As a startup co-founder, I come into contact with investors, mentors and others who all have their own ideal business models in mind. For some, scalability is most important, for others it’s the revenue model, and yet others focus most on sustainability. I agree that all of these are important, but I also want to encourage all aspiring entrepreneurs to consider the social impact of their businesses. There are literally millions of social problems in the world and you can be a founder and change-maker.
Bringing social good
Virtually all companies start with finding a solution for a certain pain point. Most often your service or expertise makes things more convenient for your clients. But there are also startups that do more than that and use social good as their prime motivation. It’s a win-win situation for your client, the community, the world and you.
And being profitable at the same time
Changing the world is not easy. You need to have the tools and techniques to ensure that your product is sustainable. This is the beauty of a social impact startup or social enterprise; you don’t just do CSR on the side, but simply every purchase directly improves the human social or environmental well-being. The impact is real!
But do people care?
Yes! I run social impact startup HelperChoice and trust me, businesses that do good are sexy! In April 2016, I was the runner-up in the international Pitch with Purpose competition, specifically for women entrepreneurs who founded high-growth, scalable business that were offering solutions for the world’s most pressing problems. It was supported by the United Nations Foundation, Dell, Johnson & Johnson and Guggenheim Partners. There are many incubation programs who look for impact companies and the media also loves companies with a vision that do good.
And what about Hong Kong?
It is definitely true that most startups in Hong Kong are in the food and fintech industries. But that shouldn’t stop you! There can only be so many food startups before the market is too crowded. When you find a niche and do social good, your competition will most likely be nowhere to be seen, at least not at the moment. At the Pitch with Purpose competition startup, I was not just the only Hong Kong representative, but also the only Asian nominee. And as I am writing this, I am invited for a Hong Kong-based competition that celebrates entrepreneurs who are both tech and social.
Where to start
Hong Kong faces multiple issues at the moment: what to do with the ageing population? Underemployed youth? Air pollution? Long waiting lists for medical care? The list is endless. To expect the government to jump in and solve all of these issues is unrealistic. But that doesn’t mean we should just shrug our shoulders and move on. The answer is quite simple: put social good at the core of your business plan and come up with a sustainable and scalable solution. You can’t tackle all issues, but the startup community could do it together.
If you do decide to go the social way, the rules of the game remain the same. Think carefully about your concept, create a prototype and validate your idea with friends and others that you trust. Constructive feedback will push you to create an even better product and to come up with a truly innovative product or service. Make sure that you love your own idea and that you can see yourself doing it for years. If not, you probably shouldn’t go further because running a social good business asks a lot from you. You will see a lot of social injustice and unethical practices that will drive you crazy. And not only do you need to create a, solution for a social ill, you also need to convince the client and bring them value. Because without them you can’t do any good.
Customers love buying and doing good
The dream of every business is that customers are either physically or virtually lined outside the door to get your services. Doing good is an added value. Many people want to do good, but they don’t always have the time to volunteer or donate. So if your product is better than what is currently on the market and doing good is at the core, you have set yourself up for success. Of course there is still the potential that it goes south, but with a solid business plan that has been validated, you are headed in the right direction.
Everyone wants to work for you
In order to be truly sustainable, scalable and profitable, you will need to find the right people to work for you. In a place like Hong Kong, this is very challenging and turnover rates are high. When you start out, you may not be able to offer competitive salaries, but your social mission should convince those who want to do good. Ultimately these are exactly the people that you want to work with so the self-selection will only aid you. As you grow, more and more people will come to you and even beg you to give them a job.
You are probably thinking “all good and well, but it’s not that easy.” Let me conclude this article by telling you my story. I was an investment banker for 9 years doing mathematical modelling, and even though I enjoyed it, when I found out that my foreign domestic worker had paid 3 monthly salaries, 21 times the legal limit, to find her job with me I was appalled. These domestic workers leave their children behind with the hopes of providing for them and to lift the entire family out of poverty, but instead they are taken advantage of. After doing research, I found out that actually my helper had been “lucky”; she had her passport and her fee was less than average. But the issues of overcharging, confiscating passports, and forcing helpers to work for abusive employers are widespread. In fact, 95% of domestic workers in Hong Kong face some form of exploitation according to a 2016 report from the Justice Centre Hong Kong.
I investigated the current markets and realized innovation and ethics were the answer. Almost all domestic workers find their jobs through employment agencies as they have no direct safe access to employers. Because of unethical agencies, they often end up in forced labour and what we call modern slavery. At the same time, employers are also unhappy with the agencies services and many faced hidden fees. My business partner and I came up with a business plan that aims to eradicate illegal placement fees for domestic workers and to stop modern slavery by empowering both the employer and the helper.
We founded HelperChoice and in its early days it was a very rough model to test the market and within days we received so many signups from both employers and helpers that we realized we had found the right model. Of course we had to make some changes and we continue to innovate to offer our clients the best website to find an employer or domestic helper. There are days I’m frustrated that domestic workers continue to be in forced labour, but we have already helped over 5,000 to find a job debt-free. The workers love us and so do the employers who tell us they never hired better helpers.
We are able to do social good due to technology and we continue to innovate and find new ways to help more workers. There are 340,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong and we aim to not just help all of them, but to also empower all other 11.5 million migrant domestic workers worldwide to find good employers and jobs that they are comfortable with. We dream big and so should you!
What are you waiting for?
There is a lot that we can do, especially in a city that is mostly left to its own devices. We entrepreneurs should not just focus on making bucket loads of money and becoming Hong Kong’s first unicorn, but instead create globally-recognized companies that make the world better. Join us and become a change maker!
Laurence Fauchon is Co-Founder and CEO of HelperChoice.com, a social impact startup eradicating illegal agency placement fees by connecting employers and domestic workers directly. Laurence strongly believes in startups that change the world for the better.