point to say that if they had a planner that we both wouldn’t be scrambling to get their stuff done. It’s just comical when they make fun of me for keeping a planner yet they themselves struggle without one.

  • felicia ophira

    i agree with this article and number 1 and 4 points are true. We need to know our priorities and goals in order to succeed. There are a lot of times people have a lot of goals and does not have priorities which in the end defer from all of their goals. Being a good listener is also important as they will be able to understand what their customer wants and deliver it. Being a good listeners can also provide them insight on how to improve the goods/services and the company.

  • Adelin Soelaiman

    I absolutely agree with the author about the 5 key tips to be a more effective
    social entrepreneur, especially about the last one – writing things down
    religiously, since we can “track what happened and what we learned”. Writing
    things down makes it easier for us to understand what was said, and it also
    help us see our priorities and needs, because while writing we are processing
    information one more time. Additionally, it simplifies our work and puts the
    focus on what should be done or corrected.

  • tjahjono

    In my opinion the article is touches heavily on the minor but significant details that entrepreneurs tend to overlook. The tips that were presented mainly focuses on self-improvement as well as mindset alterations. I think that the article serves a good benchmark for entrepreneurs as to be able to individually grow we need to continually develop ourselves, and at the same time in order for our business to grow we need to cater our customers (point number 1 & 2).

  • rulintseng

    Thanks for sharing a thoughtful article. I agree with the 5 key tips to be a more
    effective social entrepreneur, and I do think it is necessary to for people to
    understand how the tips work. Out of the five tips, I like the first tip “spend more time listening than telling” the most. It is essential to listen to what your customers say than keep telling what you want them to know because they
    would not listen. In my perspective, this concept could be used more than being
    a more effective social entrepreneur. I am a “listening” people; I like listening
    more than telling because I want to know what people around me think about an
    issue, a person, and everything, so that I will know their points of views.

  • PKroening

    Great point. When you don’t listen you could be potentially missing some things that could actually help you.

  • BartuchGR11

    Thank you for sharing this article. I think the five tips are really going to help me because I may have to do some social entrepreneuring later in life and I think these tip could really help. I will definitely have to remember these that way I will stand out more an entrepreneur . I agree that in order to be a good entrepreneur you have to listen to your customers and find out what they like and don’t like.

  • Jcoppa

    I completely agree, listen more than you tell. That way you learn things from colleagues, keeping an open mind is crucial in business! This way you are caring and understanding and people respect that! This is really helpful because I think a lot of people think their way is the only way, so lots of good ideas are never considered. When a boss listens, more ideas come up and better outcomes can be reached!

  • Jcoppa

    I agree with you, the little things are the things that mean the most, even in business. Working in a business isn’t only about doing what’s right for the company, because when it comes down to it, bettering yourself will better the company! When we take a few steps back, have an open mind and consider what our consumers are telling us, we can reach much higher levels of success.

  • Max Rude

    I was wondering why you do not like the number 5. I have trouble with this also about everyone i know who is successful writes stuff down. So i was wondering if you have a better idea or just hate writing like me.

  • giorgiogmr

    I completely agree with you, this article could help young entrepreneurs to become more socially available and this tips could be used as a benchmark for people to develop themselves. I would also like to point out that the third tip is also crucial. “Prioritize learning to become more personally effective”, Maintaining our energy and time to focus on personal effectiveness.

  • Hannah Leggett-Hintz

    As I continued reading, I found this blog increasingly relative to real life situations. I feel as someone completely separated from anything in the business world, this was applicable to real life. The one that specifically struck me was to listen more than you talk. That’s one of the largest and most true pieces of advice that I have ever received. People often don’t understand the importance of listening. We get heated, get into a power struggle, and then raise our voices to be heard. That has the exact opposite effect as what people are typically trying to achieve. Listening is key, simple.

  • ReneeBinder

    Focusing on your personal effectiveness is a huge point that stuck out to me in the article. It is important to realize how valuable your time is and capitalize on that. An entrepreneur needs to delegate and prioritize so they can make the best possible decisions and use their time in the best possible way.

  • Jennifer Diaz

    These are awesome tips. One that I really need to work on is tip number 5. I never write anything down. Tracking what happened and what I’ve learned is good so I don’t make the same “mistake” again.

  • amykahl8

    This is so true, no one wants their time wasted so if people can learn to be more efficient with their time and sending a message, everyone will be happier and probably more successful.

  • Anthony Davis

    I completely agree with you and I feel like people need to be more available for tasks that apply to them and can be effective at. In order to sell or be an entrepreneur individuals have to be passionate about what they are selling in order to be successful. They need to have emotion and a want and need for their ideologies to connect.

  • Writing things down. That by far would be the biggest factor, and key point that I wish I had known. Of course, it seems like something that is just common knowledge, but it’s something you may think about once, then just forget because it shows no significant value. Regardless, this is a big aspect that we need to have more time spent focusing on. If we help with improving this, thoughts wont go unspoken or unread. Dreams wont be faded away any longer. Improvements will be made