Going beyond good: For social ventures, value — not values — achieves your mission

by Matthew Guidarelli, Assistant Director, Social and Cultural Impact at the Harvard Innovation Labs

Harvard Innovation Labs
3 min readFeb 16, 2016
Image via Shutterstock

Too often, individuals who start ventures aimed at solving social problems make the false assumption they can build a great business anchored mostly on the inherent “goodness” of their idea. They — incorrectly — believe that being values and mission-driven is sufficient to produce widespread interest in their product or service and attract attention — and money.

Regardless of whether you’re a for-profit or non-profit, unless you are creating a product of comparable or superior value to what currently exists, no one is going to be invested in your offering outside of your friends and family. And as a result, you will never fully achieve your mission.

A successful mission-driven company will have a relentless focus on their end-outcome (what’s defined as success), adopt a rigorous process for testing their assumptions and iterating from their original idea, and refining their product or service to not only work, but to be competitively positioned and sustainable for the long-term.

Imagine if the products of some former i-lab companies like Six Foods, Rumi Spice,Agora, or ArtLifting were not of superior quality to their competitors or surpassed stakeholder needs and expectations. It wouldn’t matter that these companies are focused on improving environmental outcomes through normalizing of insects as a sustainable food; cultivating peace in Afghanistan through economic development; building tools to make democratic participation more inclusive, accessible and scalable; or helping homeless and disabled artists earn a living.

Similarly, non-profits like the Ideas Box and Barakat Bundle are making the case that their products not only transform lives by empowering vulnerable populations worldwide and reducing preventable infant and maternal mortality in South Asia, respectively, but that their solutions stand out in a crowded field of nonprofits and NGOs.

The key is to begin by asking yourself the question: Are you in love with your idea or your end-outcome? The former is your ego; the latter is value-creating. Be open to revising your idea until you’ve built a model that not only works, but can be sustaining.

How do you get there? Here are five approaches:

  • Benchmark the competition and peer organizations: How well do they perform? How satisfied are their clients/stakeholders? What is the cost of their goods and services?
  • Get to know the problem intimately: Understand the psychology and behavior dynamics of your audience (who you design for) and customers (who pays for your product). Tip: they’re not always the same!
  • Draw up your framework by breaking down your problem and end-outcome first, followed by your idea and assumptions:
  • Test your solution and assumptions with your target audience: Does your solution drive value, achieve your end-outcome, and create a measurable difference compared to your competitors? Take the insights gleaned from your tests and iterate your solution. (Six Foods went through 70 recipe iterations alone!)
  • Have humility: Ideas are plentiful; viable solutions are not. Avoid getting caught up in a love-affair with your idea — focus instead on discovering and relentlessly developing the best solution possible to achieve your venture’s end-outcome.

The world needs more value-creating solutions to address the issues we face now and in the future. So follow your passion, dare to imagine, and be keen on doing better — not just on doing good.

This post first appeared on the Harvard Innovation Labs’ website.

Matthew Guidarelli is the Assistant Director for Social Impact & Cultural Entrepreneurship at the Harvard Innovation Lab. He leads i-lab programming, resource and product development, and helps students from across the Harvard community build for-profit and nonprofit ventures committed to creating meaningful and lasting solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges.



Harvard Innovation Labs

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