Technology Salon Helsinki kicked off as part of Slush, a fantastic start-up and technology event that takes place with about 10,000 people every Fall in the Finnish capital. Slush added a social impact stream for the first time this year, making it a good fit for Technology Salon. Plan Finland organized the Salon and Netlight hosted.
Our topic for this Salon was broad – how can technology increase social impact? – but lead discussants (Jussi Hinkkanen of Fuzu, René Parker from rLabs, and Mika Valitalo of Plan Finland) brought inspiring personal stories, fundamental questions, practical experiences, challenges and questions that made for an intimate and lively conversation that incorporated expertise from everyone in the room.
The discussion raised a number of key points for social impact start-ups and those working in the development space:
1. Making a direct contribution to social impact is a prime motivator. Most people in the room who considered themselves to be entrepreneurs or who felt they were working with a ‘start-up’ or ‘social innovation’ mentality had tried different pathways before landing on their current one, yet had found them unsatisfying due to bureaucracy, lack of agility, unsustainable efforts, systems not based on merit, and feelings of not being able to input into or control decisions. “Do I want a job where I’m comfortable, well-paid and getting accolades for the supposed social good I’m doing, but where I know I’m not having any real impact, or do I want to be somewhere that I’m paid less but I’m actually doing something worthwhile?” summed up one participant.
2. It’s not clear how to best achieve social impact at scale. There was some disagreement in the room regarding whether it was better to work outside of the system to avoid the above-noted problems with corporate social responsibility efforts, governments, multi-laterals and international development agencies, or whether it was imperative to work with those institutions in order to achieve longer-lasting impact at scale. Questions were also raised about what is meant by scale. If we help communities to demand better government services through some kind of innovative approach, that can also lead to a scaled impact and more resources and social good coming into a community, even though the scaled impact is not so directly attributable. The big question is how to achieve scale yet remain locally relevant and contextually sensitive.
3. Keeping a social impact focus is a challenge. It’s critical to think about both social impact and sustainability from the very beginning, participants agreed. A social impact start-up, like any business, needs to pay salaries and other costs, so it needs a good business model that brings in enough revenue. “If you do not show revenue and growth, you will drive off investors,” said others, “and then your start-up won’t grow.” Yet those in the lowest income bracket will not have the highest capacity to pay for services, and donors often have policies prohibiting them from funding profit-building entities, even if they start off as non-profits. Ensuring that investors have a social impact motivation so that the mission of the start-up does not skew as it grows can also be a challenge. This area is being somewhat addressed by ‘social impact investing’ however, “as a start-up entrepreneur,” said one participant, “you know that next phase investors don’t like it if you have an impact investor already on board, so that makes it difficult to get further funding.” This all poses real challenges for start-ups.
4. Social good is in the eye of the beholder. Everyone will say that their company is values-based and that it’s ‘doing good’ but who decides on and judges the social function of a company? “Maybe one way is to see if it motivates Generation Y,” said one participant. Another pointed out that one company might be doing something that is perceived as ‘socially good’, but it might have a very small impact. Whereas another company might be doing something not perceived as ‘socially good’ (say, selling clothing) yet it has embedded strong values, good business ethics, pays workers well with good benefits, doesn’t pollute the environment and contributes to local economic growth in a large way. People won’t think of the second company as doing social good even if its social impact is greater than the first company. The idea of social impact is largely in the mind of the beholder, concluded one person, it’s in the psyche.
5. Staying true to social impact values in the long-term is difficult. As one discussant noted, keeping the social impact mindset requires constant consideration as to whether you are doing good with and for your employees, but you also need to ask the community that you are serving what they think. “It’s easy to say you are doing social good, but if you go directly to ask people in the community whether your initiative is doing what it says and if it’s having a good impact, you’ll see it’s not easy. When an investor comes along who wants to change things, you always have to go back to look at who you are, how you started, how a particular change will impact the organization, and how it will impact on the thousands of people who rely on you.”
6. A sustainable business model helps bring autonomy according to one discussant. A start-up can remain agile and make its own decisions if there are no donors or external funders. Having its own sustainable revenue stream will allow it to stay true to its vision and to community needs, or at least provide enough to cover staff and operations costs. However, partnership and collaboration are key. “You have to work with other people whether you like it or not. If you are working as a social impact start-up, you’ll need to partner with those already working in the community, and work with everyone to bring in their part. Just because there is a community out there somewhere, you can’t assume that they don’t know what is happening or that they don’t know anything. You need to partner with these local groups and work with the existing community context and structures.”
7. An innovative business model trumps innovative technology. Many of the places where non-profits are working and where people may think about ‘social good’ start-ups are those where the market doesn’t work and people have very few resources. Yet these are the very people we want to support the most in terms of social impact, said one discussant, so how can we do it? Targeting solutions and payment for different parts of the markets might be one way, for example, offering a solution to the segment of the market that can pay and in that way extending the services to those who cannot pay. “The most innovative thing here is the business model, not the technological solution,” advised another person. “And if you really listen to people and you build according to people’s needs, you may uncover needs as well as new markets and business models.” Your services will need to keep evolving over time, however, as people’s needs and the context changes. “You need to go there and spend time with people in order to deeply understand their needs, their contexts and their behaviors.”
8. People won’t think like you think. Another participant quoted activists in the disability movement “Nothing about us without us,” saying that start-ups should follow that mantra also. All the really bad examples of NGO, government, development or corporate failures have been when people are looking top-down or outside-in, she said. “When you think ‘since those people are poor, they have nothing, they will really want this thing I’m going to give them,’ you will fail,” she added. “People everywhere already have values, knowledge, relationships, things that they themselves value. This all impacts on what they want and what they are willing to receive. The biggest mistake is assuming that you know what is best, and thinking ‘these people would think like me if I were them.’ That is never the case.”
9. There is space for various approaches. You won’t want one single product or service to monopolize, said one person. “There are roles and limitations for different entities in any community. There are some non-income generating things that can and need to happen, and that is actually fine. It used to be a charity and welfare mentality, but now we think markets will solve everything. Neither extreme is correct. We need to have space for various partners and efforts.” At the same time, there needs to be space for different partners at different stages in time. It is important for the various partners to understand what their role is. Emergency support is good in an immediate post-conflict stage, for example, but then humanitarian organizations need to step aside and open space for other actors when a community or country moves to a more stable development and growth period.
10. It’s difficult to find investors for social impact in ‘the South.’ The perceived risk in investing in start-ups that want to ‘go South’ or start-ups already based in ‘the South’ makes it hard to find investors. “Finnish investors are myopic,” said one person. “Finland has already provided examples of how companies can access these new opportunities and also have a social impact. Spending power has skyrocketed in some countries. If investors looked properly, they would see the potential of making more money in some of these vast markets than they can in Europe or Finland,” noted another person. The risk is indeed greater due to various elements in some of these countries, added one person. “It’s like courtship – you can’t go after people who are not in your league or not right for you. But if you find the right investor who understands the risk as well as the significant potential returns, it can be a great marriage.”
11. NGOs and start-ups can be great partners. They can come up with ideas from scratch, or they can partner later in the process. NGOs can take advantage of start-up applications and services, whereas the start-ups can find new customers, build a portfolio, do field-testing and get feedback on what to improve with their idea. In addition the two have a lot to teach each other, said one discussant. “NGOs can learn a lot from start-ups about how to operate. They should be learning how to think about iterative improvements, pivoting and changing quickly, failing fast and learning fast.” Start-ups can also learn from NGOs. “Some NGOs are quite good at participatory practices, knowing the community well, collaborating at multiple levels with various stakeholders, communities and governments.” In addition, community-based organizations know the community very well and often work together well with start-ups and NGOs.
12. Pacing and timing can make collaboration tricky. The pacing in these different organizations and partners is quite different, however, and that causes friction and frustration. But even large multi-lateral agencies can be helpful for start-ups who want to gain entry into different countries or communities because they are well-known and because they can provide an ethical and legal framework that helps protect the start-up from making big mistakes due to a lack of understanding of these key elements. NGOs can also serve as a kind of infrastructure upon which to build start-up efforts. Lack of NGO and donor agility however sometimes causes efforts to fail. Hybrid models of funding that can enable start-up-NGO collaboration are needed. One discussant emphasized the importance for start-ups to generate their own funding on the one hand while seeking donor funds for some things too, but never doing anything for a donor that is not part of the organizations core mission.
13. You need to lose the ego. In every sector, egos and brands get in the way of social impact. Start-up founders have egos too, and the start-up personality may often be one that wants the spotlight, or in order to obtain funding the start-up may need to act in a particular way, and this can be detrimental. “For social impact work, we need to think about catalyzing something, not being the center of it. We need to help bring snowballs to the top of the hills, and then let them roll down on their own without branding,” recommended one participant. “We hear that 60% of mHealth initiatives die before they thrive. They are isolated, with little connection and interface with one another. We need more platforms and sharing, less egos and brands.”
Next Technology Salon Helsinki. Plan Finland is hoping to continue convening in Helsinki. If you are interested, sign up to get invitations at Technology Salon!
I’d also recommend attending Slush next year – especially if you like high energy, high-tech, Helsinki and lasers! I’m sure next year’s impact stream will be as good or even better than this year.
Thanks again to Plan for convening and sponsoring the first Salon, to Slush for including it as part of their Social Impact Stream, and to Netlight for hosting at their beautiful offices!