1. Spend some time getting to know your cohort members and other entrepreneurs.
Early on in the game, I would go to conferences like SOCAP with the sole goal of finding an investor. I’d work on perfecting my elevator pitch and networking with funders. Echoing Green helped me expand my tunnel vision approach. They place emphasis on expanding your borders beyond investors to other entrepreneurs. They helped me connect with other fellows, some of whom went to SOCAP.
I would really encourage you not to automatically move on when you encounter someone with an entrepreneur badge. Talking to other entrepreneurs has really changed our trajectory. We’ve met lot of our customers and our franchisees at conferences. I found a customer at SOCAP last year that allowed us to expand to Bihar. That wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t taken the time to talk to other entrepreneurs. I’ve actually learned more from other entrepreneurs than I have from investors because of the overlapping challenges that we have.
2. Build relationships with the right mentors.
Connecting with mentors can be super important to accessing the partnerships you need for scale. The Gratitude Network helped me really connect with mentors. Mentorship is in many respects more important than capital. Capital is actually easy to get nowadays if you prove that you have the willingness to execute. What is really difficult is finding the right people who can answer the right questions for you.
Here is a piece of advice I heard Vinod Khosla give: the biggest challenge you’ll have as an entrepreneur is knowing who to ask which question. Everyone will have an opinion but you should not follow everyone’s advice. Many funders have never been entrepreneurs. They may answer questions in a way that is completely out of touch. Building a strong sense of judgment on who to go to for answers is critical to success.
3. Keep building relationships with potential investors after the conference.
The number of entrepreneurs who do not follow-up after conferences is mind-boggling.
Know that investors are people who tend to invest in lines and not dots. I learned this hearing Adam Draper from Boost VC talk about entrepreneurship. Imagine a first interaction to be a dot on a graph charting your relationship with the investor. That dot involves a pitch where you mention who you are, why you are uniquely qualified to solving the social issue you are tackling, and also implies a certain trajectory when it comes to hitting milestones that de-risk your business. As great as your pitch may be, you must continue to build relationships with investors after the conference by providing periodic updates on your traction and ability to meet your pre-stated milestones. Following up shows that you are a credible entrepreneur who can really walk the walk. Fill out subsequent dots to create a line that trends upwards.
Your ability to stick to your work and show how you can execute on a plan can truly differentiate you from the pack. Before the conference, think about the overall trajectory you are signaling to investors. Take steps to ensure you will be able to deliver credible proof points on executing to that trajectory months after that initial conversation at SOCAP so you can get that much closer to not just a check, but also a credible reputation.
4. Invest the time to “live” the problem before advocating a solution.
Avoid being an “advocate.” Too often I meet people who have a specific mousetrap they wish to peddle to an unassuming community. Such force-fitting rarely results in an enduring solution. I’d recommend first removing all biases and spending time getting to know a community, and understanding where they prioritize a certain problem, such as lack of access to healthcare or clean water, in the larger context of issues they face.
Meaningfully connect with them and get to know the rhythm of their life, what makes them tick, what their aspirations are, and how current challenges are being dealt with. Only after establishing a deep connection will you have a fact pattern with “mentions” of certain problems. If say, after one week, there has been more mention of a lack of quality education over safe water, it’s safe to assume that there isn’t much will to engage in behavior change for a clean water solution as opposed to an educational initiative. These insights are critical to designing a solution that will actually be adopted.
About the Author: Minhaj Chowdhury is the co-founder and CEO of DrinkWell, a venture that is working to solve the global water crisis. After graduating from Johns Hopkins University, Minhaj won a Fulbright Fellowship and spent the next year in Dhaka, Bangladesh developing and testing three potential market-based solutions to the arsenic water crisis. He presented his findings to heads of Bangladesh Ministry of Health, UNICEF, WaterAid Bangladesh, Dhaka WASA, and the US Ambassador to Bangladesh. After his Fulbright, Minhaj spent two years helping public sector organizations design and deploy health insurance exchanges and data systems via Salesforce as a technology consultant. In 2014 Minhaj was named a 2014 Echoing Green Global Fellow, and won a scholarship to SOCAP and a Gratitude Award. In 2015 he was named one of Forbes Magazine’s 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs.
To hear more from Minhaj, read: SOCAP Conversations: Minhaj Chowdhury on Overcoming Challenges in Social Impact Work