As an entrepreneur based in Bangladesh, having worked at the intersection of technology and development on a range of issues over the last eight years (first at mPower and now at Jeeon), I have constantly been surprised how much we as social entrepreneurs try to box ourselves in a category of our own.

Many enterprises need to think beyond their immediate circumstances and create an awe-inspiring vision for a different world. Tweet This Quote

Yet, there are a lot of best practices in entrepreneurship, which apply just as much to the social variety. For that reason, I have always been interested in what successful Silicon Valley companies do well, and how that could be adapted or applied to our contexts. Below are a list of seven key lessons about entrepreneurship that I have been able to directly apply in my ventures.

1. Have an awe-inspiring purpose

Think big. Google would not have become Google if its mission was to “Give people the best way to search,” instead of “Organize the world’s information.” I see too many enterprises that think within the confines of their immediate circumstances, instead of really having an awe-inspiring vision for a different world. That is why we changed ours from “Deliver quality healthcare to rural populations” to “Make well-being universal.” It inspires us to get out of bed every day.

2. Keep your users at the center

Know your clients well. Be part of their lives and see the world from their eyes. However, also know how their worldview is limited by their previous experience. What you offer may be even better in ways beyond what they can imagine. Being city people, the first thing we did as a company was to get over our hubris and spend a month living in villages, asking people what they thought they needed. Then, we processed our findings back in HQ and combined it with our knowledge of what’s the latest in technology. In the end, we figured out solutions that our patients could never have imagined.

Jeeon tablet

A Jeeon experience design team member field testing the application with end users.

3. Don’t take a simplistic view of monetization

User fees are just one way to make money. If you understand the ecosystem and can position your company smack in the middle of the various stakeholders, you can offer meaningful value to each of them and charge for it. In our case, patient consultation fees are our business now. But in the future, it can be as much of an advertising and data business as a healthcare business. Who knows, maybe the consultation itself will be free one day. No harm in dreaming, right?

See the world from your clients’ eyes, but know their worldview is limited by their previous experience. Tweet This Quote

4. Get to scale, fast

Find ways to plough every possible dollar of value back to your important stakeholders. Make it a no-brainer for them to jump on your bandwagon. Only then will you scale really fast. Once you do, making money will be as easy as flipping a switch. We are trying to follow Amazon’s lead and to stop worrying about reaching a break-even any time soon. Instead, what we will optimize for is acceleration of expansion.

5. Take HR seriously

The principles of good HR apply as much to budding social enterprises as they do for a bleeding-edge tech company in Silicon Valley. Invest time and energy in hiring well, and give people enough reasons to stay motivated and invested in your company. Of course, the perks will sometimes not be as nice. But unlike Silicon Valley, we have an advantage—the strength of our mission. Use it. At Jeeon, we have made recruitment a cornerstone of our strategy, and going at it in a very different way than most companies do it.

Invest time and energy in hiring well, and give people enough reasons to stay motivated. Tweet This Quote

6. Culture eats strategy for breakfast

It is well known in Bay Area circles that entrepreneurs who invest in culture are in it for the long haul. Even the best crafted strategies will sometimes fail, but it is culture that will hold companies together in times of stress, keeping the right kind of people in the organization and the wrong kind out. Amidst the difficult circumstances in which most emerging market enterprises work, it is even more paramount to think about culture as the foundation of the organization. We have taken this lesson to heart, and spent most of our initial months trying to build the foundations of a great culture. It is starting to pay off with dividends already.

Even the best crafted strategies will sometimes fail, but it is culture that will hold companies together. Tweet This Quote

7. Don’t build infrastructure, use it

Trying to build your own infrastructure while there is an existing alternative is nothing short of suicidal. Waze won its war with Nokia’s initiative to install sensors in all street corners of the world with comparatively few resources, thanks to its ability to tap into the sensors people had in their smartphones. Since then, AirBnB and Uber have become global industry leaders in short spans of time by leveraging infrastructure they don’t own. Many enterprises tend to follow Nokia by trying to set up their own parallel infrastructure. One of the key insights we had early on was that we should try to use the massive but decentralized infrastructure of rural quack doctors instead of building a competing version of our own.

About the author

Rubayat Khan

Rubayat Khan

Rubayat Khan is an entrepreneur and data scientist from Bangladesh, deeply passionate about solving global problems using data and technology. Rubayat is currently CEO of Jeeon, where he dreams of taking quality primary healthcare to the 4 billion rural people in the world. He is also co-founder and Director of mPower Social Enterprises. Rubayat completed his Masters in International Development from Harvard Kennedy School. He is currently an Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow and an Unreasonable Institute Fellow.

  • Max Mantey

    Nice article here. I think the point that struck me the most was the “Culture eats strategy.” I agree with this because there is always going to be twists and turns. I truly believe there is no perfect strategy. It seems that even when you have what you think to be a great, clear, easy path something is going to come up that is going to cause frustrations. It is their you need the culture to keep everyone together and be willing to adapt and adjust. It’s only easy to do that if you have a culture that helps assist with that.

  • Thanks Max for your comment. I have learnt this from personal mistakes in the past that when you don’t invest in culture, a difficult time can really put stress on a company. As you grow bigger, you also attract a wider diversity of people you cannot control, whereas a strong culture has a polarizing effect – by attracting people you want, and repelling types you don’t.

  • Thanks for reading this article. I would love to hear others’ experiences that confirm or contradict my learnings shared above. Looking forward to an engaging and enlightening discussion here. 🙂

  • Sierra Stein

    This is an extremely well organized article. I spent the past week attending the LAUNCH Festival in San Francisco and everything listed above is a clear reflection of the atmosphere I was in. The company environments in the area are truly inspiring in nature and it is motivating to be around such successful firms. The first trait Khan listed: “Have an awe-inspiring purpose.” is a key factor in operating business today, especially with the millennial generations interest in social impact and purchases for a cause. With all of the innovation we’re observing world wide it is going to be an exciting next few years to see what companies make their way into the market.

  • Amanda

    I really enjoyed this article because I think it speaks to all entrepreneurs. Growing up in the Bay Area, I have had the privilege of getting to know and use incredible start up’s products and I think that this article really touches on how to create a successful one.

  • Emily Butler

    I really like the focus on HR and culture that this article pays attention to. I think that HR and keeping your customers at the center is the most effective, and honestly the easiest, way to be successful. A company is successful if it has customers and employees and having good HR and good focus on your customers is the most effective way to have that success. I also like the mention of culture because no matter what kind of company you have or how great your idea is, you can only be successful if you have a solid culture within your company.

  • Hjordis Robinson

    I am such a fan of these pieces that give step-by-step advice to aspiring entrepreneurs. They provide personal examples and credible advice, seeing as the author is an entrepreneur who faced the same challenges as those reading the article. Additionally, I agree with Emily that the heavy focus on culture and human interaction is extremely important for those who are looking to expand their business.

  • Hunter Ward

    Great article! I believe that if entrepreneurs follow this advice, it would be hard for failure. My favorite piece of advice in this article is to “have an aw-inspiring purpose.” This to me is the same as to dream big. It states in this article that too many entrepreneurs only think in the confines of “now,” or in other words, they think too small. I’ve been raised to believe that you should dream big, so that’s why this really sticks with me.

  • Logan Coffman

    Thank you Hjordis, we appreciate the fact that you value the lessons and insights that we strive to share with entrepreneurs in the field. I’m curious though, are there any topics in particular that you think hasn’t covered that may be useful to yourself or other entrepreneurs?

  • Logan Coffman

    Thanks for your discussion Sierra, we always appreciate the insights of our readers. We at UNREASONABLE couldn’t agree more that there is a significant trend towards millenials having an interest in social impact and in purchasing products that serve a cause. Are there any examples of causes or companies that support causes that have inspired you lately?

  • Claire Salvucci

    This article was informative. I found that the point about culture was very accurate. It seems like culture is one of the most important attributes that a business can have. For the past two summers I worked for a company who had a very strong culture, which made the experience so enriching and substantial.