Entrepreneurship vs. Replicaneurship: Why is Reinventing the Wheel so Popular among Changemakers?
Here’s what I’ve been thinking about lately: why do so many social enterprises and NGOs start from scratch instead of replicating a previous model? By extension, does ego and the drive to be unique have anything significant to do with it? Or is it just operational challenges, resistant stakeholders (like governments) and the nature of funding that prevents most social enterprises from going “McDonalds” with their model? More profoundly, in a world where we keep touting the virtues of collaboration and doing things “together” why does it seem that the predominant social change model presupposes individual organizations growing “big and strong” rather than spreading their idea and business model seeds out “far and wide”? So instead of McDonalds, why is it less common to have more blatant “me too” brands like Burger King’s, Wendy’s, Jack in the Box, Quicks and Lotterias in the world of social enterprises, if the world is crying out for more (good) burgers?
I don’t know if this term has been coined somewhere else, so pardon me for not citing credit, but perhaps we want to consider the possibility of “replicaneurship” as another viable career option to us, rather than classical “entrepreneurship”. Immediately I am thinking of the role of competition vs. cooperation and that its premises seem to potentially conflict with the basic dual purposes of social enterprises to be somewhat self sustaining (like turning a profit) while pursuing social mission that should reach as far as possible. Well, what do you do when two social enterprises work next door to each other with very similar goals? Do they shake hands and live happily together? Do they get married (merge)? Or do they fight it out with a smile for the same world of donors and investors and let the “fitter” survive? Or do they fight and don’t smile?
My suspicion is that we are trying once again to have our cake and eat it. In this case, perhaps one problem in the way of replicaneurship is that funders keep asking (look at almost every social innovation competition) for uniqueness. They ask for ideas that have never been seen before and will change the world because of their novelty. I would question: while novelty is perhaps more interesting to hear as a judge and a funder at a cocktail party with other funders, is it necessary to affect the social change we seek? I cannot help but think that the answer should be “no”. But hey, I might be wrong. Depending how much this keeps me at night from sleep, I may have to think about it harder and write some thoughts down in a future posting.
For now, I wanted to leave you with some more questions to ponder this week: do you share my suspicion that in the world of “doing good” we seem a little too concerned about uniqueness and interesting things at the expense of pragmatically supporting the efforts of “replicaneurs” – those who don’t mind taking an existing idea and even entire brand/model and simply ask for money to start it in another geography or with another type of audience? I don’t mean to make a blanket statement here because having been a judge I of course know that some of the best social enterprises today did some heavy “creative borrowing” from other existing ideas. I know that “concepts” like “mobile banking” are the latest fashion and that companies start popping up left and right everywhere.
My contention though, is this: out of 100 social entrepreneurs today who start a company, how many of them research existing ideas and companies? One would hope quite a few. But then if I ask how many of them ever APPROACHED the existing companies and asked for using its brand or partnering or helping it replicate in the aspiring entrepreneurs own region, I suspect the number drops to single digits. Again, tell me if you disagree, but that is my perception.
If that is true, it would lead me to wonder why it then is that everyone wants to have their own brand, own company and own everything, instead of being as happy being a “McDonalds” franchisee or partner – if what they supposedly care about is selling burgers, i.e., doing good and saving the world? Is it ego? Is it ambition? Is it the thrill for challenge? Or is it the fault of funders for demanding uniqueness and newness to pour money into? Or is it that the people with the original bright ideas are unable, reluctant or cautious about sharing their thought, time and resources with would-be replicators?
If you agree that if our real honest goal is to do social good and right as many wrongs as possible, does that not put companies at odds that by virtue of a limited funder pool have to compete to be noticed and rewarded? If the core goal is NOT just doing social good but doing it on “our way” with “our logo” and for “our recognition”, then I am afraid we will take a lot, lot longer to reach those lofty poverty alleviation or whatever goals because we’ll waste a lot of time heckling the same funders for their money while “finding” our business models (that already exist in the Ashoka catalogue of social entrepreneurs for +20 years).
In a world where we long for heroes and rockstars with “unique sound” to inspire us, I wonder if those of us in the business of social good should also seriously consider the roles of being the drummer or bassists (see a previous post) or, in my example here, humbly starting their own cover band because everyone loves U2 everywhere. After all, it takes less time and effort to buy your own guitar to play U2 songs than trying to write new U2 songs, doesn’t it? Meanwhile, your would-be fans are longing for your performance!
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