Business Advice, Startup Advice

From KeepCups to volunteering: Three ways to build a business that will have an positive impact

Emma Koehn /

Vollie co-founders Matt Boyd and Tanya Dontas

Vollie co-founders Matt Boyd and Tanya Dontas

Few entrepreneurs are driven by the idea of dollars alone.

Ask a company founder why they decided to persevere through the early years of rejection and many will cite a need to drive social change or change customer’s lives, rather than the promise of future growth.

But a good idea alone is never enough: to build a business that is both sustainable and has an impact, founders need patience, clarity and planning.

Here are three ways to build a business that makes a difference — and can go the distance.

1. Try to solve a problem people want solved — and be ready to roll with it  

Developing an idea that will have a long term impact comes down to taking a step back and understanding how people actually act, not just what their desired outcomes are, says co-founder of volunteering platform Vollie, Matthew Boyd.

The Vollie platform connects skilled volunteers with projects that can be completed remotely, and Boyd says the platform is able to alleviate communication breakdowns in a very straightforward way, with the end result being more people volunteering their time.

“The way I pitch it is directly to the needs of customers. And by understanding what we’re dealing with — because managing volunteers is incredibly time consuming, and there are preconceptions on both sides,” he says.

“[For] non-profits, [it’s] around how unreliable volunteers can be. The other side of the coin is that highly skilled volunteers have tried to volunteer in the past and have come across so much red tape. Both sides mean well, but unfortunately some times those things break down.”

Once you’ve formulated an idea or product that has an obvious impact on changing behaviour, it’s important to remember the process is a long game.

At the start of this month, KeepCup co-founder Abigail Forsyth told SmartCompany the reusable coffee cup business had seen a massive surge in sales and enquiries after the issue the business tries to solve — waste caused by disposable coffee cups — got some fresh airtime via the ABC’s War on Waste television series.

The business has grown out of a Fitzroy garage into a $6 million caffeine-lovers’ favourite, but Forsyth says the business was ready to spring into action when a new wave of potential customers became informed about the problems caused by takeaway cups.

“A lot of people weren’t aware that we exist as a pretty good solution to this problem. Also, the awareness that we’re an Australian made product has been helping drive the demand,” Forsyth said.

You’ve just got to take a big bite and keep on chewing,” she said of growing the business.

2. Have something as part of your business’s DNA — then monetise it

Mexican fast food business Zambrero gave away its 15 millionth meal earlier this month, and founder Dr Sam Price told SmartCompany that for a business to make an impact, it has to be authentic.

Zambrero has been involved in a variety of social impact projects since it was founded in 2005, and Prince says that because this has been such a central priority, investments in these problems have at times been a more important priority than growing the network.

“I think the point of being a retailer is having a personality and showing it to the customer. It was the ability to let people in and what kinds of things we do in our spare time — and I would say it’s important to be authentic about what you’re doing,” he says.

Zambrero founder Dr Sam Prince.

Zambrero founder Dr Sam Prince. Source: Supplied

However, the ability to make a sustained impact comes down to how long your business stays around for, and Vollie’s Matthew Boyd says no matter what change you’d like to make, you have to make sure your startup is a profitable option.

I quit my job at the end of 2015, and in the start of 2016 I surrounded myself with a couple of business mentors who were in their 50s,” Boyd says.

“I was telling them about Vollie and the impact it was going to make, and they cut through all of that and just said, ‘Where’s the money’?’”  

Before discussing your idea with stakeholders or potential staff, it’s important to work out what impact you want your users to make, how to monetise this, and how you will scale this idea, he says.

The idea for me had come six months earlier, but before you meet a web developer or whatever, you have to have those financial plans in place,” Boyd says. 

3. Be patient

Radiation oncologist at Peter MacCallum Cancer Bronwyn King never imagined she’d spend her life talking to the business and finance community, but today she has hundreds of meetings with money managers to discuss an important social health issue.

As chief executive of Tobacco Free Portfolios, King spends part of her jam-packed days working with people in the world of finance to implement tobacco-free investment mandates.

In a TED Talk delivered in Sydney this week, King discussed how important it is for all parts of the community to help solve challenges to public health, like smoking.

“The whole world needs to back up for a minute and learn about what’s actually going on. The issue of tobacco is not new and doesn’t seem to attract the headlines that new, fresh issues do,” she tells SmartCompany 

Through her role, King says she’s gained valuable insights into how to persuade others to engage with social problems, and says you should never think things are all over just because someone isn’t immediately responsive to your pitch.

“The most difficult part is when I meet someone who just does not like what I’m trying to do,” King says.

“But I’ve seen hundreds of people who actually don’t like this work on first blush, then as soon as they learn a bit more, and realise the finance sector must be part of the solution, I witness a change right in front of my eyes.”

If entrepreneurs see something they think needs changing, they should be doing “everything they can to do it”, she says — but be prepared for incremental change.

“I’ve watched this happen time and time and time again [where people disagree with me] and although it can be a bit disappointing, I have a little smile to myself. And I think, I wonder whether this person will be calling me up in a few months asking whether they can help?’” she says. 

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Emma Koehn

Emma Koehn is SmartCompany's senior journalist.

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