Social Entrepreneurs Need To Compete—Fiercely.

Why competition might just be the thing your organization and the world needs. By Mark Eckhardt, CEO of COMMON. Edited by Meaghan Pachay

Several years ago, I declared in a meeting that “the point of social enterprise is to replace bad products on store shelves with good ones.”

Some of the people around the table rejected my comment flat out. Others questioned the definitions of “good” and “bad,” asking instead who we were to judge. A few suggested that there’s no such thing as bad products.

Fast forward to a meeting a few weeks ago wherein I expressed a similar point of view. Again, the notion of replacing one product for another was met with objection: “Well, in the post-capitalist society we are striving to create, there is no competition. The notion of competing against each other will be void. We want to help the people making those ‘bad’ products evolve.”

Cooperation is healthy and necessary. Given the complexities we face, there is no way one person or one group can solve large societal problems on their own. Shunning the notion of competition, however, disempowers social entrepreneurs. It is rooted deeply in unchecked assumptions and—what seems to be—a denial of reality. It’s as if, in our rejection of the parts of capitalism we are working to fix, a good portion of us have also lost sight of the fundamental aspects of building and running organizations.

For example, do you think Patagonia competes? You bet they do. They are doing everything they can to capture your attention and hold it. Why? Because they believe their mission to protect the earth is worth fighting for. To that end, the entire corporation is organized around making sure that more people know about the brand, engage with it and purchase its products. While we all know that Patagonia wants us to buy their products over those that are produced with no regard for people and the planet, it is not a stretch to say that they probably want consumers to pick their goods over other socially responsible ones too. And why not? The race to produce the most ethical products is a good one—and one every social entrepreneur should participate in. We don’t need mediocre products and services—even yours.

Rejecting competition is a surefire way to kill progress. It reveals big holes in your thinking and a lack of awareness of the dynamics affecting your operations. Any social entrepreneur looking to make an impact needs to operate from these fundamentals:

  • 90% of people do not look beyond the first page of Google results when searching for something (source: http://bit.ly/2QlSajX).
  • 60% of all clicks on that first page of Google go to the top three results (source: http://bit.ly/2QlSajX).
  • Only 3% of consumers at any given time are actively seeking to purchase something to fulfill a need they have (Source: https://bit.ly/2cxxIMG).
  • Natural resources are not infinite. We have a limited (and rapidly dwindling) supply.
  • There is only so much investment capital available to be deployed at any given time. Only a small percentage of businesses will ever receive outside funding.

Points one and two alone can kill your organization. If you are not willing to compete to make it easier for customers to find you, then you should reconsider if leading a social enterprise is truly an activity you should be engaged in. You need to be willing to learn new skills and develop new capacities to attract customers and to push your industry’s standards to a higher level. Furthermore, if you cannot, or refuse to, grasp that resources (natural and otherwise) are finite, then you are not grounded in reality.

So if companies in the traditional food industry compete for stomach-share, and the fashion industry competes for body-share, and marketers in every industry compete for mind-share, why are so many of us in the field of social impact averse to doing the same? —especially given that massive change will only happen if social businesses can scale.

Competition implies measurement. And therein lies the tension: measurement raises the possibility of failure. People in the impact field love to point to their supply chain, resources preserved, impact made, etc. But they balk at being assessed on whether or not they are gaining market share, generating more revenue or becoming leaders in their industries or communities. Chances are, if they’re not actively competing, they’re failing on these measures too, and find it difficult to confront that knowledge.

It‘s much easier to rail on capitalism and preach about higher principles than it is to be assessed on performance. Measurement puts you in relationship with other people and companies; it establishes context and provides orientation. It’s an uncomfortable place to operate from, and so, many social entrepreneurs don’t. Instead, they point to their values, good intent, and conscious lifestyle and avoid putting systems and processes in place that are geared towards one thing—growth.

Bud Caddell, Founder of NOBL, wrote in a recent post, “We are in an age of acceleration. Accelerating growth and accelerating decay. Hurling, ever faster, toward a destination unknown.” He is right. With the effects of the climate crisis becoming more acute, mounting challenges to social justice and economic disparities leading us towards another big collapse, social entrepreneurs need to compete, and we need to compete fiercely. Better solutions are still desperately needed. Our metrics should be health-share, freedom-share, happiness-share, inclusion-share and market-share.

We need to build socially responsible companies that lead their fields and increase the velocity of impact in the world. And, yes, we should aggressively challenge products that do little for people and planet to such a degree that the manufacturers of those items see no option but to change or suffer the effects of being replaced.

Presumably, you got into the social entrepreneurship game because you want to make an impact. If you want to change your community, your nation, and the world, the best thing you can do is to become the best at what you do. Earn attention for doing the right thing, but also for demonstrating that you can compete with the best of the best, and that’s when you’ll truly grow and make an impact.