Building An Operating System for the Good Economy

Vibrant startup ecosystems are growing across the globe.  Among them are communities of entrepreneurs and the individuals and institutions working with them to build enterprises that deliver both financial and social returns to all of their stakeholders. We call this the “Good Economy.”

But geographic barriers continue to limit the ability of these entrepreneurs to scale up their businesses. They often struggle to find mentors and advisors with market knowledge, service providers with specialized expertise, investors and grantors who share their vision, and customers and partners willing to give them a chance.  Incubators and accelerators are playing a critical role, but they only have so much capacity to support the wide ranging, ever changing needs of enterprises as they grow.

This struggle is mirrored for the investors and donors who believe that inclusive business models and sustainable ventures are the answer to many of the world’s most complex development problems.  They are seeking to deploy their capital in the most intelligent ways possible and too often they follow the path of least resistance.  It’s hard and expensive for them to identify and collaborate with the in-country service providers, mentors and advisors capable of transforming ventures to the point where they can readily absorb investment.

Many of us are preparing to convene next week at SOCAP13 to celebrate and support the work of entrepreneurs who are changing our world for the better.  But a lot of the faces in the crowd will be familiar.  Often lost in the shuffle are those that can’t make it to San Francisco. Who won’t we meet? How much capacity for change is lost as a consequence?  This is where technology, particularly online networks, can play a greater role.

We need to find a way to bring the network to more entrepreneurs, rather than expecting the entrepreneurs to come to the network.  We need to extend our reach and reduce friction in the Good Economy for it to thrive and truly reach its potential.

Pieces of what is needed are emerging — services for matching mentors to startup companies, for sharing due diligence among investors, for making investment data more transparent for both investors and entrepreneurs, and more.

Now what's needed is the interoperability and interconnection of those pieces. In short, the Good Economy needs an “operating system”:  a collection of linked online networks that support the scaling of social enterprises and foster communities with shared purpose around regions, industries, movements and institutions.

Defining the standards for this operating system must be a collective effort.  But in order to start the discussion we would propose that the operating system must:

  • be entrepreneur-centric, for it is the entrepreneurs that are the source of our collective success;
  • help us collaborate and connect;
  • provide market transparency and liquidity, as well as privacy;
  • allow entrepreneurs to tell their stories more effectively, in their voice and to a broader audience;
  • reduce market friction, accelerate growth and improve the odds of success;
  • be secure, respectful and engender confidence;
  • create an interface for the institutions that operate as development finance providers and multilaterals, for these are (by far) the purveyors of the most significant amounts of capital earmarked for development and small enterprise support;
  • support the open exchange of information between its component pieces, including platforms for relationship building, education, transactions and content; and,
  • reflect our norms, vocabulary and mission.

These are challenging goals and we are at the beginning of a long road.  But this is work worth doing. Our era provides unprecedented opportunities for social entrepreneurs with innovative ideas and passion to solve the pressing challenges facing our world.  But helping them connect to services, capital and people across the Good Economy is an obstacle we must work together to solve.  If we succeed we will have dramatically improved their prospects for success and our collective capacity to foster change.

Have an opinion? Have a piece that you want to plug into the operating system?  Join us for a discussion of the Operating System for Entrepreneurs in the Good Economy at SOCAP13 on Wednesday September 4th at 5:30pm (in the Firehouse).  Even if you can’t be there, please join the discussion by adding a comment below.

(Editor's note: Peter Gardner is founder and CEO of StartGrid Inc., which connects entrepreneurs to resources, relationships and community. Also on the panel at SOCAP are Audrey Selian, director of the Artha Initiative, Penelope Douglas, chair of Social Capital Markets, and David Bank, editor and CEO of Impact IQ.)

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