From a philanthropic project to a commercial business

From a philanthropic project to a commercial business

How to turn a good idea to solve a UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) problem into a successful business? How can entrepreneurs integrate social aspects into their venture? What are the biggest challenges for start ups in developing countries and how do you overcome them? These were the questions addressed by the panel «From a philanthropic project to a commercial business - key factors to consider for start-ups in the impact space» at this year's IC Forum in Geneva from March 31 to April 1.

Three SECO Start-up Fund clients shared with the young audience of the SDC/SECO program "Together we are Better" their experiences in starting a business in tourism (Sheila von Hoerner, Hotel Namanve, Uganda), water (Thomas Gajan, Swiss Fresh Water, Senegal) and agriculture (Luca Costa, Mount Sunzu Coffee, Zambia).

The key takeaways from the discussion were:

  • When pursuing a social goal, make sure there is also a business opportunity: Only a commercially viable social enterprise will also have a positive impact.
  • Don't walk alone but surround yourself with a strong and loyal team.
  • Don't venture into uncharted territory, but build your business on what you do best. There are different roads to impact: it can be created by enterprises with a specific social mission, but also by "regular" companies that are built by responsible entrepreneurs.
  • Assemble an advisory board of experienced and well-connected individuals. They will stand by you through the ups and downs of a start-up. They can also help you with fundraising, which is especially challenging for young entrepreneurs with no experience.
  • While you dream big, try to build your business in stages and focus on achieving success at each stage. This will limit your own risk, keep you from burning too much money (which you're unlikely to ever get back!), and help you make a compelling case for fundraising.
  • As for fundraising: it's more important who you get money from than how much. Prioritize approaching funders who are thematically close to your business, and use your time wisely that way.
  • If possible, start with your own funds, grants and equity - and add outside capital with care.
  • Get a good overview of the funding universe: there are various sources for start-ups today, such as REPIC, venture kick or SECO Start-up Fund, to name a few. Good projects can be financed.
  • A clear business plan is important to convince investors, but don't get lost in perfecting it. Most things will turn out differently than planned anyway. So, at a certain point, just go for it!