This is Part 1of a multi-part series of SoJo's journey of seeking the funding needed to scale its operations and bring it to a point of financial self-sustainability.
Up until now funding has not been an issue for SoJo, as the focus has been on proving the value of our product and the need that SoJo is filling in the market. I believed and continue to believe that if you deliver a valuable service or product, then there will be the resources or market to support that product. Rather than focus our time on securing funds, we were busy building, serving our community and validating the consumer-facing product.
SoJo's product has been validated many times over. With an endorsement from the Canadian Commission for UNESCO as a leading educational platform, an active community of over 2,000 individuals without marketing or outreach efforts, and over 65,000 pages viewed online, and incredible press coverage around the world, it’s safe to say a resource like SoJo is needed by early-stage social innovators.
Over the past 2 years, I've been monitoring the resources and funding options that are available, as I knew we'd eventually need to tap into them and also feed onto our platform. Here is a highly simplified overview of the funding landscape in Canada:
· A not-for-profit with a proven track record of managing funds or a charitable organization that has been through the hoops of receiving CRA charitable status and delivered on projects already are normally eligible for non-refundable grant money from private foundations or government agencies.
· Traditional for-profit organizations with a proven business model, built prototype and validated proof of concept and normally eligible for debt or equity financing to scale growth or build out the product further.
· The most common form of support comes from friends and family of the founders who invest in the founder and their ideas, because they want to support the individual or believe in their ideas.
SoJo is an early-stage social innovation project and when speaking with my peers we all share the same rant: there's big talk, but early-stage social innovation financing is virtually non-existent in Canada
. Yes, there are many competitions and awards (which dominate the airwaves leading us to believe that this funding exists). However, the probability of getting them is less than 1%, based on the ever-growing demand for these funds and often allocated based on the bias of the grantors. SoJo was a semi-finalist in the one of the largest awards for social entrepreneurs and we gave it our all -- but were unsuccessful. Grants route:
Innovation by definition is the act of making what already exists better or starting something new
. Although "social innovation" funds are starting to pop up among foundations, applicants must still be either a registered charity or have a proven track record of financial management to show accountability. Although I understand the funding constraints found within these organizations, I will be honest when I say it's contradictory (and counter-intuitive) to demand applicants fit into traditional organizational structures, when innovation is all about starting something new. With no charitable number and only a few dollars in our bank account, this makes us ineligible for many of the opportunities available. We've since built strong relationships with some of the larger funding agencies and I will continue to explore and create opportunities. Umbrella organizations exist to support innovative projects, acting as a financial and legal fiduciary but they take a 10% overhead charge on all incoming funds (which is a lot of money for a tiny nimble organization such as ours) and only work with unincorporated projects - further making SoJo ineligible.
SoJo is still eligible for traditional non-refundable grants if we find our own fiduciary sponsor. SoJo partners with over 50 nonprofits and charities. I personally reached out to everyone who is eligible and not a single organization was able to help us out. Either they are applying to the same funds themselves or their Boards are not comfortable assuming the risk that comes with the added legal responsibilities. Conversations come to a dead-end, and I end up feeling like I'm 'begging', when I know that SoJo has nothing but value to add. I've spent nearly 2 months seeking out a fiduciary sponsor and have since realized it’s no longer worth my time to actively pursue this route. Equity investments:
SoJo has a brilliant vision for its revenue model, and it will come from its B2B Whitelabel product. This product has been anecdotally validated by various HR professionals and staff from prospective clients. However, rule #1 of business is that until you have a paying customer, your product has not been validated
. Without a validation, it’s difficult to seek mainstream debt and equity funding.
This B2B product will create a market that does not yet exist. SoJo has no competitors right now on its public-facing site, and our market research shows that there are no competitors in the B2B market that SoJo will create. The price of this product can only be dictated by the market. With a market that does not yet exist, the return on investment is so speculative at this point it won't be even worth anyone's time to discuss those numbers or create a business plan. The plan is to get our pilot customer to share in the development costs, serving as validation, which will allow us to seek the appropriate funds (or generate our own revenue) to build out this product. Until then, equity or "impact investing" types of funding are not an option for SoJo.
In the interim, I've been advised to take the time to create a competitive analysis for this product which can help convince prospective investors of the potential that lies in this market; however it’s still going to be long stretch. SoJo has since hired a Business Development intern who will help with these activities.
Although the B2B has great potential, from our strategic planning emerged the importance of focusing on the consumer-facing (B2C) product. With B2B on hold for the next year, these funding options seem ever distant. Friends and family:
Between the volunteer hours, in-kind support from partners and financial investments from the founding members (and our families) over 13,000 hours and $500,000 have already been invested into SoJo. Albeit most of this money is in-kind, it does not dismiss the significance of the investment and risk already taken by those involved in SoJo. It’s fair to say, we've exhausted friends and family and this is no longer an option.
Why does SoJo need money?
As alluded to in my previous blog post
, a part-time unpaid team cannot fuel the growth that is needed to make SoJo the universal ubiquitous resource for early-stage social innovators. We have taken this as far as we could without external support, and have come very far may I add; however, we are quickly running out of steam. SoJo needs money so it can build http://theSoJo.net
to the point where it can sustain itself (aka bridge funding).
I've read enough reports and heard enough people talking about the importance of supporting social innovation. Social innovation starts somewhere, and for those of us in the trenches, in our early stages and without all of the answers, the outlook does not look bright.
SoJo's vision is to be the
starting point, to provide social innovators with the knowledge and emotional support needed to get started and stay motivated in the early days of their journey of creating positive social impact. With a world of ever-increasing social, environmental and political challenges, no one will deny the importance of getting more people and fresh minds involved in building and acting on creative solutions to these challenges. For social innovation to thrive, all of us in the ecosystem need to provide more support to the early-stagers. SoJo is doing its part through education and emotional support, however its time for the rest of the ecosystem to step up and invest in early-stage social innovation. Otherwise this thriving ecosystem will continue to leave brilliant ideas and incredible potential to the curbside; a shame, especially when I know the resources exist. As I navigate through the challenges and frustrations of seeking bridge funding to bring SoJo to the point where it can be financially self-sustaining, I plan to candidly document this journey on http://SocialJournal.net, with the goal of welcoming more suggestions and the hopes of attracting more attention to this important, but overlooked issue.
Written by Zainab Habib. Editorial Coordinator at SoJo. Follow Zainab online @zainabhsays
Yesterday, I tweeted “About to do my first pitch ever for @The_SoJo at the @RyersonDMZ within the next hour. Exciting and nervous. All at once.”
This captured exactly what I felt at that moment, knowing that
a) I did not have enough time to prepare;
b) I found out three hours before that the pitch was moved up a day earlier than planned; and
c) though I have many gifts, marketing is certainly not one of them.
Yesterday for the first time, I pitched on behalf of SoJo. I had a script and practiced, but it didn’t necessarily turn out that way. I felt as though the first half of my pitch was unnatural as I had to read some of the material so that I did not miss anything (I still missed a few points) and I delivered it standing at my desk where I felt unnatural, posed and formal. The demo, or walkthrough of http://theSoJo.net was much more relaxed as we were seated and I was using more of my own language. Although I was super uneasy immediately after I completed that first pitch, the response I received was fantastic. The guest of honour tweeted his thanks to SoJo and another emailed me stating that they were all very impressed with what we were doing as an organization.
We are often our worst critics. Somewhere in between the pitch and the demo, I realized I had to just do this as myself. That is often the simplest solution when trying to represent our initiatives or organizations. Trying to morph ourselves into an ideal of any kind, like the great salesman, just doesn’t work. People can sense the fake, and investors and key stakeholders are people too.
I’ll also add that people, not products or services, take action and create social impact; and when your product or service is really great, it will be able to speak for itself. Your role is to simply convey that your conviction and belief in your work in a way that keeps others engaged. This will take some time and practice, but I assure you that it will come effortlessly at some point, just as I found my pace once I did the demo in a way that came more naturally to me.
My lesson learned: you have to play upon your own people skills, whatever they may be. Your pitch then will simply be an extension of you and your project.
"The future of technology is what you make it"
Those were the words of Nathan Masyuko, when speaking on stage at the World Congress of Information Technology (WCIT) yesterday in Montréal in front of thousands of the worlds leading business leaders and thinkers in information technology. Next to him was the president of one of Canada's largest telecommunications companies who so eloquently said that he wishes to put more (dumb TV shows - name omitted for obvious reasons) into the hands of more people.
It was quite a contrast. I've been to a handful of technology conferences over the past 2 years and spoken at many over this past year. I'm accustomed to hearing the latter statement. The themes at tech conferences are fairly predictable: big data, attracting talent, connectivity, etc... I had yet to attend a panel or hear a keynote focused exclusively on how to use technology and the data at our disposal to channel creative talent and energy to better connect and support people in addressing some of the world’s greatest challenges. Or better yet, hear every speaker and exhibitor talking about that.
The World Summit Youth Awards (WSYA) is an annual international competition for digital and social innovators under 30, and was held in parallel to WCIT this year in Montréal. Over a thousand youth who have built an innovative idea using technology to address the UN's Millennium Development Goals applied to this award. The winners were invited to a 3-day event, which I felt privileged and honoured to be apart of.
I had the opportunity to play with haki, a mobile game built for a Nokia phone (the most widespread device in Africa) that educates its users on environmental degradation. Nathan, a Kenyan, co-developed this game and it’s been downloaded by thousands of people in the developing world. Beyond mobile games, there were online localized educational platforms, multimedia applications to build self-esteem among vulnerable populations, SMS services to deliver relevant information to farmers to help them yield better crops, a web-application that displays public finances in a more user-friendly manner to provide open access to data, and a tool that keeps Presidents in newly democratic countries accountable.
I walked away from the past three days inspired and energized. Inspired by the incredible stories of the WSYA winners, the creativity of their projects and exciting use of technology to solve some of the worlds most pressing challenges; and energized by the sheer enthusiasm and passion that I saw around me. This was no boring tech conference with people in suits talking in buzz words; I was surrounded by energy, passion and brains.
I've always been hopeful about the future, but I'm now more reassured that the future of technology is brighter than ever. The WSYA winners are living proof that it’s possible to make tremendous impact with an idea, an incredible amount of tenacity, and of course, technology as the vehicle.
I'm delighted to announce that SoJo will be working with these incredible individuals and projects to bring them to the next level.
Collectively, I've spent more hours on MS Powerpoint this past week then I probably have over the past couple of months combined.
In school I absolutely hated slideshows, perhaps its because professors had the most un-engaging presentations or because whenever I saw someone use slides in a presentation, it felt overly corporate and impersonal. Unless absolutely mandatory, I often refrained from using this tool when making presentations. Even when defending my Master's Thesis (the research that inspired the creation of SoJo) I didn't use slides.
When delivering presentations on SoJo or hosting workshops on Ideas - into - Action, I've only recently started to use slides -- that too with stickmen and cartoons. In the countless meetings held over the past 2 years, I never used slides to explain SoJo either. I like to believe I'm a much more engaging presenter than a static slide, and as such preferred to lead more free-flow conversations. Now that SoJo is actively looking for money and soliciting the support of other people to help us in this quest -- I don't have the luxury of personal contact with everyone on their initial introduction to SoJo. As such have been creating overview/backgrounder documents to do the talking on my behalf.
Despite my reluctance to embrace Powerpoint in the past, I quickly started to love using this tool. I'm particularly appreciative of the flexibility and ease of moving around boxes and different types of content make my documents look more visually appealing.
Although I now have a newfound appreciation for slides as an effective form of communication, I still don't think a slide deck can ever replace a real conversation. Slides can serve as a great complementary support, as they allow the audience to visually capture key takeaway ponits, but should never be the focus. I already shared my first deck to a couple of people and hope to use a different one with the handful of meetings scheduled next week. Let's see if I'm able to use the deck effectively, or if I refer back to my comfort zone and lead a more free-form conversation...
Excerpt from SoJo's latest overview slide deck
Almost all of my greatest insights have come to me during the weekends. Not being connected to my inbox
and daily operations of work definitely helps to take step back and reflect. I suffered from a burnout
in September and October has felt like an off month all around. Over lunch with my brother on Saturday, I told him that I was concerned with how much SoJo feels like its taking over my life; and my inability to control my schedule (as evidenced by working on 12 hour days when I set a goal for myself to NOT work around the clock
). Only when I said this fear out loud was I compelled to actually make some changes.
Solution: find the root cause of these persistent feelings of being stretched. I was instructed to list out all of the activities (whole projects, not tasks) that myself and the team worked on over the past week. Despite having only 4 days in the week, I effortlessly listed over 30 ongoing activities; myself being directly involved in about 25 of them and solely responsible for 10. Its not that I have trouble delegating ( the team at SoJo will be quick to acknowledge my comfort with letting go and giving responsibilities to the team). Being the only person that understands all moving parts of the organization and the vision, I'm often called up for input to keep everyone on track. SoJo is a flat organization, and building in reporting structures has been difficult because most of our senior team members barely have the capacity to deal with what's on their plate, let alone manage and provide necessary support to other colleagues. Strategic planning
has dragged out over 2 months and no clear changes have emerged.
SoJo grew incredibly fast and as such the scope and depth of the work at hand has grown exponentially. The problem is, our team hasn't grown at the same pace -- in fact, it has shrunk. Most of our team members came together
only in the Spring, they had a lot of time to devote to SoJo and were fresh on energy. Fall is always the busiest time of the year, irrespective of where you work. 15 hours of commitment per week over the past 6-8 months has since shrunk to 5 hours. I'm extremely grateful to have product lead Jesse full-time with SoJo, but its not enough. Some of our team members are burnt-out from having to manage SoJo and other personal activities and have been forced to take a step back. A lot of the momentum from the summer quickly fizzled away in the Fall, as everyone's other schedules ramped up.
Making myself personally available to 10+ team member's part-time, fluctuating schedules has taken a toll on my personal health and wellbeing. I no longer have evenings, as I make myself available to people's consistently changing schedules our team members who can only come into the office after their day job finishes. To top it off, there is little consistency as SoJo is understandably not the top priority (so it is common for people to fall off the grid for weeks and I am left with no choice but to understand). These inconsistencies get me frustrated and the bottlenecks that occur as a result affect the momentum of the entire team.
All this to say that these are the trade-off with working with an a part-time unpaid team. I will say with full confidence that SoJo has an exceptional team
which led us to all of SoJo's successes thus far, but in its current form will be unable to sustain the inevitable growth that has already hit us. I'm actively finding solutions to our staffing challenges (finding money needed to bring on some of our team members full-time), however in the interim need to make some changes and trade-offs.
Some of these changes include:
- Reducing the scope of activities the team is actively involved in and fine-tuning our focus even more
- Prioritizing need areas and tackling them one-by-one (rather than all at once)
- Un-flattening the organization to get me less involved in activities that I do not need to be involved with, so I can focus my energies on driving the vision forward
The changes noted above are going to be difficult as everything feels equally important. The Forbes article
from this month nailed it: "Kanika and her start-up have a compelling story and have received plenty of media attention. It is to be seen how SoJo can up the momentum, increase users, net-in some big-name partners and take its awesomeness places. What SoJo needs now is this: Focusing on the product, leveraging relationships and creating new ones, building tangible results including right media coverage, and forming a right-spirited and a serious advisory board. Kanika’s leadership and the ability to learn and adapt is the make or break factor here."
With growth comes change. Change is never easy, but I'm thankful that I've started to recognize the need to learn and adapt now, and not when its too late.
Last night I had a great call with Trevor, SoJo's community builder. Trevor joined SoJo when it was just an idea and has been instrumental in bringing this vision to reality. Trevor's been primarily responsible for setting up our social media presence, coordinating feedback and engaging with SoJo's growing community. Having been through the trials and tribulations of defining SoJo, dealing with the setbacks and deeply involved in all of our previous product launches, Trevor has been pivotal to our successes thus far. I was just informed last night that Trevor will be going on an extended escapade throughout Asia for the next couple of months, leaving in 2 weeks. I was forewarned that this trip was on the horizon, however details only started to firm up this week. I honestly did not expect it to come so soon, and the end of the month feels like it's just around the corner.
I am going to assume that Trevor will be off the grid as he will be travelling in remote rural areas, but also focused on this new chapter of his life. I'm thrilled that he is seizing this phenomenal opportunity, but also mindful of the void that will exist within SoJo's team.
What does this mean for SoJo?
We have 2 weeks to transition all of Trevor's responsibilities to an already stretched team. Social Media engagement, Newsletter Editor, Front-line contact with users, and feedback management. Beyond the actual manpower (and losing a very smart and competent team member), I'm a little nervous about losing all the institutional memory and insights that are in his head. Trevor holds a very unique perspective and it is through brainstorming activities and ideation sessions do those insights emerge to help to shape our strategy and future directions.
This will be the first time SoJo goes through a major transition/turnover of a key team member. It doesn't help that I'll be virtually inaccessible over the last week of October on the road, speaking at various conferences and venues across 4 cities. Or that Steph, our Communications coordinator who will oversee the transition will be in Australia for a 2-week work trip at the beginning of November. Regardless, SoJo has a solid team and I'm optimistic that this process will be as smooth as it can be.
Transitions are inevitable and I'm looking forward to all the learning that will take place during this critical period.
I gladly welcome any advice you have on navigating through this process.
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Who is Murphy anyways? What did he do to be forever immortalized as the thing and/or person that countless people curse at, on a regular basis?
Our beloved Product Lead Jesse is on a vacation in Europe for the next 2 weeks. He handed off the SoJo in working condition, yet surely enough if something were to go wrong, it would go wrong while he is away and inaccessible. I found too many unpleasant surprises this morning, that I stopped counting. I'm not in total shock, as Friday afternoon we experienced some problems and SoJo's been having issues for the past couple of months with its theme, further making me convinced that there is a ghost manipulating our website. Jesse has been incredible at consistently fixing these problems in such a timely manner -- its easy to feel helpless and lost in this dire time of need.
Your patience and tolerance is requested for the following reasons:
If the SoJo site takes a little longer to load
If some pages on SoJo look a little off
If you stumble across a broken link (we have over 60 of them)
Rest assured that myself and our team is trying our best to point out the issues and are actively troubleshooting accordingly.
My ability to stay calm in stressful situations has been tested multiple times. It is painful to have such obvious errors appear on a public site, and I'm trying my best to keep my cool. I hope to not jynx myself, however know that things could be much worse and am thankful that SoJo is working at 80% functionality right now.
Thanks for your understanding. I wonder if Murphy is secretly a brilliant person who has been trying to teach us a lesson all along... problems are inevitable, the true test is our ability to rationally deal through them?
Last week SoJo welcomed two high school co-op students to join the team for one semester. The Toronto District School Board has a co-operative education program, where high school students are given coursework credits for a placement in a job that is aligned with their future career aspirations. A handful of the SoJo team members did high school co-op over a decade ago and remember this being a great opportunity.
On the advice of one of our crowd-sourced CTOs
, we reached out to the School Board to help fill some of our staffing needs. Timing was opportune, as within a week of receiving the suggestion to hire a co-op student we already had a handful of interviews lined up, with placements expected to start soon after the interview.
On face value, this seems like the ideal opportunity: an un-paid, highly motivated worker whose grade you control. Only once we went through the interviews did the risks of this recruitment strategy become apparent. It is difficult to gauge fit, competence and aptitude within a 30 minute interview. Everyone on SoJo joined for a probationary period; where more than half left SoJo after a few weeks because it was not a right fit. In this scenario we had only 30 minutes to decide fit, and must then commit to providing a meaningful work opportunity for the student for the entire semester. Being a lean startup, there is no capacity to babysit or micro-manage a new recruit. We need to bring people who were capable and can work at the same pace as the entire organization.
SoJo put out two job descriptions, one for a Junior Developer and one for a Junior Editor. Editorial candidates were asked to bring a writing sample. Developer candidates were put through a technical exercise to test their programming skills. For Jesse, this is first time he has been in a direct supervisory role; let alone conduct an interview. As such, Jesse's interview skills were tested with a mock-interview with friends from our workspace.
Last week, we gladly welcomed Rebecca and Vithuson to the team. They both come with a lot of energy and a willingness to learn. I'm hopeful that this will be positive experience for everyone involved and may be a good recruitment strategy for the future when financial resources are tight. Both students will be invited to blog about their experiences. Stay tuned for updates.
Yesterday during the presidential debates I logged onto twitter to follow the live commentary and reactions from my friends (which was much more engaging than the real debate). To my pleasant surprise I found a freshly published article on Forbes.com: From a Master's Thesis to a Social Startup and a UNESCO Endorsement
This article is SoJo's debut in Forbes, and it was a great feature profile that will help SoJo with its outreach efforts. Going to Forbes.com, I noticed this was the most popular article on the home page. I had a glowing smile on my face, especially after having a not-so-good day.
I'm often asked how SoJo has been so successful in getting mainstream media attention. For some of our earlier stories, SoJo proactively reached out to reporters, followed-up and was effective at pitching its story. In most other cases media came to us.
The writer from Forbes sent me a message through SoJo's generic contact form
on Friday afternoon. This message found its way to my inbox Monday mid-day. That same day the writer and I had an interview. We exchanged a couple of follow-up emails and the story was published on Wednesday.
When asked how he came across SoJo in the first place, he said:"An article from SoJo appeared in one of my social media aggregator newsfeed. Hundreds of articles continuously come through this feed. I was intrigued by SoJo's logo so I clicked on the link...."
Clearly he was impressed by what he saw on SoJo beyond the logo and investigated further.
This is a classic example of how being yourself is the best thing you can do. This is not a story we chased, but rather came to us quite serendipitously. The logo
is an authentic representation of SoJo as an organization and http://theSoJo.net
and this blog appealed to the writer, who also happens to have history of social activism, allowing him to feel instantly connected to our community.
If you're looking for mainstream media attention, my best advice to you is focus on "'speaking through your actions" and be yourself. When interviews present themselves, instead of trying to "sell" your work, let your passion do the talking. Experience has taught me there is no substitute for authenticity and action.