Categorized | Social Entrepreneur

Social Company: GeboMana helps you make a difference one t-shirt at a time

Why start a social venture?

Many people come to a point in their life where they realize they want to do more with the talents they have. The next step is doing something about it. That, essentially is the story of Mike Boorn, Ruby Reyes and Scott Foster, who began to build in early 2009 from modest beginnings in Sydney, Australia.

Prior to starting GeboMana, Mike had twenty years’ experience in consulting and running businesses, across the globe. For Mike the realization was simple: “If my expertise is in marketing and delivering what consumers want, what would happen if I applied my skills on a much larger scale?” He wanted a scale where millions of people make a real difference to the world we live in, even though the contribution of each may seem small at the time.

From that basic promise GeboMana was born. Gebo is old norse for ‘gift’ or gifting’ and in essence that is what GeboMana is all about. With GeboMana ordinary people can contribute to making a big difference to the development of the world, simply by giving somebody a T-shirt. Sounds easy?

Mike quickly realized that getting GeboMana up and running was far from easy. From his experience in launching startups in the past, he knew that a solid business plan was essential. The first step of getting GeboMana off the ground was to spend the first six months creating a solid business plan, and work closely with an international branding consultant. Mike also approached a seasoned serial entrepreneur in Melbourne, John Perry, who helped Mike to get budgets and cash flow estimations to a point where they were solid, realistic and would withstand investor scrutiny.

The Challenges

“The first big challenge was to achieve production of a top quality fashion product in developing countries that would meet the demands of discerning consumers worldwide”. Says Mike Boorn from GeboMana. “The journey started in India and then moved to Bali, where the quality is great but the productivity was… not so.”

Ruby, the second partner in the GeboMana enterprise ended up spending almost three months out of six in Bali, Indonesia to get the production up and running, enabling the enterprise to deliver a top quality product.

GeboMana is different from other startups in that it is a social enterprise and provides 15 – 20% of sales revenue to the Gebo Foundation, which supports children’s education in developing countries like Bali, Indonesia. Scott, Mike and Ruby spent a significant amount of time researching different NGOs in Bali and meeting with their executives to get a sense of how they operate and how effectively they put donations to work in the field. Eventually it came down to a choice of three— FNPF, DINARI Foundation and Habitat for Humanity. When speaking about their final decision, Ruby Reyes says “each of them work on different aspects of helping children and whole communities to escape the poverty trap and change the environment they live in through education and development.”

Find Your Passion

“My best advice to budding social entrepreneurs…” says Mike, “is to hang out only with people who believe it’s possible. Many people will comment on your project along the lines of ‘That is very noble what you are trying to do’, while you can feel ‘Get a job!’ is all they’re thinking.”

“You will only withstand all the criticism and derision if you truly follow your heart. So rule number one is always to find out what your true passion is—and follow it!”

“Another key ingredient is to test and listen to the feedback”, says Mike Boorn. Mike’s team established early on that they needed in-depth feedback from a wide group of consumers. He continues: “In order to do that you need to build a ‘prototype’, a product, your packaging, a web site and so forth. Only then can you show the consumer what the experience will be like and get honest feedback.”

Finally, Mike offers this advice: “Do something real! If you can, create a venture that directly affects the people on the ground through your efforts and the efforts of those you gather as a crowd. If your aim is to make a change in the world, provide your assistance in the area that is as close as possible to where you perceive the problem lies.”

“Remember that people that are less privileged are often born into that situation and have not had the education and hence the understanding of what they have as resources and what they can sell to the world. That is where you come in. Whether it’s helping the underprivileged build a better mousetrap, market their wares to buyers, or other forms of assistance; we believe you need to apply yourself directly for the most effective change to occur.”

For GeboMana the way this has played out is that the fabric for the GeboMana T-shirts is knitted in Indonesia, the sewing, printing and embellishment is done in Bali, even the packaging is sourced locally. “In many ways it would have been so much easier for us to source the product elsewhere but that goes against what we stand for”, says Scott Foster, the General Manager of GeboMana.

To this Ruby adds: “Seek sustainability in how you implement your solution. Giving poor people a handout is a very short term answer. Giving them a hand-up so they can help themselves creates a long term solution. When you bring in trade and education they can continue providing for themselves even if you’re no longer there to feed them. Have sustainability in the forefront of your decisions and actions and your results have a better chance for the long run.”

Build for scalability – think big!

“In the end you should check whether your solution can scale to solve the issue you wish to address. Can you get enough people to change their habits as consumers/donors/volunteers for you to achieve the outcome you have your sights on?”, says Mike Boorn. “Conversely, see if you can break down your goal to steps that are so small that it’s easy to succeed with any of those steps.”

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