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In their small but mighty corner of the greater tech sector, tech nonprofits prove that when ethically applied, tech can be our most powerful impact asset. If we can continue to apply the best tech to our biggest social problems, we will achieve unprecedented positive impact. Be warned: social entrepreneurship isn’t for the faint of heart. But with relentless dedication to your mission, paired with heeding the advice in the chapters to come, your journey is bound to be a rewarding one.

It starts with a big idea. You’ve identified a social problem you can’t help but try to fix, and you think you just might have a world-changing solution. You probably arrived at this moment because you experienced the problem personally, or have been close enough to the issue to deeply understand it.

But the idea is the easy part.

To make sure it’s sound, you must push yourself (hard) to question the why. When it comes to social entrepreneurship, the actual product and business model won’t matter unless the why is crystal clear.

Questions to Ask Yourself First

  • What problem are you trying to solve?
  • What impact will your solution have?
  • Is there a clear way to measure that impact?
  • Why are you the right person to solve this problem? 
  • What are your internal motivations?

Clarity on these questions will make it easier to figure out everything that comes later, and is absolutely critical to attracting talent, funding, and resources.

The thing about tech nonprofits is that they’re really hard. You take everything that’s tough about launching a tech startup and merge it with everything that’s hard about running a nonprofit. Yep, it’s that hard. But stick with us here.

The Social Entrepreneurship Timeline

Before you go down the path of social entrepreneurship, you need to be 100% certain you can commit to this for the long haul. Whether that means 7 years or 12 years, you must be dedicated to making significant progress towards your mission. While all entrepreneurs set out to solve hard problems, social problems are inherently harder. In fact, they may never be solved entirely. Change requires relentless passion.

Know When To Go All In

More often than not, tech nonprofit founders start their organization as a project on the side of their full-time job. While there’s no hard and fast rule on when it’s time to make your tech nonprofit your full-time job, most social entrepreneurs tend to make the big commitment as a result of the following:

At some point, if you wish to reach the potential for scale, you will have to work on this full time. We have yet to see a successful tech nonprofit that remained a side hustle. Solving big problems requires full-time attention.

Get to Know the Problem

You must be committed to the problem you’re solving, not the solution you’re building. See, unlike for-profit startups, which often start with a killer tech solution and work backwards to find the market that needs it, nonprofit startups begin with the problem: how do we fill the gap from market failure through a useful solution? If you’re a social entrepreneur starting a company for social good (hopefully it’s a tech nonprofit, but more on that later), your north star will always be your mission, your why. This means iterating until you find the solution that ultimately meets the needs of your end users.

The product you start out with may not be the best way to solve the problem. You should determine the product you’ll build based on the needs, habits, and location of your users. Bottom line: the right way to confirm if your idea is sound is to start by talking to your users, regardless of how half-baked your idea feels at the time. More on this in Chapter 2: User Research & User Testing.

Pro tip

It’s easy to fall into a trap of assumptions when you’re just getting started, but trust us, you’ll be best positioned for success if you spend the early days learning as much as you possibly can about the community you will serve.

How TalkingPoints Committed to the Problem, Not Solution

When she was getting started with TalkingPoints, founder Heejae Lim knew she wanted to create a product that enabled teachers to communicate with their students’ parents regardless of language barriers. In Heejae’s initial customer interviews, the teachers were mostly mono-lingual English speakers and communicated with parents from their desktop computers. Few of the parents spoke fluent English. Most didn’t have computers but were accessible on mobile phones. 

Heejae worked backwards and strapped together products like Twilio and Google Translate to make her two-way translation product a reality. See, she didn’t start out by building a fancy tech product. Rather, she determined where her users could be most easily reached and leveraged existing technologies to meet her users where they already were. 

Now, TalkingPoints is a successful way for families and teachers to communicate through multilingual communication.

While personal experience is core to a social entrepreneur’s why, how this experience translates to founding a social impact tech startup often falls into two camps:

  1. In the first camp, we see founders who have profound experience with the issue they’re solving. They’ve lived it and believe their personal experience is indicative of the product they should build. 
  2. In the second camp, we see founders on the outskirts of the issue but with a deep commitment to seeing the problem solved. Perhaps they experienced the problem through a close friend, family member, school research project, or work experience.

Prioritize finding a co-founder or early team member with strengths that complement yours; either the person has personal experience with the problem at hand or is a technical or business leader.

No matter your connection to the problem you’re trying to solve, don’t assume your users will want the exact product you have in mind. Talk to as many potential users as possible to determine how to match their needs with the right solution.

What does Fast Forward look for in a tech nonprofit? 

When vetting early stage tech nonprofits and founders for our Accelerator program, we scan for three organizational qualities that we think are indicators of future success:

Founder Product Potential for Impact
  • Hustle
  • Relentlessness
  • Deep understanding of the problem
  • Ability to articulate the problem and solution
  • Is this the right solution to the problem?
  • Is the solution unique? 
  • Will it scale?
  • What’s the “addressable market” your product could reach if successful?
  • How much better off will the world be when you’re successful?

Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing

Throughout the journey of social entrepreneurship, you’ll be faced with countless distractions. Focus is key. Or as educator Stephen Covey says, “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” This means saying “no” more often than you might like to. Right now, the main thing is making sure your idea is sound. 

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