Entrepreneurs: Fall in love with the problem, not your solution

Entrepreneurs: Fall in love with the problem, not your solution

Join us this week at Entrepreneurship 101 as Joseph Wilson, Director of Business Development, Spongelab Interactive, leads us through how to formulate a crisp and concise value proposition. He’ll also share videos of entrepreneurs discussing their value propositions—and how these changed over time.

In her Entrepreneurship 101 lecture last Wednesday, Allyson Hewitt, Senior Fellow for Social Innovation at MaRS Discovery District, held a captive audience of entrepreneurs. They were quiet, attentive, and, for some reason, all standing up.

“Stay standing,” said Allyson, “if you want to make money with your business.”

Unsurprisingly, no one sat down.

“Now,” Allyson continued, “stay standing if you also want to make positive change in the world with your business.”

This time, it was perhaps a little surprising to see everyone stay on their feet.

“Entrepreneurs are problem-solvers,” explained Allyson. “Fall in love with the problem, not your solution.”

The “messy middle space” between a traditional charity and a traditional business

In her lecture, Allyson focused on the different kinds of entrepreneurial ventures, and in particular those in the “messy middle space” between traditional charity and traditional business. She showed how those two extremes, in the past so distinct from one another, are starting to come together in the form of new, creative business models that combine making money with doing good.

For traditional businesses, some kind of social purpose is becoming essential in an era of public “accountability and transparency.” At the same time, traditional charities are seeking reliable funding and revenue streams in the face of a highly competitive and volatile market for grant money. As a result, we’re seeing profit and purpose combined in organizations such as benefit corporations, social enterprises, and companies that work in the sharing economy. Never before have there been so many options for people who want to create sustainable businesses to solve societal problems.

Case study: Lucky Iron Fish

Already we’re seeing these models effecting change in the world. Allyson showed a video that charted the development of Lucky Iron Fish, an inventive business solution to counter chronic iron deficiency in Cambodia. The company sells fish-shaped iron blocks that, when placed in a pot of cooking rice or soup, fortify the dish with up to 75% of a person’s recommended daily intake of iron. The fish were sold in bulk to the Cambodian government, which estimated that their distribution could save the country millions of dollars in healthcare costs.

Fall in love with the problem. If you don’t love it, don’t do it.

Of course, entrepreneurs with altruistic ambition still face plenty of hard work ahead. Before steaming ahead with a business plan, you have to check in with yourself, and consider whether your motivations, skills and resources are sufficient to carry you through the entrepreneurial journey. Once again, Allyson reminded the audience to “fall in love with the problem.” And if you don’t love it, don’t do it.

A social enterprise also has to be able to demonstrate its ability to impact the world. Lucky Iron Fish had real, tangible benefits to offer the Cambodian government and its citizens. What does your idea offer in a world crowded with thousands of smart people offering similarly-good ideas? These questions are critical when it comes to raising funds, whether you’re bootstrapping, crowdfunding, hunting for grants or getting creative in other sectors. You have to know what you offer to the person from whom you’re asking the money.

Nobody said it would be easy, but the audience left the auditorium energized—excited by the potential of this messy middle space where sustainable businesses can be built to solve tough problems.

Watch excerpts of the E101 lecture

Did you miss E101 this week? You can still catch highlights from Allyson’s presentation. Check out the videos below.

Understanding Different Types of Entrepreneurship

Exploring Different Business Models and the Sharing Economy

Forms and Sources of Financing

Entrepreneurship 101 course resources

And search “Entrepreneurship 101” on iTunes U.