How Do You Develop a Social Impact Business Idea?

Once in a while, someone will come up with a great business idea in their bedroom. But often, bedroom inspirations run into the same problems as armchair philosophies – they don’t work when they hit the real world. Where do great business ideas usually come from?  From talking to the right people, finding a problem your passionate about, and learning about all aspects of the problem. If you’ve got that as a starting point, the idea will be the easy part.

How do you not develop a business idea?

For a long time, I thought it meant to grab a cup of coffee, your notebook and a quiet corner, brainstorm ideas, and then look for ideas that intersect with your interests and skills. 

Sure, that may be a starting point, but it’s pretty much the same as throwing 100 darts at the wall while wearing a blindfold. You’re probably not even facing the right wall.

Sometimes people start by asking themselves what problems they have in their lives and then ruminate on new ways they might solve them. That’s a slightly better approach. They’re thinking about solving a problem… and the chance is that if you have the problem, someone else will too. And if it’s a problem you’d pay to solve, maybe other people would pay too.

But, you’re still in a vacuum. If everyone in the world was exactly like you, you might be super successful with your solution. (Hint: they’re not.)

Get Out There

The best way to develop business ideas is to get out and talk to people. Get out of your bubble. Volunteer. Attend hack-a-thons. Look for startup entrepreneurship communities. Participate.  Get a feel for what works and what doesn’t.

When you’re talking to people, you’ll start understanding some of the issues that are facing your community. There are plenty. I am passionate about social entrepreneurship, so I’d nudge you to go and explore homelessness in your community, what human trafficking looks like in your area, what support exists for autism or other mental illness… and what support is lacking.

My suggestion is to find a cause that you’re passionate about. By passionate, I mean, you care about it. And if you’re passionate about everything, that’s great, but just pick one. Learn about it. Educate yourself about what’s being done. Call up the people who are working on projects to tackle the issue, and invite them out to coffee. Chances are that they’re passionate about it too.

Seeking your passion?  Start scratching!

I was always envious of people who knew their passion in life.  For a long time, I wondered why they had it and I didn’t.

I kept searching for meaning… meaning in my job, meaning in my relationships, meaning in being alive.  I’ve long had a nagging feeling that being just a technology professional wasn’t my inner calling.  It’s something I’m good at, and a great outlet for my love of figuring out complex puzzles.  But for a long time, I had an itch to do “something bigger”, without any idea what that “something bigger” might be.

The first step was to start scratching.  I started by following my interests.  I’d choose one and ask:  what about it made me curious?  What was interesting about it?  First, I started building a computer game.  Then, I started a travel blog to pull in my love for travel, people, and photography.  That led me back to realizing that I cared about social change… and that’s when I started this podcast.

From caring to connecting to collaborating

To be honest, the podcast was a gamechanger for me.

It’s a lot of work, but I was going out and interviewing awesome people doing awesome things.  It sparked my imagination and filled me up.  It was these new ideas from other people that provided the initial inspiration for Wild Tiger Tees.

Here’s how the miracle of idea generation started. I talked to a colleague about my podcast, and he put me in touch with Emily Savors, who manages the social entrepreneurship grants over at the Columbus Foundation. She put me in touch with some great people to interview for my podcast, one of whom was Ann Bischoff, CEO of the Star House – a drop-in center for youth experiencing homelessness. Something about her story struck me. It got in my head. But as I continued listening to podcasts, and talking to people, ideas started swirling. I had been to Startup Weekend many times, and wanted to check out this social-entrepreneurship-focused GiveBackHack… which is how we launched Wild Tiger Tees.

Here’s the thing: I already understood (to some degree) the problem I was trying to solve. I knew what some of the constraints were. I knew who the local players were. I knew what had been tried. I knew people who were passionate about this topic. So I bounced my idea off others and refined it. I took it to GiveBackHack, and found a team of people passionate about the same thing. And today we’re employing youth experiencing homelessness through our t-shirt printing social enterprise, Wild Tiger Tees.

In retrospect, I can see that connecting with individuals you find interesting, and listening to their stories, is one of the best ways to find your own inspiration.

If you’re starting a venture, see if you can find someone who started a similar venture.  If you’re both making a social impact, chances are they’ll share everything they can with you… because if you succeed, then they’ve just helped make the world a better place.

Make it bigger than yourself

I realize now that, for me to find something inspiring, it has to be bigger than myself.  When it was just about “my job” or “my career”, it never had much weight.  I’m pretty small; what happens to me is pretty insignificant, outside the realm of the stories I tell myself.  But as I started looking at a purpose larger than myself and wondering how I could make an impact, suddenly the inspiration started flowing.

Where did the idea for Wild Tiger Tees ultimately coming from?  From talking to the right people, finding a problem I’m passionate about, and learning about all aspects of the problem. Knowing that the idea was the easy part.

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