Strategy and serendipity

Helen Trevaskis is the co-founder of fledgling social enterprise 3C Collective, which designs innovative hygiene solutions for people living in slums in India. Each quarter in our print magazine she tracks her start-up struggles and lightbulb moments as she attempts to turn hand hygiene into a sustainable business model.

This is funny. The Business Partner, the Investment Advisor and I had a call with an Indian social enterprise, exploring ways we might collaborate. The conversation triggered some team tension during the call and some awkward Skype debate after on the topic of strategy and its relationship with serendipity.

We’ve spent months working on our consumer strategy – on the logic, on the phasing and on the financials but this call was about B2B. It’s something we talk about and get excited about but it hasn’t received anywhere near the same level of attention and barely gets a look in in our business plan. It’s not our core focus. Yet the conversation was interesting and it made us think: would we ‘white label’ our product? Could entering the health sector through this organisation and its brand help us achieve our profit ambitions and thus our social ambitions (given they are symbiotic)? Could this be a great PR opportunity, if not a great commercial one?

Healthy stuff. So why the tension and awkward debate? We have a beautifully constructed and crafted strategy, focused clearly on developing a low-income consumer market that is well thought through. We’ve been laying the foundations of this for a few years and we should be 100% focused on it, or else we risk getting knocked off course. It’s a waste of time to engage in discussions that are off-strategy. Or, if we think these conversations are so important, we should cast a critical eye at said strategy because it must be wrong. This is one end of a spectrum of thinking on how to operate – head down, stick to the plan and eventually you’ll get there.

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth

Another is to be more entrepreneurial. As a social business you are on a social mission and there could be 100 ways to achieve it – stay nimble, be opportunistic, shape-shift if needs be. Just never lose sight of what you set out to do, of the bigger picture. I heard a social entrepreneur who has developed an online health offer telling her story recently. It was clear as she charted the ups and downs that finding a business model that turns a vision into reality can take a long time, involve many reiterations and that serendipity may play a massive role in making this work.

The tension and awkwardness after our call was the meeting of these perspectives. Unsurprisingly (I am a Libran) the resolution I’ve arrived at is a fusion of the two. A bit like a Vespa rider in Rome, you must remain scarily focused on the destination yet develop uncanny peripheral vision so you don’t miss an opportunity to get there quicker, or via a more interesting route. So no rewriting our strategy just yet but nor can we let it rule our lives.

If you remember how I started this article, you’re probably wondering: what’s so funny? This discussion is theoretical. We have no money. We’re in the waiting-for-first- round-of-proper-funding hinterland, a semi-somnambulistic period of relative inactivity. Which makes a serious conversation about whether to support our consumer strategy with B2B a little laughable.

Perhaps given this is where we are, a famous Mike Tyson quote is more apt right now: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

By the time I next write we’ll either have funding or loose teeth and a bloody mouth.


Photo credit: Halfrain