Make more impact with fewer people

Growth means different things to different people. And it doesn't necessarily mean more headcount.

Entrepreneurs often joke that the perfect number of employees is one—the founder. Once you take on your first employee, you’ve got legal, tax, and payroll headaches that didn’t exist before.

And while you certainly can’t do everything yourself, there’s something to be said for keeping your company at the smallest size that will let you reach your goals. Social entrepreneurs have done some serious experimenting along these lines, and are starting to learn how to increase their impact without increasing the size of their companies.

Top innovators are often distinguished by their devotion to powerful ideas. Rather than focusing on making an organization and its brick-and-mortar operations ever bigger and more impressive, they look for ways to engage highly-connected, global networks that can spread their ideas virally.

Plus, building a larger organization often increases the complexity of a business beyond the managerial abilities of its staff. As the Stanford Social Innovation Review’s Jeffrey Bradach puts it, “[f]inding ways to scale an organization’s impact without scaling its size is the new frontier in the field of social innovation. If we can decipher the code on that problem, we will be able to affect the most critical challenges and opportunities facing society.”

So how do social entrepreneurs grow without growing? Those experiencing the most success are essentially open-sourcing social change. They’re using business strategies that bridge the online and offline worlds to mobilize huge support for their companies and their missions.

The challenge here is learning to let go of brands, intellectual property, and, to some extent, identity. Doing so allows companies to wield a new form of competitive advantage: superior efficiency and unprecedented impact through reliable access to diverse communities.

Entrepreneurs that want to open-source their growth have to get behind four principles:

  • Openness—to create a marketplace for the exchange of ideas, and to share results
  • Transparency—to establish a culture of meritocracy, where the best ideas always rise to the top
  • Decentralized decision-making—to nurture collaboration and foster bottom-up creativity
  • Distributed action—to solidify a framework that helps good ideas spread quickly

Ashoka Fellow Darell Hammond’s KaBOOM! is a social enterprise that aims to give all children a safe place to play,within walking distance of their homes. That’s a tough order, and as COO Bruce Bowman says, “We were only making a dent in the problem. We were building hundreds of playgrounds when we needed to be building thousands.”

In 2009, KaBOOM! rejected its “local chapter” approach in favor of a decentralized “network” strategy. The company gave away its non-profit model online, free of charge. Then it documented and codified the building process, published handbooks, and organized in-person training sessions for local leaders. The organization’s foray into open growth prompted the construction of more than 1,700 playgrounds across the United States—nearly as many as KaBOOM! had assembled itself during the previous decade and a half.

Following open-source principles helps ensure that your ideas are truly relevant to those you’re trying to reach, ultimately creating new opportunities for growth.

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