"" Tim Coates: Building a community or building a company?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Building a community or building a company?

I’ve recently become involved with an exciting initiative in Connecticut, reSET, aimed at promoting and encouraging social enterprise in the state and beyond. It’s an exciting space to be in. Business leaders are recognizing that increasing their organization’s social performance increases economic performance. And nonprofit leaders are recognizing that increasing their organization’s economic performance increases social performance.

As entrepreneur and former Venture Capitalist Garrett Melby says,“I believe this is a big movement. There are a lot of people with a lot of money to put to work. They want to inject meaning in their professional endeavors.”

Being good is challenging. The field is in a state of flux. Social enterprise and hybrids (part nonprofit part forprofit) are new organizational animals. Legal structures like B-corporations and For-Benefits to support a shared purpose are still being created.

My involvement with reSET has led to thoughts on how social entrepreneurs launch ventures in this flux.  John Roy at last year’s Face 2 Face conference said that in his experience, launching a social venture is more difficult than a private one. Success relies on not only a solid product and operations. It also requires significantly altered relationships and behavior.

The best way to change behavior is to engage people in a community around a certain idea. I believe a large part of our success launching 21inc came from building a strong, purposeful community. I tried to not miss an opportunity to speak or meet anyone willing to discuss our plans. Many others made presentations and networked the idea using that old fashioned tactic of face to face conversations. We were able to explain our ideas, our business model, and our social and economic goals.

Once it was time to launch, many key players were on board in official and informal ways. People wanted to belong to the community and be part of our work. We organized events so that the community was reinforced and strengthened. The community also gave critical feedback that we had to address or risk losing members. This led to innovation and trust we could leverage; trust that held us accountable.

We learned a ton too. We didn't always meet the interests of our community. Especially early on, we couldn't define the boundaries of our community. Nor did we initially have a coherent idea of what we wanted the community to be.

Growing a community has long been the way nonprofits operated (think about how they engage volunteers). Businesses have more recently jumped on the bandwagon. The November issue of Harvard Business Review devote their feature stories to explaining why good companies perform great. Harley Davidson, Teach for America and Picaroons are exemplary community building organizations. 

Whether a forprofit or nonprofit, achieving results in the social space like decreasing poverty and saving the environment are largely based on changing behaviors, not simply buying decisions. Creating the social capital and the underlying trust inherent in well built communities can be the difference between a successful launch and not launching at all.


  1. Great post, Tim. I have similar observations from my time with propel and now Sociallogical.