Over more than three decades, I built a successful social impact branding business. During the pandemic, aka The Great Reassessment, I did some reassessment of my own and determined, in my 60’s, to transform my business. Rather than work with several branding clients at a time, I wanted to see if I could scale my social impact in more networked ways. I had ideas that had been gestating for a while, ideas I thought had promise – it was time to give birth to some impact-focused pandemic babies.
Since it’s the aim of Godspeed to provide provisions and inspiration for your social impact journey, I thought it would be relevant to share this journey.
Spoiler alert: The journey has been far tougher than I thought it would be.
My first order of business was to tell the Oliver Russell team about these plans, much of this over a cold and austere computer monitor on Zoom calls in the early, frightening days of the pandemic. I told the team we’d be going back into startup mode to see if we could amp up our impact and that all were welcome and wanted, but that I also understood this might not have been what they signed up for when they joined Oliver Russell.
Here's what happened: over the balance of the pandemic, my entire team left. Most found other jobs; additionally, one decided to take a self-health sabbatical, another chose to stay home with a newborn, and two started their own businesses; one a consulting firm and the other an environmental impact startup (yay!).
Ultimately, I think my team saw more clearly and pragmatically than did I the challenges this pandemic pivot would entail.
Unplugging the Revenue Machine
While I didn’t have everything figured out, I knew I’d never birth these babies if I pursued this as a side-gig while comfortably feeding at the profit trough of ongoing revenue from our legacy clients. So, I began the process of resigning from our clients – and said goodbye to more than seven figures of ongoing revenue.
Resigning clients meant a couple of things. Cash flow dwindled, then became nearly nonexistent as we entered the desert phase of this journey. I used rainy day funds to keep going. (Still using them and watching them decline each month.) And two, the business I’d built over 30 years became basically worthless – no revenue equals no exit and no asset for retirement.
What this DID give me was the spark of entrepreneurial urgency and a bracing slap of reality. As social entrepreneurs are wont to say, “No margin, no mission.” In my case, it quickly became “No money, no mortgage payment.”
Throwing Mud Against the Wall
Right now, I’m in the exploration phase, throwing mud against the wall to see what sticks across a range of ideas to scale social impact ventures:
Co-Working Space – Over the last two years I’ve been working to turn my office building in Boise into a hub and co-working space to build better businesses for our community.
B Corp Wear – It occurred to me there wasn’t a place to buy merchandise for the growing B Corp community – so I designed some shirts and spun up an online merch shop.
Godspeed – I guess this newsletter falls into the category of determining if I can scale my impact experience to helpo readers and create a sustainable revenue stream through subscriptions.
I also took on a couple of nonprofit initiatives that helped to scale impact: Inspiration Alley Project, a crowdfunded experience marketing project to paint murals of social and environmental justice champions and engage the community in their stories; and City of Good – a nonprofit I co-founded to improve food security and build a sustainable local food system.
A Day in the Life
So, that’s my big family of pandemic babies.
Here’s what days with my “kids” feel like: That I’m using a divining rod to search out the best spot to dig a well. (I’m told by smart people I trust that this age-old practice really does work.) I’m veering from one spot to another, led by a force I can’t quite explain, in search of a place where there’s a wellspring that will allow me to use my remaining time on this planet to help more people than I could through the agency model I had pursued for 30+ years.
Though a few are generating (very) small revenues, none has demonstrated serious traction that warrants big-time optimism. They’ve taught me just how hard it is to capture attention and create engagement in the digital age.
The Haunted Sleep of an Entrepreneur
Some nights I’m haunted by questions of insecurity: Am I an old guy who’s tilting at windmills? Other nights I’m plagued by questions of the banking variety – the mortgage for my office building (and I) have landed in what they call their “Special Asset Group,” or what I call “SAG” – loans that are looking a little shaky in the current economic environment. Loans that are sagging. This, I guess, is what happens when you give up all your operating revenue.
Which quickly snowballs into the insecurity of other questions, such as: Am I in the twilight of my career scoring the real-life soccer equivalent of an “own goal”?
We’ll see – and I promise to check back on these projects periodically to let you know if some mud did stick to the wall. I’ll be forthright about the facts and details, the peaks and valleys – after all, sharing the hazards and treacherous currents, the short cuts and safe river crossings, is another way I can help you increase your chances of success in pioneering your own social impact journey.
Oh, finally: Since I’m new to this business, it hadn’t occurred to me that if you made it this far, it means you’ve subscribed as a paid supporter of this newsletter. To you, my friend and fellow traveler, I say, “Thanks – and Godspeed.”
P.S. Did you create a pandemic (business) baby – or know someone who did? I’d love to hear about it!