Solving the biggest social problems requires a willingness to fail
Social entrepreneurs face numerous issues when trying to improve Irish society, but failure can be part of long-term success
Krystian Fikert speaking about MyMind, a psychological centre he set up which offers advice and counselling. Photograph: Naoise Culhane
Social entrepreneurship encompasses everything from the Men’s Sheds movement to matching supermarkets with too much food to local charities that have too little. It can address unemployment among former offenders and promote inclusion of people with autism.
Social Entrepreneurs Ireland (SEI), which is 10 years old this year, has, with the help of the business support-service group DCC, among others, invested €5.8 million in 179 projects that seek to improve the quality of Irish society.
But while the garlands go to the successes, the failures are just as important, says the chief executive of the funding organisation, Darren Ryan. “There is huge learning from failure – not only for the project itself. That learning can be applied by other social entrepreneurs in future to improve their work . . . Behind every success story there are failures and challenges along the way. We need to recognise and embrace this if we are going to solve our biggest social problems. We need to take risks and try new approaches; a key part of that innovation is embracing failure.”
Emma Murphy and Krystian Fikert are social entrepreneurs who faced entirely different challenges. For one it has meant starting all over again; for the other it meant taking a step back. What they agree on is that there are some things an entrepreneur can learn only from experience.
The Turning Institute
“The moral of my story is to be careful what you wish for,” says Emma Murphy, a psychotherapist who founded the Turning Institute, in 2011, to provide online programmes for adults with eating disorders.
Much of the talk around entrepreneurship is about finding the seed money; for Murphy it was when she secured the funding that the challenges began.
Her organisation became a “digital health start-up” in 2012, after winning a place on the National Digital Research Centre’s Launchpad programme. “Tech health was very sexy then,” she says. “Once we were on that train it became a roller coaster, and stuff just started happening.”
The stuff included winning the 2012 Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Elevator Award, which recognised the affordability element of a programme that made therapy accessible to all.
“SEI is about far more than the actual money. It opened up doors to mentoring and support. Their network is phenomenal.”
But it’s then that the pressure comes. “As a social entrepreneur you think you’re off to save the world. But remember that the money you get is loaded with expectation – that you’ll deliver jobs, become an incorporated company, pay tax. Once funding comes on board, from whatever source, it is a complete game changer – and you have to be ready to up your game.”
In April 2013 the institute secured €300,000 in seed funding from Bank of Ireland through Delta Partners and Enterprise Ireland.
But, Murphy says, “We were like a shop with only one product in the window and wanted to expand the product line. But we couldn’t make the case with funders. Because the normal current, lean business model is to test one product first.”
After 15 months of working to make a case for the business and trying to produce the metrics that funders want to see – which is to say money out versus revenue in – the team realised that no matter how much they spent on online ads, they “would never get a return on one product that would be sufficient to impress new funders”.
In early 2014 the Turning Institute failed to secure second-round funding.
“The prudent thing to do was to go into voluntary wind-up. It was a desperate time, and there were a few months when I was licking my wounds.”
But, as entrepreneurs tend to be serial entrepreneurs, that’s not the end of that. The relaunched programme will be available again in 2015. “This time we’re doing it the way we want.”
If she had the time back again, she says, she would fight her corner harder. “I was the expert in the business of eating disorders and mental health. Business models are too generic, and not every business fits that model.
“Also, if you are the original founder, once there are other people involved, you become the chief executive, and you have to upskill really quickly. But I wanted to be the clinical director, producing programmes.
“I learned so much about myself and about business. So I’m going back to the original plan. But this time I’m more savvy.”
In 2004 Krystian Fikert, a 34-year-old psychologist and “tech-geek” from Poland, arrived in Dublin, where he started working as a search-quality evaluator for Google.
Soon afterwards he was was struck by the volume of Irish searches relating to mental health and depression and saw a niche for support and early intervention at a community level. In 2007 he took a job at the HSE, so that he could learn about Irish public structures.
In the meantime he set up a psychological centre, the PPD, which offered advice and counselling to immigrant communities.
When he contacted SEI he didn’t realise that the PPD was a social enterprise. “I didn’t even know what the term meant. But Social Entrepreneurs Ireland advised us to apply for a Level 2 award in 2009”.
The goal was to provide a community-based service that offered quick and affordable access to psychological support and counselling. It had a finance model, but from an auditing perspective it was all wrong. “We got mentoring and support from SEI. And they helped us to revise the finance model and set up clearer strategy goals. This was our first recognition in Ireland, and it gave us the real motivation to carry on.”
One name change later – “PPD wasn’t very catchy” – MyMind was born.
In 2013 it won a Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Elevator Award and opened a second office in Dublin. “It was all very exciting, but the biggest test for us was to see if the model would work outside Dublin.”
They had tried once before.
“In 2008 we tried to expand to Kildare and Limerick. There was a demand, but we had no proper infrastructure, management systems or proper commitment from operational staff. So it didn’t work.”
MyMind now has a team of 80 staff, working in 10 languages from Dublin, Cork and Limerick. So what’s his advice?
“Don’t try to expand too quickly. Take time to plan, and be sure you have a very clear strategy. Market research is really important. Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to look for help.”
“It’s not an easy journey, but it’s interesting and fulfilling. If you’re patient. And learn from your mistakes.”
New social entrepreneurs: This year’s awards
FoodCloud: matches businesses that have too much food with charities that have too little.
Virtual Community College: virtual learning for poverty-hit communities.
Sensational Kids: a centre helping children with additional needs.
AsIAm: challenging perceptions of autism.
Irish Charity Lab: working with Irish charities on digital projects.
Sólás: practical support for families of disabled children.
Active Connections: adventure activities for young people at risk.
My Life Solutions: life skills for the young.
Future Voices Ireland: self-esteem for kids from marginalised backgrounds.
Full details from socialentrepreneurs.ie.