For the past 3 months I have been actively on the lookout for a technical partner
to join SoJo. I started this process highly optimistic; thinking that through my networks I would identify the right person. SoJo is an exciting organization to get involved with: not only do we have a huge world-shaking vision, but a successful Beta launch and associate press coverage [should in theory] give assurance to someone joining the team that we're already on a trajectory for success. The product has been validated, yet everyone on the team still can make their mark on defining and building the product.
I started with the approach of putting out feelers to my professional network. It is a well-known fact that the best people come through referrals. After the first round of feelers, I eagerly met with the handful of interested candidates. Going into this process, an advisor told me that I need to "sell" the candidate on SoJo just as much as they needed to make a good impression on me. So I was 'on'
Nothing really materialized after the first round of applications. Using social media and job boards, I broadly posted the job description. I was hopeful to find someone suitable who is outside of my immediate network. Being part of a tech start-up is the "thing" these days. So I was extra critical for "fit." If someone did not understand our vision, it would be a disaster to make them in charge of technically implementing it. There was one candidate in particular who had rockstar technical skills. My gut had hesitation of inviting him to join, as I felt the need to 'buffer' him from the rest of our team. Being the most promising candidate of everyone that I spoke with, I was almost ready to accept him onto the team -- but thankfully an adivsor/partner pointed out that I was making the decision for the wrong reasons (just to get it done, vs having the right person).
At the beginning of the year, I set a goal for myself to bring the content site out of Beta by the end of Q2 (June 2012). I did not think this would be a challenge, as I set out to recruit a technical partner in January. The plan all along was to use this next product launch as a probationary testing ground. If the candidate can successfully lead the product launch (which is a relatively contained project), then they have the skills needed to handle the more ambiguous stuff.
With no technical product lead in sight, and with the looming goal of launching the site out of Beta in a few weeks, I needed to change course.
Through networks and job boards, I put out a posting for a paid freelance web developer. Contracting a freelance developer was the last-case scenario, as I did not like the idea of being constrained with a static list of requirements and the solution is not sustainable for our iterative approach to product development. The beta site was a bottleneck to moving SoJo forward, and so this was the chosen course given our constraints.
I set a budget and created a detailed list of requirements. Each interview lasted on average 2 hours; gauging the individual, their attitude, skills and fit for this project. I do not have a technical background, so I found it particularly exhausting going into technical details again and again. Nearly 100+ hours into this recruitment process over the past 3 months, I am completely drained: emotionally and physically.
I am starting to doubt and lose hope for two reasons: Firstly, am I doing this right? Should it take this long and this much energy to find someone? Maybe it is time to change my approach altogether. If technical recruitment is as difficult as everyone says, then will
SoJo be able to find a technical partner... A scary reality to accept and one that really worries me.
In the meantime, the show must still go on...
The two most commonly asked questions SoJo gets are :
1) How do you make money / what is your business model?
2) What are you / what is your legal structure?
Our business model is constantly evolving, however I can finally announce our legal structure :
a Hybrid Social Venture. What does this mean?
SoJo (http://theSoJo.net) is being created and delivered jointly by two different entities: SoJo Ventures Inc. and SoJo Education.
In Canada there is no legal structure that recognizes a social enterprise. You are either a for-profit or non-profit. There are advantages and limitations to each legal structure. When it was time to formally incorporate SoJo, open a bank account and have a legal framework to build its product, we deliberated long and hard between a for-profit and non-profit structure. Decision to go for-profit
A year ago, SoJo Ventures Inc. was incorporated as a for-profit corporation in Canada, assuming that it could develop and deliver SoJo's online learning tool and community of social innovators as a for-profit. Our rationale at the time for pursuing a for-profit legal structure over a non-profit included:
- Set a precedent: We want to be trail blazers by showing our community that it is possible to create a financially sustainable venture that delivers on profit and mission. With the shrinking pool of resources available to non-profits, we want to lead by example in demonstrating that there is another way of satisfying mission, while sustaining your costs.
- Protect the Intellectual Property and technology developed: For-profits have fewer restrictions on how assets get allocated and used.
-Access to research grants and funding available to corporations for developing new technologies and innovations.
-Fewer restrictions on how we can raise capital, spend our resources and conduct business operations.
-Be respected as a legitimate member within the technology community: almost all technologies are developed under for-profits, and we did not want any biases imposed on us by the tech community if we were not a for-profit entity.
Unfortunately over the past few months SoJo experienced significant limitations with the for-profit legal status, where we faced unnecessary obstacles and were forced to turn down some opportunities as a result of formalities. There have been instances where organizations and individuals were excited about SoJo and eager to work with us, however upon learning about our legal status, the conversations quickly changed. Somehow, everyone assumed SoJo was a non-profit, and when told otherwise, people grew suspicious about supposed ulterior motives. I didn't realize that taking the 'high road' and delivering a service which was traditionally delivered by a non-profit, as a for-profit would receive so much backlash. Almost all of the organizations we work with are non-profits, and some did not understand why a for-profit is the one bringing everyone together. Based on my interactions with other individuals in the sector, there still exists a lot of misunderstanding and stigma towards mission-driven for-profit corporations. SoJo's vision is ambitious enough. Does it make sense for us to go up additional uphill battles for reasons of "morals" and "precedents"? Decision to go non-profit
Every conversation that forced me to question my decision of our legal structure was an additional drop in the bucket. The bucket tipped when a significant partner made it very clear that they could not work with SoJo under its for-profit legal structure, as it is written in their mandate that they cannot support for-profit corporations. This partnership will give us a boost in credibility, build our community, and give us access to several valuable networks. I could not justify letting this partnership go, therefore exactly one year later, I went through the process of incorporating SoJo Education, a non-profit organization. Why create two legal structures?
Yes, SoJo will be delivered jointly by a for-profit corporation and non-profit. I am very well aware of the redundancy that exists with having to maintain two organizations, two bank accounts and two separate governance structures, however we were really left with no other option. Until Canadian legislation catches up with evolving needs of the Social Enterprise sector, many people such as myself will be forced to be creative in order to deliver value to society today. This is not the perfect solution, however this dual-structure model best meets our needs today.
As far as I'm concerned, the hybrid legal structure will have little effect on SoJo’s end product. Our primary goal is to make SoJo a robust platform that is accessible to as many people as possible -- and we took the entrepreneurial approach of doing what was necessary to achieve this goal. Given that there is no legal recognition in Canada of a social enterprise, we decided to adopt an alternative arrangement: the hybrid social venture. This will allow us to reap the benefits of both legal structures. The Hybrid dispelled:"The hybrid uses a series of contracts and agreements to combine one or more independent businesses and nonprofits into a flexible structure that allows them to conduct a wide range of activities and generate synergies that cannot be done with a single legal entity. The guiding principles dictate the relationship between the corporation and nonprofit. The entities that generally make up a hybrid are distinct for legal purposes, and each is responsible for compliance with the laws and regulations that govern it, but when properly structured, the legally distinct entities can behave much like a single entity. The purpose of the contract hybrid is to create an ongoing, symbiotic relationship between a nonprofit and a for-profit to accomplish mission and business objectives on a long-term basis. It allows synergies that simply aren’t possible with the other models, because both the nonprofit and the business are free to pursue their activities in a way that is most likely to be successful within the legal, financial, and regulatory framework that applies to it, without being bogged down in the limitations and regulatory burdens of the other party. Yet they are tied together in a way that allows the whole structure to leverage the strengths of each organization.
Source: Adapted from Allen R. Bromberger's article
in the Stanford Social Innovation Revue How will SoJo's hybrid operate:
Each entity has their own purpose, and collaboratively they will deliver http://theSoJo.net. SoJo Ventures Inc.'s primary responsibility is to develop the technology and backend support needed to power SoJo. SoJo Education's primary responsibility is to make the content freely accessible, and build the community associated with SoJo.
Both entities will be linked by partnership agreements, created in accordance with a series of guidelines and policies, ensuring a legally sound and transparent relationship. You can view the guidelines here
In addition to the paperwork and administration costs associated with creating two legal entities, I expended an incredible amount of time researching possibilities, talking to experts and deliberating -- this process was incredibly tedious, and was a huge headache. SoJo's legal structure has been over a year-in-the-making. I wanted to wait until our documents were reviewed by lawyers, and that most of our internal controls were in place before publicly announcing our legal structure. SoJo is committed to being transparent with sharing our story, and hopefully this post helps you better understand the thinking that led to this important decision. Please share your thoughts, concerns, and questions. I may not have all the answers, but am open to the dialogue.
5 years ago I wanted to be a lawyer. After all the time spent reading dense legislations, including the Not-for-profit Act and Income Tax Act, researching options, and speaking with legal professionals, I am further reassured that not pursuing a career in Law was the right decision for me. Legal stuff is not written in an accessible format, and is subject to a great deal of interpretation. Further validated by this journey over the last year, SoJo is committed to publishing content on all of these topics in a friendlier way. Please be patient, as it will take time to gather this content, however rest assured that it is coming. Sources:Social enterprise in Canada : Structural optionsA New Type of Hybrid – Social Entrepreneurship + Business Equity via Stanford Social Innovation Revue
I'm excited to announce two new changes and refinements in SoJo's mandate and purpose. Since our launch, we've been known as an organization that supports youth to build social ventures. After careful deliberation, we've decided to drop youth and replace social ventures with social innovations. Iterations and refinements naturally happen over time, as the more you test your ideas in different contexts, the more you better understand how your idea fits in with your audience and the people who you seek to serve.
SoJo is building an intuitive and highly user-friendly tool to support individuals in their journeys of social change. We initially decided to focus on serving a younger audience for a variety of reasons: SoJo was inspired by academic research on young social entrepreneurship; our entire founding team was comprised of young people (and who best to serve a youth audience, then youth themselves); and there was a clear gap in resources that were written and delivered in a format friendly to a younger audience. Over the past four months I found myself consistently explaining SoJo as a tool suitable for a first-time user. Only recently did it become clear that there was no need to restrict SoJo exclusively to youth, when in reality we can serve a much larger audience.
Another more fundamental reason for dropping the "youth" label is to conserve the integrity of the social innovators we support. As with my personal experiences, I'm sure all of the members of our community would like to be recognized for the work that they do, rather than because they happen to belong to a certain group. We are extremely cautious of placing labels on our community members or the work we do, and as such would like more emphasis to be placed on the social impact created.
So what exactly is a social innovation? Academics and practitioners have been debating over the definition of Social Entrepreneurship and Social Innovation for the past few decades. In the spirit of being as inclusive as possible, we will adopt the broadest possible definition of social innovation:
A new idea (a venture, project, product, program) that addresses an unmet need or social challenge, and/or improves the overall welfare of people.
SoJo is presenting information clearly and in an easy to access format, and therefore should be available to all.
Ironically, refining our mandate is allowing us to support more people. SoJo's model hasn't changed, we've just changed the language of how we communicate our mandate -- which will allow us to serve a larger market.
Today I was asked to tell an editor at Canada's largest daily newspaper about SoJo. A great opportunity for coverage, I attempted to depict SoJo in 10 pictures and 6 words (no internet, no computer). See below.
SoJo has the ambitious goal of being the ubiquitous source of support for social innovators to take their ideas for social good into action, which includes revolutionizing the way in which online learning happens. In a world where we're told to use a slide-deck and bright shiny objects to sell our vision -- I opted for the basics: a whiteboard and a marker.
Over the past few months, I've consistently struggled to explain SoJo's vision, our solution and value-add, the status of our Beta and distinctions between those three elements. When talking about this challenge to a supporter, he in return asked me to draw out SoJo on a whiteboard. After a few attempts, I quickly realized there was no cohesion in how SoJo was explained and a great need to clarify and simplify our message. That same afternoon I hashed out what our whiteboard pitch looked like. It got tested with fellow SoJo team members, other entrepreneurs and staff in the Digital Media Zone (gotta love a collaborative workspace), however today the whiteboard pitch got its debut. My lack of confidence in my drawing abilities (I will work to improve my stick figures) was offset by my excitement to share SoJo's vision in a more interactive and engaging manner.
In my opinion, this pitch is effective for two reason: simple and interactive. We're all overloaded with information, so it is my intention that saying less will allow the audience to retain more. Secondly, by being able to draw SoJo's story in real-time, it keeps the audience engaged, allows me to control how the message gets perceived and hopefully store a mental image of this whiteboard in their head.
We'll see how successful the pitch was and if a follow-up call comes for a story. If not, it was great practice.
You may have noticed that our blog is less active than usual. Although there is very little tangible outputs to share, much of the past few weeks, I've spent a lot of time listening, reflecting, refining, and realigning. Many hours with markers on windows, whiteboards and blank pieces of paper led to revelations!
Some exciting developments to look forward to:
- Improved clarity on our vision and goals
- Exciting new ways of sharing our vision to a broader audience
- Shifts in our market and who we seek to serve
- Bold thoughts for shaking up the sector, by introducing radical new ways of operating
- Newly formed legal structure
- Product roadmap and anticipated timelines for v2 release of http://theSoJo.net
- New Partnerships and Collaborations that are currently in the works
- Refined business model
Instead of documenting and announcing all of these revelations as they came to mind, I've decided to let them percolate in my mind. Transparency is our top priority, and more blog posts documenting all the details will come shortly. Our journey is a moving target, where we constantly must refine and realign, as the path is always changing. I suppose that's what keeps things exciting.
On a related note, SoJo challenge of email-free Saturdays was highly successful for the month of March, as I'd like to think that an entire day of disconnection each week has provided the mental space to think, and reflect on some of the issues noted above. I've decided to continue this challenge indefinitely!
I hope this inspires you to enjoy and disconnect over the long weekend!
An invitation to keynote an event to a group of students and community of professionals interested in global leadership led me to Ottawa. After networking and meeting with people internationally in the UK and in the United States, a trip to Canada's national capital was well overdue. My meetings in Ottawa went very well, and resulted in new partnerships and collaborations for SoJo.
The only meeting without an "agenda" was a visit to the HUB Ottawa
. Part of the global Hub network, HUB Ottawa is a place-based member community and co-working space that offers a unique mix of infrastructure, programming and connections to help people kick-start, co-create and grow enterprising ideas for a better world.
Vinod, the Managing Director of HUB Ottawa is a good friend and in many ways our entrepreneurial journeys have been running in parallel. Always keenly interested in social innovation, Vinod was helpful in connecting me with research participants for my thesis which ultimately led to the creation of SoJo. While I was in the early stages of figuring out what Social Journal would look like, Vinod was percolating ideas of how to make Ottawa a city more welcoming for innovation, and had creative ideas for unconventional ways of getting youth to inform the policy-making process -- and so our journeys began. I started SoJo in Toronto and he set out to transition out of his job to work full-time on bringing the HUB to Ottawa. Despite being in different cities, working in different industries (physical infrastructure vs. virtual technology), and in different life phases (Vinod is married and has a mortgage), in many ways we could relate to each other and would periodically check-in on each other's journeys. We hashed out our shared frustrations around access to financing, the inefficiencies and redundancies that exist in the current social innovation landscape in Canada, used each other as sounding boards, shared updates on mini-successes and talked about the difficulties of letting go of team members.
The same weekend SoJo launched our public Beta, The HUB hosted their first open-house to invite future members to preview their new home. Having the opportunity to see the HUB Ottawa complete and witness Vinod interacting with the members of this community he was instrumental in creating was humbling and exciting. It was great to share in the success of this new venture, an idea which I had a chance to see develop every step of the way on the sidelines.
In many ways our two ventures are very different, however it was great to have a fellow entrepreneur-friend be with me along my journey. No venture is built alone, and both of us have great teams and advisors - however the entrepreneur, the individual who has invested all of themselves in their ventures, face a different set of pressures and challenges. Building a peer-support network of entrepreneurs going through a similar journey (at the same time as you) is very healthy, as they can relate to what you're going through, which allows you to speak open and candidly without fear of judgment. Another companion great to have during this roller-coaster of a journey.