I had the privilege of being invited to the Spark Social Enterprise Safari, which took place in Ghent, Belgium from the 2-6 Octoenr.
At first it was those opportunities which I’ve been training myself to decline; I already had my big priorities for my sabbatical period, plus I’d already been away for 5 of the previous 7 weeks on work too.
My overpowering wanderlust and curiosity got the better of me, though, and I ended up agreeing to go for at least half of it.
Despite a frankly unconscionable 4am wake up on Monday to get a train at 5am, I am immensely glad I decided to go.
I met some tremendously refreshing social entrepreneurs who challenged my perceptions of how entrepreneurs act, and I learned a lot about organisational growth too. Here are top 3 insights:
- Striving isn’t essential to entrepreneurial success
The transatlantic stereotype of an entrepreneur (one widely shared across South and Eastern Asia too) always falls back on the image of the growth and profit fixated go-getter working every hour God sends and fuelled by adrenaline and caffeine. They are relentlessly driven by ambition.
We had the pleasure of meeting a series of entrepreneurs in Ghent who gleefully defied those stereotypes.
Take Phillipe, a proud cheese-maker from Het Hinkelspel (Hopscotch in English). Phillipe runs a co-operative and uses the co-operative structure to trade a 4 hour week for less business control.
He admits that without a co-operative structure he’d be working 7 days a week – and probably earning up considerably more too. But his quality of life would dramatically diminish, and it wasn’t something he was prepared to compromise. Entrepreneurship for him was a route to greater control over his own life and working hours, not a way to satiate his ambition. He loved what he did, but he loved other areas of his life too. Maintaining that balance was crucial to his investment in the business.
2) Quality will lead to organic (and sustainable growth)
Amazingly, Het Hinkelspel consistently achieves double-digit sales growth year on year without any real marketing efforts. Last year, their entire marketing budget ran to 25 Euros!
They were interested only in organic growth; Phillipe was adamant that chasing growth for the sake of it wasn’t on their agenda. As he said repeatedly, “we don’t want to run a factory!”
Instead, Het Hinkelspel were obsessed with something else: quality. Phillipe spoke with great eloquence and conviction when he said:
“there’s something amazing about standing behind a product you love, something you made to perfection”.
How many entrepreneurs are gripped by an obsession with quality? Not many, but it’s quality that drives sales, attracts quality and offers the kind of organisational pride that Phillipe and his team clearly possess in spades. It is from this fixation on quality to the point of “perfection” which enables them to grow without the need for marketing, which they consider “unnecessary”.
3) What’s our strategy for next year? We don’t know
Sabine runs Rooffood, a social enterprise which uses a roof garden on a business centre to run seminars, cater for corporate businesses, and seasonal dinners. Rooffood had a rocky first year – which start-ups don’t – but is now thriving with several service lines and a diversified customer base.
Despite the clear upward trajectory of the business, she refuses to reach for scale. This much was clear when she presented two slides in sequence. The first asked “What’s our strategy for next year?” The second answered: “we don’t have one”.
Sabine’s thinking is to let market feedback guide their decision-making, not their own desires for what they want to do.
Rooffood learned as much when they started their first service line: delivering vegetarian (sustainably, in glassware on cycles) around Ghent. They soon realised the market wasn’t quite ready for what they had to offer, so their price points didn’t generate the margins necessary to justify what was a logistically complex process. Realising it wasn’t yielding value in many areas of their business, they decided to ditch it and focus on other areas. Sabine calls it “adaptation”, and likened their subsequent pivot to Darwinian evolution.
At no point was there a concrete strategy which anchored their business – they simply listened to themselves and their customers. When they landed on something they enjoyed and their customers did too, they pursued that. Having enjoyed hosting and serving seasonal summer dinners (550 seats, all of which sold out in advance) they’re now planning to serve seasonal dinners this Autumn and potentially in Winter as well.
It’s hard to know, in truth, if Belgium’s new breed of entrepreneur represent the past or the future of entrepreneurship. Perhaps neither. What’s for sure is that they are only it as long as they enjoy it, as long as it suits their lifestyle, and they have no wish to conform any prescriptions of what an entrepreneur ought to be like, or what growth should be either.