Setting up a social enterprise - the first 6 months

Despite having advised or consulted to many a social enterprise and start-up over the years, there is nothing like the real experience of starting your own.

Despite having advised or consulted to many a social enterprise and start-up over the years, there is nothing like the real experience of starting your own.

Here are some of my learnings while setting up our social enterprise, Young Change Agents.

Finding the right Co-Founder is like winning the lottery and you should treat it as such. In my case, my Co-Founder Jonathan Srikanthan and I met at a social enterprise networking event so it was really a twist of fate that 1) we met at all 2) that in such a short period we connected over the idea of helping youth see problems as opportunities. One thing we decided on early on was that everyone who works for Young Change Agents is in a sales role. If we are to be a social enterprise, then we need to always be talking to potential customers, listening to their feedback and pivoting our solution as we need to. We also agreed to get over any disagreements quickly. Of course, not everything is smooth sailing but if you are not in it together then why would anyone else want to be part of what you are creating. For me, finding a Co-Founder was the first step in validating the idea.  And on that note:

Validation is everything. In our programs we talk about that concept of “moving from fantasy to reality”. Your idea is worth nothing if people aren’t interested in it.  For our schools-based product, for example, we initially talked to a Director of NSW Public Schools, some principals, teachers and even received positive feedback from the newly established NSW DET Futures Unit. For our youth-focused organisations we spoke to our contacts at various well-known NFPs including the Australian Red Cross, Muslim Women’s Association, Cerebral Palsy Alliance and Youth off the Streets. Overall we have had great constructive feedback, especially around the levels of the students/youth, the format of our content, and how to better involve teachers and youth workers from a train-the-trainer perspective. For example, for primary schools we worked our program from a 3-day block into a 10 week program that fit the timetable. Soon we will be sending out wider surveys using SurveyMonkey (which we also encourage the youth to use for their validation!).

Pilots are a golden opportunity. We decided early on that our aim was to pilot the Young Change Agents program in two schools and with two youth-focussed NFP groups. The catch was that they all needed to be “paid pilots”. We felt that a free pilot did not prove to us that our service was valuable enough to be sustainable unless someone was willing to pay for it. We are currently running our third paid pilot (with the fourth starting next week) and treat each of these as a co-development model with our clients. This means that are they clear on the fact it is a pilot and help us by providing feedback and ideas. There have been times during the pilot where we have had to stop and say, “this isn’t working as we thought. Let’s try it this way”. This means as we scale we have the best model moving forward. We have also found that our co-development clients are also keen to help us promote the program by giving us access to photos and stories to use in our social media accounts.

Getting the admin and marketing organised efficiently and quickly. As part-time co-founders, we’ve had to get better at working smarter and efficiently.. quickly. We also know that embedding the right processes and tools from the outset will make it easier as we scale. Access to free or low cost technology has been a fantastic enabler, from collaboration software (to help us work remotely, documenting processes), through to using Google Apps for our calendar and emails. For our website, we decided to keep cost down and do this ourselves , using  a product I was already familiar with – Nationbuilder. It means we can manage our website, use CRM tools, sign up volunteers and manage events/bookings down the track. You can now also find us on facebook, twitter (@ychangeagents) and of course here on LinkedIn.

Be careful with your money. There was a moment last week when I was boarding a bus for a Young Change Agents program, juggling a number of boxes and suitcases full of program material, and I thought, “why am I not getting a taxi?”. You have to really value your money in a start-up, as it doesn’t come easily and there are so many costs to take on. Our biggest expenses to date have been our logo (which we ran a design for on 99 Designs), our t-shirts we wear when presenting and our printing/stationery needed to run our programs. As an aside we try and spend with social enterprises where we can. Both our printing company (Kwik Copy in Surry Hills) and our t-shirt makers (Dorsu in Cambodia) are social enterprises. We also buy any thank you gifts from local social enterprises Thank you Group and Table of Plenty. Our next big expense will be our next video which will showcase one of our pilot programs. As an organisation passionate about the young people, for this we will be using up-and-coming young film makers.

Don’t risk everything. I have often watched the TV show “Shark Tank” where they have questioned the full commitment of the founders if they have a part-time job. Well, for me it is a smart choice to keep some income coming in for the very early days of a new venture. It also provides an outlet so you don’t think constantly about your start-up! Of course it’s a personal choice, but it would be much more stressful for me not to be able to pay my rent than it is to work a couple of days a week doing something other than my own thing. It also gives you perspective and the chance to meet different people and learn new skills. This works for me because I am more efficient when I have less time to do something. So if I know I only have 3 days a week then I get it done in 3 days. I would be lying though if I said a start-up doesn’t mean working evenings and weekends, because it does. And that’s okay because for me – Young Change Agents isn’t a job.

Plan for growth and scale. Our vision is that Young Change Agents is an affordable and accessible program to all youth, which is why scale is key for us. From very early on the aim has been to get all our content ready to move online. The program itself is very hands-on and practical - it’s not about getting youth to sit in front of a computer. It aims to build the capacity of youth workers, teachers and corporate mentors to promote and facilitate the program. Our digital learning and communication platform will include gamified learning, mentor guides, videos and forums. It will also allow the facilitators to engage directly with Young Change Agents. To achieve this vision, we need to get partners on board and are in the process of talking to a number of interested partners about their involvement. If you are interested in helping create a generation of change agents, please get in touch. Our focus is on shared value and maximising social return on investment. You can drop me a note at

I look forward to sharing more of the next 6 months! For now, back to work.

Volunteer Spread the word