When I started my company, Abel Impact, it was because I couldn’t find a job doing what I wanted to do. I wanted to match businesses up with quality charitable organizations so that we could maximize the good being done. I felt like most businesses didn’t know how to interface with charity (I was right), or didn’t have the time to do it well (I was also right), so instead they had very passive interactions. Turns out this is how most people are too.
The reason I couldn’t find a job matchmaking charity and business is because no one was really doing it. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is the technical term, and while some very big companies do in fact have someone on staff doing this, the mid-sized and small businesses do not. Why, you ask? Because it is too expensive to dedicate one person to it and it’s very time consuming.
CSR is a lot more than just matchmaking charities and businesses. It fully encompasses sustainability, employee volunteering, corporate foundations, clean supply chains, and much more. With the rise of social enterprise and social entrepreneurs it is becoming more common and well-known, but in the beginning it was like the wild wild west, and about 50% of the people I met with actually knew what “CSR” stood for.
I didn’t realize how much educating and inspiring I would have to do before I could even start to sell what I was wanting to offer. People often want to do good and to design their lives and businesses to do good, but they have no idea where to look for help with that, where to find me, or where I fit in, and that has been a huge struggle for growing the business – but one I am willing to take on to do the work I do.If you find yourself inventing the wheel, I do not discourage you, but I caution you. It takes major grit and determination. I took 325 businesses development meetings in my first year in business and that was just to break even.
If you have the passion to pioneer and bring about a new way of serving the world through business I have some advice:
Meet with every single person who will meet with you.
You should basically be eating breakfast, coffee, lunch, afternoon coffee, and happy hour with potential clients/customers/partners. Ask for advice, share your ideas, and educate people on what you do and who else is in your industry. I helped a lot of people better understand Patagonia, so they could better understand me.
Ask people how much they know about your industry.
Don’t assume that people will “get” what you’re doing. Make it easy for them to ask questions, as what they ask you will often be some of the best consumer information you can get. This also helps you determine where to put them in a sales cycle.
Look at comparable business models and try to fit into one.
While what I do is very unique, my business is a service-based business. I can operate like a marketing firm that consults for businesses, or like a financial firm that has many consultants under one roof. Regardless of those choices, having a format for doing business that is understandable and approachable is key for your consumer.
I was not 100% sure the market needed or wanted what I wanted to give them. That meant having to be very flexible and opportunistic in the beginning of running the business. I took on a lot of client work that wasn’t perfectly within my vision. I also tweaked and changed things often to make sure they worked for a client, finding that what works for one person can often be replicated if it’s done right. Letting my clients dictate my approach has served me well and helped me continue to grow.
No one owes you anything.
Be gracious above all else. When you are starting out with a fresh idea and a new business, you are asking for a lot of favors and a lot of people’s time. No one has to support you or buy from you or even take a coffee meeting, so give gratitude out like candy and acknowledge the gift of time.
Save the big meetings for last.
While I knew where I wanted Abel Impact to be, I had to prove my groove first. I had a tiered list of target clients and waited two whole years before I even asked for meetings with the companies I really wanted to work with. It payed off. I had proof of concept for them, systems in place, and much more confidence when pitching my ideas.
When all is quiet on the western front, and you find yourself wondering – “Is it worth it?”, I can tell you, yes it is. Pursue your wild dreams, always be pioneering, and push yourself harder than any boss ever has. Just think: you can’t summit the mountain without adjusting to the altitude.
Photos by Cacá Santoro