The Firesign Theatre once posed the question: “How can you be in two places at once when you’re not anywhere at all?” For those entrepreneurs launching a new and rapidly developing enterprise, this question makes perfect sense. First, seeing to current responsibilities and then doing whatever can be done to move from one sale or project to the next, and hopefully striking while the proverbial iron is hot, is the call of business action.
It’s an exciting and busy time for any entrepreneur, with visions of exceeding projections while terrified that you actually might. Business plans are always filled with statements like, “when we scale to our full capacity…” which, invariably in the beginning, is often the capacity of the entrepreneur him or herself. Isn’t that the goal of every business launch? “By month 4, we’ll be scaling our operations tenfold to meet an unprecedented demand.”
The successful development of a business, of course, is why the entrepreneur decided to forsake three years of life span in the first place. Having sailed forth on a number of such ventures in the past and present, I think I can speak to the excited overload one feels as the sails fill and the exhilaration of being carried forward, seemingly without feeling any feet on the ground, emerges before an endless horizon. I would suspect that most entrepreneurs would agree that “Unbeatable,” defines catching that wave. But extending the ride requires a business decision that can either cause everything to crash on the rocks, or allow the entrepreneur to head toward that invariable sunset. I would pose, however that the notion of scalability may not always be the right answer to reach the glorious glow.
But wait a minute, here. What business person in their right mind doesn’t want their business to grow? It could only be someone with very low self esteem who doesn’t think they deserve to succeed, right? Actually, not so much. When viewed within the context of complex adaptive systems, which is what we are obliged to do here in E:CO, we need to ask the question: is it growth we are really after? What we don’t always consider is that growth, by its very nature and definition, implies that something is eventually going to die. Now, nature doesn’t have much of a problem with death. We humans, well, that’s another story.
There’s also something else we need to consider, the distinction between an organism and an organization. When an organism dies, things pretty much come to an end. One is an ex-organism and growth is done. As an organization, however, we establish a network of interactions among the nodes of the system with the virtue being that if any one node (organism) were to die, the system as a whole could survive and continue on in one form or another. This does not mean to imply that we can shortstop death with an organization, but rather that we can certainly outlast something that would kill an organism, but might not take the whole system with it.
Scalability is growth at its most mechanistic and optimal iteration. What is good small is going to be good big. And in business, bigger is better, right? In fact, we’ve even created a new category for this business model: too big to fail. But that is yet another argument. What I want to address here is the most effective approach for distribution of a successful new venture. And one incredibly effective alternative to growth and scalability is development and replication. Growth might be implied, but it is not the whole perspective, and replication provides a more localized approach to outreach than simply creating a bigger footprint.
For an entrepreneurial enterprise, especially in the social sector, replication also incorporates a means of adaptability that scaling an operation doesn’t always take into account. Through replication we can take an inherently interactive and local approach, with all its most effective emergent processes, and adapt it to different situations and environments, according to those situations and environments, rather than just using scale to overwhelm the circumstances.
When we launched the Social Enterprise Zone and Lending4Change we realized that we had landed on a model that was not dependent on growing the organization to maintain its sustainable nature. Instead we took those aspects of the program that could be transferred, and replicated them for the various populations we were addressing. The program required certain elements for a homeless population, others for a social entrepreneurial population, and still others for groups like seniors or veterans. We could then train trainers to meet the needs of each of these populations where they were, proceed at their pace, and find support within the same communities that were already in place to serve them.
In following this course, we can maintain the local nature of all the players that make up the community of support. Each of them contributes something special to the mix that is particularly related to the local situation—the community development credit unions, which are chartered to lend within their specific community, form the financial base; the local corporations become a vast resource for both their business knowledge and wisdom and secondarily for their financial support; the local colleges and universities provide mentorship as well as the knowledge and education that kind be provided by its professors; and the local non-profits are then able to incorporate the knowledge, wisdom and educational processes they have gathered with a level of compassion for the community they serve. Each of these community players is unique to its location and to the communities they serve, but because each exists within communities far and wide, the model for replication is facilitated and sustained, with the added level of command control necessary within a scaled operation left behind. This model, in turn, encourages greater interaction and emergent opportunities which can be incorporated by a local community not dependent on a one-model-fits-all approach.
What this points to is that an enterprise that is not about mechanistically turning out one product after another, that is more related and interactive, that is serving the needs of people is more effectively developed through a process of replication than scalability. And perhaps it has been this drive within the social entrepreneurial world for finding scalable ideas that has been a key factor in limiting the success of these programs in communities where they emerge.
So if we return to the Firesign Theater’s initial question, “How can you be in two places at once when you’re not anywhere at all?”The answer any science fiction buff would give an entrepreneur is obvious, replicate.