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4 Things Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Successful Social Movements

When Occupy Wall Street took over Zuccotti Park, in the heart of the financial district in Lower Manhattan, they inspired the nation and the world. Soon, similar protests soon began popping up in nearly 1000 cities in 82 countries. It was a massive outpouring, but within a few months the protesters had disappeared, achieving little if anything at all.

The Otpor movement in Serbia began with much less fanfare. In the beginning, at least, it seemed to be made up of little more than some teenage pranks. Yet within a few short years, they emerged victorious, ending the reign of dictator Slobodan Milošević. The contrast between Occupy and Otpor couldn’t be more stark.

As I explain in my TED talk, the difference in outcomes is no accident. The members of Otpor have since gone on to reproduce their results by training activists in successful movements such as the Color Revolutions in Eastern Europe and the Arab Spring. Entrepreneurs who seek to create their own brand of transformational change can learn a lot from Otpor’s principles.

1. Make Your Purpose Clear

While Occupy’s message of “the 99% vs. the 1%” inspired many, it was also confusing. What, exactly, did the 99% want from the 1%? How did they define success? That was never made clear and interviews with leading activists did little to straighten things out. There were, of course, a long litany of grievances, but few credible calls for actual change.

Occupy activists, on the other hand, couldn’t have been more concrete.They sought the overthrow of a brutal and corrupt regime that had dragged their country into war and poverty. It was an ambitious goal to be sure, some might even say it was quixotic. But they were clear about it from the start and never wavered.

Entrepreneurs starting a business face many of the same challenges. Most begin with ambitions, such as to go to market with a product or service, to capture market share or even to have a successful exit and retire to their own private island, but none of those things qualify as a true purpose.

Look at any enterprise that is consistently successful over time and their mission drives their strategy. It is that sense of purpose that allows them to attract talent, communicate with customers and plan for the future. So if you want to create a superior enterprise, don’t look to for a great idea, look to solve a meaningful problem.

Successful revolutions don’t begin with a slogan. They begin with a cause.

2. Have A Plan

Having a clear objective is critical for any movement, but it’s just as important to develop a plan for achieving it. Occupy’s plan seemed to be to encourage enough people to live out on the streets for long enough that the banks would take notice. Unfortunately, homelessness is not an attractive option for most people, so it’s no surprise that the movement withered.

Entrepreneurs often run into the same problem. They start with an idea for a product or service, print up business cards and maybe create a slick presentation deck, but don’t think things through much further than that. Here again, the principles of successful movements can help point the way forward.

The first concept is called the spectrum of allies. You outline those who you expect to get early support from, either actively or passively, but also start thinking about those who will be neutral or resistant to your idea and how you are going to shift them to your side or, at the very least, nullify their opposition.

The second concept is called the pillars of support. These are institutions you need to win over to your side. In revolutionary social movements like Otpor, these tend to be things like the media, the education system and the police. For entrepreneurs it will be organizations like distribution channels, trade associations, consumer groups and professional societies.

While the concept of disruption has become fashionable, the truth is that it never lasts. At some point, you will need to become part of the establishment to affect real change. After all, Martin Luther King couldn’t pass the Civil Rights Act — or any legislation — by himself. He needed politicians like Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy to do that.

3. Work Up To Mainstream Appeal

Every social movement begins with a team of dedicated activists. These are true believers who are willing to struggle and endure in order to achieve their goals. It is their passion and dedication that drive the movement forward, even when it faces seemingly insurmountable odds.

Yet for any movement to spread it needs to attract others and make them feel that it is their movement too. That takes more than just raw passion, it also takes, as Srdja Popović, one of the founders of Otpor, pointed out to me, both discipline and a certain sense of humor. To be successful, a movement has to be something that everyone want to be a part of.

Entrepreneurs face a similar dilemma. A startup, as Steve Blank points out in The Four Steps to the Epiphany, begins by marketing to the few, not the many. They recruit hungry young talent that are willing to pull all-nighters and live on Ramen noodles. Yet to scale, they will need to grow their consumer base and hire people who also want a life outside of work.

In both cases, there will be a conflict between the purists who see the newcomers as interlopers and those who recognize the need for a bigger tent that makes everyone feel welcome. When the purists win, the enterprise is lost.

4. Survive Victory

In a sense, both movements and startups are both entrepreneurial enterprises. They work long and hard, overcoming enormous obstacles in order to achieve a single goal, whether that be the downfall of a tyrannical regime or the launch of a hit product. In both cases, success can be intoxicating.

As Popović points out in his book, Blueprint for Revolution, this is the most dangerous point, because what lies ahead is not greater glory, but a return to the hard work of incremental advancement. Activists must learn the vagaries of legislation and the art of painful compromise. Entrepreneurs must hone operations and develop organizational acumen. That’s a difficult shift to make.

Part of the problem is that, much like how budding social movements attract activists, startups attract people who like to work at startups. Nothing in their experience equips them for the challenges ahead, which require less adrenalin and more deliberation. It takes grit to move from adoring crowds and glowing media coverage to quiet, painstaking work.

So activists and entrepreneurs alike must at some point decide whether it is more important to make a point or to make a difference. It is one thing to emerge victorious from the heat of a glorious battle, but quite another to return the next day and renew the often mundane task of doing the work that needs to be done.

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