December 16, 2009 Would You Rather Be a Girly Man or Lady Gaga
Last night I went out with a few friends to see a local band called GirlyMan play at this cozy Atlanta venue called Eddie’s Attic. The 3 members of this trio harmonized beautifully and had a variety of interesting well-written songs. But what was so refreshing about watching GirlyMan last night was how damned happy the three of them seemed. The way they played off of each others jokes and told little stories about where they were in their lives when they wrote a particular song, made you feel like they were letting you hang out with them. Anytime I get the chance to watch local artists in their element, the appeal doesn’t always comes from their talent. Often times whitnessing people share what they love inspires me to indulge in the creative forms of self-expression that I love.
While watching them, I kept thinking about how they are the most successful people in the world because they get the chance to have people pay to laugh with them and listen to their music . Even if they worked at Starbucks part time to keep up with all their bills, I felt like they were incredible for making an intimate impact on some locals looking for a good time. Then I realized that with the relatively small number of people in the room and the fact that their earnings would be split 3 ways, they would probably be making chump change that night . And that perhaps they wouldn’t see themselves as successful unless their music was as popular (and lucrative) as someone like Lady Gaga. As impressed as I was by Girlyman, they may feel like their work is not done until they are famous enough to reach millions of people.
This brings me to the question of what is important in the success of a social enterprise; fame through scaling the business or an intimate geographically focused business? With a for-profit business that has no social objectives, the answer is a bit of a no-brainer. There’s an incentive to scale a profitable model because more locations=more profit. However with social businesses whose social objectives are as important as their business’s financial sustainability, it’s harder to choose. On one hand, a strong case can be made for scaling innovative models because farther reach=more impact. Scaling social enterprise enables more individuals to garner the benefits of your work. It gives you the chance to not just be one small organization that helps after-school kids, but to become a movement that revolutionizes education. One concrete (yet debatable) example of this is what Muhammad Yunus has done with microfinance.
However the tradeoff of this, is often a decline in quality. Among nonprofits and in the for profit business world, we’ve seen small creative startups metastasize into huge inflexible bureaucracies. It is difficult to maintain the same level of quality that is well tailored to the unique needs of a specific community when the focus shifts to finding ways of mcdonaldizing your operations so they can be packaged and air dropped all around the world. It’s an interesting qu
Those of you who have started a nonprofit organization, social enterprise, or business or have ambitions of doing so, what is your perception of success? Is it closer linked to the breadth of your idea through eventually scaling it? Or is it more about making focused dents in the specific community your business targets?