When to Go for It and Start an Organization

You have a great idea. You have the passion. But your landlord expects rent every month, you’re in a long-term relationship with Sallie Mae, and you’d like to eat when you’re hungry.

So how do you decide when to make the leap — to quit your job or dropout out of school, dip into your savings and/or increase your debt, and say: “I’m f—ing doing this. I’m starting an organization.”?

An article in Harvard Business Review has a more technical answer to this question and how it effects you personally (finances, reputation, etc.). I have a more strategic type of an answer.

In no particular order, here are my thoughts:

1. Crawl First

I already said how do you know “when to make the leap.” That’s actually misleading.  I think it’s actually a mistake to make a leap.  Before Aaron, Patrick, Matt and I decided to officially launch our organization, ServeNext, we tested the idea.  We had conversations with leaders in our field (national service) and made a short video to explain what we wanted to do.  The response was overwhelmingly positive.  At the same time, we were still students during this phase.  Without risking paychecks, we could gauge the value of our idea from leaders who we’d eventually need backing us.

2. Clear Need

There are too many nonprofits (both new and old).   There is a fatigue among funders to support new social change ventures.  Consider the recession and the risk averse nature of philanthropy, and startup funding is brutally hard to secure.  With all of these factors, it cannot be overstated how important it is to powerfully explain the need your new organization would address and why it’s not getting addressed with existing organizations.

Last year, I met with a very smart college senior who wanted to start a leadership development program for low income high school students.  Yes, very important and likely there needs to be more of this.  But she couldn’t explain why a new organization was needed; why existing groups were falling short (if, in fact, they were); how she would do it differently; etc.  I did NOT need to hear every detail of how her organization would work or expect her to know exactly, but I did need to understand why other groups were falling short in order to judge if her organization is needed.

Details of a new organization can come later, but first being able to explain the need is critical.

3. Partners and Advisers

The startup process is fun but rough — long days, progress can be slow, getting ignored by the world, and no money.  A partner makes a huge difference and I think it can be difference between success and failure.  The most surprising part of the startup phase for me was the loneliness and I even had a couple partners.  Going at it solo sounds brutal.  If you don’t already, I recommend finding a true partner who, with you, will do whatever it takes to bring an idea to life.

And beyond a co-founder, find some advisers.  For me, that was a combination of former professors and leaders in our field.  They did more than they realized.  Beyond the great advice, they were people who understood what we were trying to do and offered emotional support and encouragement.

4. “Credibility” Investors

Unfortunately, being a young founder is not generally an advantage.  Yes, adults love to talk about your energy and spirit and do-whatever-it-takes attitude.  But you need a lot more than that to raise money and build trust with other leaders and partners.

You’ll ultimately need financial investors (donors), but you’ll also need a handful of leaders to be your “credibility investors” — folks in your field who can be third party validation for you and your idea.  They can help you get meetings, raise money, and generally get taken more seriously.

For my organization, this was the single biggest reason we got off the ground.  Because of them, we raised about $100k and got national press less than a year after launching.  Without these folks, we don’t get far.

5. Thrive in Ambiguity

I’m often asked about the startup process “how did you know what to do?”  The answer is that I didn’t.  We had to figure it out.  That’s both scary and exciting.  If that uncertainty doesn’t give you a rush, then maybe you’re not ready or you don’t have the right idea or need a partner.  But if the unknown gives you energy and you have an idea you’re craving to spend more time working on, then you’ve got the most important ingredients to start moving.

Any others key factors you’d add to my list before really “going for it” and starting a new organization?

PS — worried about failing? Don’t — it’s a big benefit to your future.  Read my post: Benefits of a Failed Start-Up.

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