How to Start an Online Business With a Social Mission

Entrepreneurs like Brittany Martin Graunke are starting ventures that not only make money, but also a social impact.
April 03, 2012

Gone are the days when entrepreneurs started companies for the sole purpose of getting rich. Today’s budding business owners want to make an impact while simultaneously padding their pockets. As Chicago social entrepreneur Ethan Austin observes, the wave of online businesses with a social mission is coming quickly.

“I judge a business plan competition at DePaul University, and of the 10 submissions we chose [this year] seven of them were for-profit social ventures,” says Austin, co-founder of GiveForward, an online company that facilitates peer-to-peer donations for people with medical emergencies. “Young people are interested in doing good and taking a real salary.”

Companies with a social mission are often well suited for the web. Take another Chicago company, Zealous Good, as an example. In March 2011, founder Brittany Martin Graunke noticed how hard it was for local nonprofits to afford office supplies. She linked that need with the surplus of supplies some companies have, especially when moving locations, upgrading systems, etc. and launched her company to help facilitate donations to nonprofits in need. To date, the company has matched more than $65,000 worth of donations.

Sound exciting? Before you start an online business with a social mission, take note of these important steps.

Tap into your pet peeve

Start your idea generation phase by thinking of a problem that irks you. For Graunke, a former staffer at United Way of Metropolitan Chicago, it was the difficulty nonprofits have in purchasing office supplies. For Austin, it was the suffering many people go through when struggling to pay for serious medical expenses.

“Think of problems that are frustrating the market and ways to fix those problems,” suggests Graunke.

Talk it up

The minute Graunke thought up her idea, she told everyone she knew. She chatted with people in the technology community, the nonprofit community and the startup community. She gratefully internalized negative feedback and tweaked her idea accordingly; positive feedback gave her more confidence. And she didn’t spend a minute worrying that someone would steal her concept.

“If people are going to steal your idea, chances are the idea isn’t going to be uniquely successful to you in the first place,” she says.

Research competing models

Is there a current site that you want your online company to resemble? Graunke recommends looking at sites that are “similar but different.” In her case, Zealous Good can be compared to Craigslist (which has nonprofits looking for donations) and eHarmony (Graunke tries to find perfect matches for donors and recipients). She suggests looking at a variety of business models and extrapolating elements that make sense for your business.

Create a 100-day plan

Now that you have your idea solidified, write down goals for your first 100 days, Graunke advises.

“I ended up creating a pitch deck for myself, which was really helpful,” she says.

Those first 100 days are critical and will determine the success of your mission.

Build the site

This step can go one of two ways. If you aren’t especially tech-savvy, consider building your own site on Wordpress, like Graunke did, just to get something out there or, as Austin advises, find a technical co-founder.

“I had a soft launch with a Wordpress site that I created, and then launched the real thing 10 months later,” says Graunke.

Austin adds, “If you are building a web application, I recommend finding someone who is tech-savvy to be an equal partner in the company. Build a minimum viable product, or MVP, and see if you get any traction.”

Create an online community

Communities are especially important to social ventures; people need to feel invested in your mission for it to work.

Graunke suggests first reaching out to people you bounced your idea off of on the outset. Ask them to be ambassadors for you, to tell their friends about your idea. Encourage them to check out your site and share it across their social media networks. Then make your name known in local business networking groups.

Extra tip: Check out Business Networking International and U.S. Chamber of Commerce for groups in your area.

Once you capture a person’s interest in-person or online, ask to add them to your e-mail database, and then shoot out periodic newsletters. Graunke sends out two e-mails per month with information on “what Zealous Good is up to and to help keep us in the back of their minds,” she says.

Graunke’s last community-building principle: provide over-the-top customer service.

“We answer phone calls and e-mails almost immediately,” she says. “At first your product isn’t going to be perfect, but if you treat everyone incredibly well, they will be more willing to give you second chances. Make sure you are supportive and appreciative to everyone in your network.”

Insider tips

According to Austin, launching an online business with a social mission can end up being a touch easier than starting another type of small business.

“If people connect with your mission, they will want to support it,” he says. “That fact can give you a tiny leg up, which sometimes can help you stay in the game long enough to get a lucky break.”

Hire interns

Tap into feelings of goodwill in your hiring process by bringing on unpaid interns, especially when you are starting out.

“When we were really young, we posted ads on Craigslist for unpaid interns and explained the mission behind GiveForward,” Austin says. “We ended up getting amazing interns from places like Harvard and Stanford. They did a tremendous amount of work and made our office fun and young. One of them even stayed unpaid for 18 months until we could give her a salary. She’s been a huge contributor to the company.”

Prioritize your mission

It’s one thing to start an online company and give a percentage back to a good cause; it’s another thing to integrate your social mission into the daily workings of your company. Graunke recommends doing the latter.

“We couldn’t do our work without our mission, which is partly why I think people connect with us,” she says. “If you can find ways to weave your mission into your business, not just make it an extra aspect, it will make you truly unique and will show people that you are making a real impact.”

Read more small-business guides.

Photo credit: Courtesy Zealous Good