5 Social Entrepreneurs And Their Secrets For Success

This was first shared on YSB Balkans.

We just launched our Balkan-wide initiative with Yunus Social Business Balkans! The team and I have been traveling across the region in search of potential and successful social entrepreneurs.

It’s been incredibly exciting.

Having had the personal pleasure of meeting rooms full of entrepreneurial energy in Sarajevo, Tirana and Belgrade, I’ve also watched activity flourish in our team’s wake across Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro.

Our focus has been to give people a taste of what it means to be in a YSB accelerator, and the methodology and network that is our strength.

However, if you were unable to join us at any of our events so far, we wanted to offer you some insights here, on our blog!

Below I’ve collected 5 great success stories from social entrepreneurs to highlight what they’ve done right.

These are all core elements of what we do as a social business accelerator. So if you want to know what you could learn by working with us, this is a great place to start.


1. Great Social Entrepreneurs Focus on the ‘Business’ in ‘Social Business’

All sincere social entrepreneurs have a deep-rooted passion for change and impacting people’s lives. That is why they create such inspiring social businesses in the first place. But there is one criteria that separates the successful ones form the not so successful ones and that is business instincts.

Whenever we are approached with “project proposals” for a social business, plenty of alarms go off in our systems. A social business is a business first and can only create meaningful impact if it is running on a sustainable business model.

Always ask yourself “who will pay for my services?” and “how can I provide the best product or service to my paying customers?”.

When Emiland Skora first approached us with his idea of an organic aromatic herbs plantation in Albania, he pitched the amazing market opportunities around aromatic herbs first. THEN he told us about the great things he could do for farmers in rural areas with such a profitable business.

After just a few discussions, he ticked almost all the boxes that we were looking for: Years of experience, links to international markets and – most importantly – a true commitment for helping people in his community.

From day one, the business was built on a very healthy financial basis. So it was easy to integrate a social model into “Saint George Valley Organic Farming”. And today, only one year after incorporation, it helps employ 75 rural farmers.

Check out similar stories on inclusive growth by social entrepreneurs on the back of profitable business models: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/08/5-ways-trade-can-deliver-for-the-worlds-poor/

2. Create Stuff That You As A Social Entrepreneur Really Care About

Doing business is rough and tough. It takes you to the highest peaks of excitement but it also drags you through the valley of setbacks. To pull through these heavy times, you have GOT to love what you’re doing – to the verge of obsession for your product.

Some studies even suggest that there is a link between successful entrepreneurship and sub-clinical psychopathy. Now, don’t get me wrong: I don’t think that good entrepreneurs need to show up in straitjackets. But:

Social entrepreneurs have to show extreme excitement for the products and services they are selling. Otherwise, how will they ever be able to convince others to buy their products?

One amazing example for such an entrepreneur is Fionn Dobbin. He is a Social Business Ambassador for the Balkans. Every single time I hear him speak, I am filled with energy. He talks about his social business Mammu with so much passion that you just have to love the things he does.

Mammu sells high fashion made by single mothers in Latvia. He even got world class designers, models and retail companies to love his product. He just presents it in a way that is breathtaking. And Fionn himself nails this topic much better than I can in his TEDx about “A Brand becomes a Movement”.

Also check out Fionn’s presentation on “Why Shit Matters”. It’s a prime example of how passion can (almost literally) turn shit into gold.

3. Prototype Early On, And Don’t Cheat

The “Lean Methodology” is, of course, an old hat by the standards of tech leaders and startups. But it has not yet found its way into social business. And much less so into the Western Balkans. It is all about finding out what your customers want first. Then understand which products and service deliver the best value to them. In another step how you can get the product to your customer, etc. etc. In this process, you always focus on “how can I prove the assumptions in my business model (with data) “.

A perfect example of how this can work is Sonila’s “Farm to Table”. She and her team of social entrepreneurs entered last year’s accelerator program with the idea of starting a supermarket for organic food with zero waste in Tirana. Much like “Original Unverpackt” in Berlin.

After going through our workshops and discussions with her mentors, she and her team realized that they needed to start by serving their first customers. But instead of setting up a full-scale supermarket, they went directly to their first clients. They offered a subscription service for healthy food. Every week, their clients would order vegetables, fruits, cheese or wine. And the Farm to Table team would go out to their rural farmers to procure the items.

By the time they left the accelerator, they had over 30 clients. And most importantly, they truly understood their customers’ needs. They knew how much they would pay. And they found out how they could source the products they needed. And all this with zero investment money.

Good social entrepreneurs think big and start small. They always try to understand their customers and the market first.

4. Hire Diversity

Once you’ve made it through the hard first steps of building a social business you will come to a point where you have to grow a team to support you. At that point, it may feel obvious to hire people that tick like you. You are tempted to hire people that share your passion and who you get along with.


You live off of the diversity in your team. The more diverse, the better. People from different backgrounds will come up with completely new solutions to the problems you are facing. That makes you innovative but also extremely effective.

Jeff Bussgang describes the needs for different profiles at various stages in a business in a very striking way. He talks about three stages of growth: Jungle Stage, Dirt Stage and Highway Stage.

In the beginning, you as founders and your first hires have to battle your way through a jungle of challenges. There simply is no clear road to follow. You are the newcomers in unchartered territories. Once you clear that jungle, you hit the dirt road. Here, the path becomes much clearer but people still have to get their hands dirty. After that, you enter the highway. And now, it is not only possible to progress at high speed but it also becomes dangerous if you cannot keep up with the speed of the crowd.

At each stage of your business, you will need different profiles that keep you on track.

Bear with me, please, when I describe Yunus Social Business as an example for such diversity. Our co-founders, Saskia Bruysten (@saskiabruysten) and Sophie Eisenmann understood from day one that the vision they had for the company needed a very diverse team.

And as I write this, I am sitting in a room with a a serial entrepreneur from Barbados, a former manager of an SME support organization in Kosovo, a consultant from Boston Consulting Group from France and a communication expert from Papua New Guinea.

5. Step Aside

As your company grows even bigger, it is time for you as a founder to revisit whether you can add value in your company.

At some point in your career, you will have to start working on your business, not in it.

That is the moment when you have to detach yourself from daily operations. And that means, to some extent also from the constant thrill of customer and beneficiary interaction. In many cases, social entrepreneurs really don’t like that. But they also don’t give themselves a chance to change that.

But there would be so much to gain from revisiting your own position in your company. This means, really understanding what you want to do personally. Take a look at the bold step that Sergey Brin and Larry Page took by stepping down as CEOs from Google. They wanted to focus on what they were good at: Creating new products and spurring innovation.

In an amazing step of similar hindsight, Christian Vanizette (@coconutsurfing), Founder of MakeSense, stepped away from leading MakeSense as the CEO. He no longer wanted to have the head position to focus on the things he really can get excited about: building communities and bringing social entrepreneurs together across the world. So he became the leading “backpacker” and community manager of MakeSense. He continues to growh the MakeSense across the world. And he truly adds value each and every day.

Today, whenever I meet him, he just gets more and more energised about the great things MakeSense does. He gets to focus on what he loves doing most – without the hassle of sometimes very bureaucratic CEO tasks.


I hope you take these examples away with some inspiration for yourself. If you are interested to learn more and dive deeper into the Yunus Social Business network, apply for our accelerator in the Balkans or write us an email to balkans@yunussb.com.

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