Five Lessons I've Learnt Since Starting a Social Enterprise
Recently, I asked AMMA’s Instagram followers what they would like to read about on this blog and many people responded with topics like “how to start a profit for purpose business” and “the experience of running a creative start up in Sri Lanka”. I know how difficult it is to take the plunge, change your life plan and suck up the courage to see your vision become reality. So here are five points I’d tell you if we were chatting over a cup of tea…
1. Admit your skills aren’t enough, commit to learning new ones and don’t do it by yourself
AMMA has always been a part of a local Sri Lankan organization ever since day one. This happened very naturally for us and AMMA never would have started if it wasn’t for Child Action Lanka our original partner NGO. The whole concept of working with mothers in Nuwara Eliya came about through our relationship with them. However, as we grew and also realized our personal weaknesses it made much more sense for us to make the switch to working with Tea Leaf Vision an NGO who worked more extensively within the area where we are based and with a focus on the same group we want to help.
I’ve also learnt a lot about the ‘ins and outs’ of how NGOs operate, the systems, legal structures and how to make the most impact in the least damaging way!
2. Find Good Mentors
I spent my first year in Sri Lanka very mentor-less, wanting guidance but not knowing where to look for it. I tried approaching people who were in the same industry but without any introduction, I didn’t get far. Now I have three mentors, all who I speak with weekly or monthly and all who come from different areas of expertise. I know that they all want the best for AMMA (and me!) and this trust and understanding allows space to challenge decisions and hold me accountable to the mission of the organisation.
3. Be Ready to Say NO
Shortly after we opened the workshop we realized our limits. We had to take on orders to cover costs but our first two mothers were learning on the job, from scratch, how to stitch and naturally dye. This meant we made the call not to sell naturally dyed fabric by the meter because it was all coming out patchy, marked by dead flies or children’s dirty hands (our first workshop was in a pre-school!) It felt like we were saying ‘no’ to everyone at the time. Two years on we are looking to start providing fabric by the meter again, now we have the capacity and experience to do it well!
Your business plan will change, I now look at our first year as market research and our second year as working out how we supply that market. I have gone through hundreds of ideas in my head, round in circles shifting with input from others, but I have learnt to be flexible and revisit ideas that were not right in the past, but could be right in the future.
We have zero marketing budget thanks to Instagram. As of writing this we only have 2,350 followers, a small drop in the ocean in Insta world, but a very focused and supportive group that like our photos, comment on our stories and place orders! Instagram leads to the website, the website leads to lookbook requests and conversations lead to collaborations. In the last two years of running AMMA I may have contacted 5 brands who I love, to see if they would like to work with us but everything else - 90% has come from spending 30 minutes a day on social media. As we grow and increase in capacity this will have to change, maybe we will end up with somebody doing social media full time, but for now 30 minutes a day is what I have time for and is enabling us to show organic, manageable growth.
Let this encourage you, it’s never been a cheaper and easier time to start a business - your reach is global and people want to engage with good content and purposeful stories.
5. Sri Lanka
Location and culture is going to impact your experience of starting a business massively. I’ve thought so many times that it would be easier to start AMMA in the UK with a culture that I can navigate and a language that I can speak. There are people that need employment, hope and opportunities everywhere. Unless you have a specific link to a place and a good reason for working there, you have much less chance of causing long term damage by dealing with the issues on your doorstep first (I’m no exception!).
You can read my story of how I ended up in Sri Lanka here. That being said, Sri Lanka has some wonderful opportunities for people looking to start businesses, especially its tight network of ‘good for the planet, good for people’ brands curated by the Good Market. It’s also strategically located between our two biggest markets Europe and Australia and tourism has grown rapidly in the last few years providing more opportunities for sales. Honestly, the hardest part has been getting long-term visas and the time and energy that goes into that. There’s more challenges, of course, but that’s for another post.