Starting a new project, step 1: negotiating fog

I am a social entrepreneur. I start new not-for-profit projects and organisations to meet particular needs. That is all I do – I don’t have a ‘proper job’ that keeps me going while I get new things off the ground. I don’t provide consultancy on how to do it. I don’t stay for ever with the projects I have successfully started. I do this work full time and earn a living from it.

There are things about this way of working that I love, but there are things about it that I dislike, so much so that I spent a significant period trying to get out of start-up work after a string of set-backs. But I fared even worse in these other things, so I came back to start-ups, less idealistic and more accepting the downsides.

In a series of posts I want to describe my experiences, and I will try to be honest about both the good and the bad things. I am doing this because the act of writing this and putting it in a place where someone might see it (even if almost no-one does!) represents for me a significant step. Writing this forces me to process many thoughts and feelings. The key strength that I bring to start-up is not infallibility or invincible positivity – it is a long-term dogged determination to achieve a thing well beyond what many others would consider “reasonable”, and a selection of skills that is never enough to do everything, but just enough to get through till I can afford to create a team.

Having good ideas is the easy bit of the job. The difficult bits are working out how to make an idea viable, and sticking around long enough to turn it into reality, particularly when when you start with a zero budget and zero income, funders who do not like or understand start-ups and no chance of borrowing money against future profits!

The first step: seeing the need (just)

When I was travelling around the world in the late 1980s, I could see the difference between sustainable tourism and unsustainable tourism and it occurred to me that more needed to be done to promote the former. When I became a father, I felt many conflicts between my experience and what was expected of me from all the stuff we read and heard in the media. When I saw a child suffering the separation of her parents, I could see she needed more help. But in all these cases, my understanding of the problem at the time was limited. It was obvious something was wrong, but what exactly remained clouded in a fog.

We are taught not to make mistakes, which means we feel we should not do anything till we understand it completely. But if I applied that principle, I could never start anything. If you don’t understand something and cannot afford to do a PhD first, then engaging with it and being prepared to get things wrong is the only way forward. The early years of any project are really slow, groping about not seeing the way ahead, and full of false-starts. I have found no other way of finding the right way forward than making a best guess and quickly switching direction if it’s wrong. And I have found that the problem gets worse as I understand it more – there is usually a reason why no-one else is doing anything about the problem. I often think “if I had known it would be this complicated, I would never have started!” Over a period of years I began to understand just why sustainable tourism was not well promoted, why fatherhood was not supported, why children in separating families get overlooked.

I actually find stepping out onto a pathway with only the next few steps visible (if that) to be very unnerving. I am of a rather nervous disposition and so I spend a lot of time worrying about not knowing – am I about to step into a big hole? This is not an irrational fear, because I have stepped into a good many holes along the way and some of them have been horrid! As each project porgresses, things do get better, particularly as other people become involved – the topic of my next post.

  • Beck Laxton

    Interesting, Duncan. Yes, I think it’s the fetishisation of motherhood, and the martyr syndrome that many women adopt, that often stands in the way of fathers. Though I’m also finding myself these days seeing how far feminism still has to go, and I wonder if many women aren’t able to embrace equality in parenting because it still has so far to go in other areas, so for many it’s their only area of real power.

  • DuncanFisher

    I am not sure about this explanation, as the expectations of motherhood
    are felt also by women who are powerful. I think it is because there is
    an embedded belief that the mother-child bond is absolutely sacrosanct
    and that to mess with that harms the child for ever. Allowing multiple
    care, far from being seen as a good thing, is seen as an undermining of
    the unique bond and a betrayal of perfect motherhood. So there is a lot
    of guilt, felt by women whether or not they are powerful.