How to design a social business

Tools and frameworks that help you create solid social business concepts.
Guest blog by Meret Nehe, who hosted a two-day workshop on social business design at Kaospilots.

It’s a myth that social business ideas just fall into the founder‘s lap just like that. In most of the successful  cases there is actually a lot of thinking, researching and prototyping happening before the actual launch of the organisation or project. But (speaking from my own experience) it’s not that easy to know where to start and how to navigate through the jungle of information when you want to explore and develop your own social business idea. That is where we can let ourselves be inspired from how designers work. So did the Rotman School of Management. Their methodology of the 3 Gears of Business Design is inspired by the innovation method Design Thinking and provides you with an actionable framework to orientate yourself when you are developing a business (or project) idea.

Source: Rotman School of Management (2016): What is Business Design? - social business
Source: Rotman School of Management (2016): What is Business Design?

I like to introduce the 3 Gears of Business Design simply as a framework and structure that gives us an orientation in our process of developing an own social business idea. For each of the three phases of the development process (the three gears), I will give you some tools that will help you develop your concept further.

Phase 1: Empathy and need-finding

You need to know your potential customer, your beneficiaries, your stakeholders etc. very well to be able to provide a product for them that actually meets their needs. Instead of just scratching the surface (which usually happens with a lot of market research tools), I’d recommend that you take time for the following research:


Phase 2: Prototyping and experimentation

In case you feel like you learnt enough from the first phase, you can now start translating your learnings into a concept. For that, based on insights from your research, you can ideate new ideas and develop existing ones further.

You can later sketch out these ideas using e.g. the Business Model Canvas which is a great tool to visualise business model concepts. Do not make the mistake to think that a business model on paper is a concept that will work in reality! You now need to make sure that you test the underlying assumptions of your business model. Create prototypes (mock ups, storyboards, role plays…) and go out with them into the real world to see if the concept works with your customers and if it creates the social impact you’d like to see.

Phase 3: Business strategy

Only now, after you have prototyped, tested and evolved your business model it’s time to set up the strategy. It might be useful to write a Business Plan at this stage or make use of a more detailed business model canvas to translate your full idea into a strategy. And only then (and let me tell you, this is the real hard work) you put your strategy into practice. You will notice that not all parts of your strategy go according to plan. Be open to go back to the first or second gear again and again, making smaller or bigger adjustments. Only fitting first gears will make the third gear run smoothly!

I cannot promise you that following the suggested steps will automatically make you the next social entrepreneur of the year. But trust me, when you stick to the key steps of the process and when you remember that one gear depends on the other, you will have high chances of avoiding big mistakes that entrepreneurs before you did (me included).

In case you have questions about specific tools or need help guiding through the process, you can contact me through my LinkedIn profile.

About the author

Meret Nehe is a consultant in social innovation/entrepreneurship and strategic sustainability and also works as a Design Thinking process facilitator. In the past couple of years, she has been coordinating and hosting training programmes at a social business incubator in Switzerland which allowed her to coach and accompany numerous social enterprises in their development process. During her studies, she co-founded a textile business herself and later worked as a project manager in charities and sustainability organisations in Germany.  She studied in the Netherlands, Chile and Sweden and holds a MSc in Strategic Leadership for Sustainability.

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