4 Tips for Aspiring Social Entrepreneurs to Leverage Social Enterprise Incubators

No road is without any bumps. This rings true for any social entrepreneurs while navigating its business incubation journey.

That’s where incubators can add value for social enterprises to lend their expertise and resources to accelerate and insights on what works and what doesn’t.

In our second cohort of Urban Innovation Challenge, we worked with 5 social entrepreneurs who went through many ups and downs to get their business off the ground.

We have learned a tremendous amount from the journey. Here are some insights that I believe would be useful for any aspiring social entrepreneurs:

1. Allow your idea to take shape

It becomes a costly mistake when idea-stage entrepreneurs think that a startup should be fixed into one idea or solution. Nowadays, incubators can be your go-to place for trial and error to come to problem-solution fit. During our incubation phase, we always put emphasis on iterating the initial concepts with users to get a clear understanding of the model. Otherwise, this might prove to be a costly bet for idea-stage entrepreneurs to get success in their early-days.

Let me put this into perspective sharing an example from our incubatee, Solar-Water-Light technologies, who approached the incubation phase to turn the idle solar panel, especially rooftop ones, utilized by connecting with DC water pumps of a building. After surveying several house owners and executing two pilots in Dhaka, co-founders realized the market would be difficult to penetrate as it will require a lot of resources to educate the market with extensive sales force. So, they pivoted their focus assessing the team's strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities. This exploration led them to visit two municipality areas of Mymensingh and Faridpur to come up with a brand new solution, called Smart Water Management System, for public water authorities.

Long story short, if someone wants to see her/his venture successful, the rigid mindset to stick with the award-winning idea may not align well. The idea-stage entrepreneurs should be open to iterating the product or service to spread its wings and incubators can lend great support in doing so.

4 Tips for Aspiring Social Entrepreneurs to Leverage Social Enterprise Incubators
Photo by BRAC UIC

2. Delve deeper into market insight

In order to find a viable business model, an incubation program helps entrepreneurs in shaping a sustainable operation with market access.

In our 2nd incubation batch, we worked with Jotno Healthcare which aims to offer authentic, affordable, and accessible pathological services to the doorsteps of the last-mile community. Last-mile sounds good in power-points or investment pitches, but it might give you more practical insights if you can test it out on the ground.

With the aim to test their model in 3 different contexts - rural, suburban, and urban slum market - they started 1st pilot in a rural upazila of Feni, 2nd pilot in Korail slum, Dhaka, and 3rd pilot in Gazipur. All of these pilots took place with operating centers of BRAC Health, Nutrition and Population (HNPP) and BRAC Urban Development Programme( UDP).

The reason they have tested in 3 different contexts with 2 entities was to capture as much as insights possible. The 3 month-long pilots revealed many interesting insights regarding the target audience of JOTNO Healthcare helping the company to find eventual product-market fit.

It is a critical skill to understand the Go-to-Market (GTM) potential of your business early-on to get an extra edge while designing your business model. These pilots also introduced Jotno Healthcare to learn those critical nuances to forge partnerships.

3. Fix your business model with key stakeholders

In the early stages of development, most entrepreneurs often get overwhelmed in fixing the business model. As you would logically attach your vision and mission with the business model, it becomes seldom understandable and lucrative enough to investors as well as customers. Incubators can be your go-to place to assess the feasibility of multiple revenue streams of your business.

Onushongo entered into UIC incubation programme to create proper community spaces inside slums to avoid gentrification problems. After scanning out the possibilities in a privately-owned slum in Narayanganj through designing a master plan of the slum, they have spotted a gap that persists between the lower-income people and affordable housing solution providers. With vibrant participation of the community members, they later designed an affordable 4-storey building for 4 families after engaging the community actively and understanding their problems associated with their shack-like homes.

Later, the co-founders also received contracts from UNDP to design master plans for some upcoming Housing projects. This community-led design process, coupled with their specific offerings worked as a great proof-of-concept to pivot their model to approach hybrid models - both individual clients as well as organizations such as UNDP, BRAC, Government Authority, and so forth.

Fixing the business model is not an easy task. In most instances, a concrete model comes after getting personally involved with the core stakeholders as well as partners.

4 Tips for Aspiring Social Entrepreneurs to Leverage Social Enterprise Incubators 1

4. Eliminate unforeseen challenges with mentors

From our experience, mentors can play a critical role in guiding social entrepreneurs face any unforeseen challenges with ease. A true mentor can open up many opportunities for a startup.

4 students from MIST formed a team, called Laister, who have been working passionately alongside since their university days to design an eco-friendly bio-digester that can generate cooking fuel for the household members and fertilizers for effective farming. As they were yet to finalize their fool-proof design of the biodigester, they were in need of a technical mentor who can offer useful insights.

This is where we have introduced one industry expert for the team who has tremendously supported technically. As a result, these youngsters have saved from rigorous research, which would take a minimum of a hundred hours and a gallon of sweat. With an improved design and solution, they’ve made their first biodigester in Mirpur 11 to run a soft test and also sought out safety certifications from the authority for their operation.

To sum up, it’s critical for aspiring social entrepreneurs to leverage incubation programs and most importantly, avoid the same mistakes over and over again. More rigorous approaches to find a problem-solution fit can unlock many potential solutions and make them well-positioned to explore product-market fit. Lastly, if you do not get married to the social problem you want to solve, it’s impossible for any incubation support to upscale your social enterprise. Therefore, it’s critical also for you to prepare yourself to leverage any support from incubators.

Zarif Enam is a social innovation expert and development practitioner with 3  years of experience with a special focus on underprivileged youth, and has been recognized in 2019/2020 as a Charles Wallace Fellow in Judge Business School, University of Cambridge. He completed his Bachelor’s degree in Management Studies in 2015 and a Master’s degree in Human Resource Management in 2017 from the Faculty of Business Studies, University of Dhaka. To promote social innovation and social entrepreneurship, Zarif has joined the world’s largest non-profit organization BRAC as an Assistant Manager in its Social Innovation Lab. As an enthusiast of social entrepreneurship, he supported the core team to incubate 5 social startups to be investment-ready through a regional competition called “Urban Innovation Challenge” in Bangladesh. As of late, Zarif, along with his team, has organized the “WASH Innovation Challenge” with UNICEF ROSA in 8 countries of South Asia: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

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