Categorized | Social Entrepreneur

Nora Firestone: The Social Entrepreneur, InnerSide Out

Nora Firestone

I liken the social entrepreneur of this day and age to the past pioneers of any frontier. As a journalist, I see the world changing by the millisecond; as an entrepreneur, I’m excited about the constant flow of opportunity that presents. But as founder of ThankingOfYou.com, the Web-based “monumental movement” to recognize, affirm and honor the people who’ve made a difference in our lives, I’m a virtual babe in the woods of cyber space, fully aware that the umbilical cord won’t stretch for eternity and wondering how I might sustain myself and my mission in this new era of Web-based everything and short supply of appropriate business models for monetization. True to the nature of the social entrepreneur, I listened as the potential to positively influence the lives of others beat louder on my heart strings than did the prospects for profit I might find in any business model.

Then again, what’s a business model? I’ve ventured onto entrepreneurial turf numerous times before—like a toddler with tunnel vision and some fundamental sense of sure-footedness based only on the success of each last step—and experienced the glorious realizations of the visions: The joys of merging a passion with a paycheck; the rush of the creative flow once it’s forged an outlet; the sheer fun and lessons of the bumps, falls and bootstrap pick-me-ups along the way. The “big guys” in business would surely have called it naiveté, but that’s precisely why I’d never thought to ask their opinions about my own savory explorations. And exactly why I’d never—ever—researched a business model in those days. What did a stranger know about my passion, business, insights, creativity and potential for big things, anyway? Except, perhaps, that some statistics somewhere on Earth could surely predict my failure to “arrive” because I’d taken a route which hadn’t been proven and praised within the corporate boardroom. An ideal business model, I instinctively understood, was simply a formula for me making a profit by creating something that I loved to produce. If it worked for me, it proved a great model for me. If it didn’t, I adapted. Even those adaptations meant something different in every instance. I wouldn’t have dreamt of surrendering precious time to self-doubt, as I’d always noticed that the ticking of the clock seemed synchronized with my own internal metronome.

So now here we all are: across the line of a new frontier in business. Social entrepreneurs in a digital world, trying to positively impact at least a corner of the real world, and in daily pursuit to unearth undiscovered gems, fruits and roots of valuable wisdom. I’m toddling among all the other “babes”, observing, interacting and feeling my way in the hunt for sustainability without a tangible product to trade but with a concept of amazing, life-changing potential for those who engage. For free. Traditional business models won’t work when applied to many of our endeavors. We’re having to adapt, innovate and reinvent—paradoxically, a requirement so precisely in line with the nature of the creative entrepreneur. The lights in my lab are always burning these days; one day it’ll all click and I’ll have discovered how to authentically monetize my mission. Let me know if you want to compare notes.

Meanwhile, I’ll share what I’ve discovered about internal resources.

The best advice I “never got” I had to compile for myself: Learn from experience and from history and listen to the experiences and opinions of others, but know yourself like nobody else knows you and never sell yourself short.

You’re an entrepreneur—and likely a social entrepreneur—by nature. You’re a breed; you’re an explorer, designer and engineer of dynamics of some sort; you know how you best learn, function, produce and thrive. You have some kind of special brilliance about you—as everyone does—and yours has the potential to change the directions of entire systems, big and small. By nature, you’re different from the majority of people whom you’re likely to meet in your lifetime. Embrace that. It took me a little grappling at the start of this venture to maintain my footing in the realm of self-confidence, but it was worth it.

I almost had a business partner in the beginning. She was, and still is, one of my dearest friends. I’ll call her “Em.” From the moment I told Em about my design to develop ThankingOfYou.com she jumped on board emotionally. She saw the vision immediately; she recognized many of the same implications I’d understood; she noted some of the same applications I’d envisioned. She “wanted in!” Pleased with her shared sense of enthusiasm, I welcomed her along for the ride. I inherently knew, however, that this was new territory, in a new age, and that I’d be feeling my way around for a while. I’d be going as much or more on instinct and foresight than on tradition and history. I was comfortable with that, even excited by it. I expected to have overall control of the business and never desired to have a full partner. To me, bureaucracy is a fun-killer, and if I wasn’t having some fun at this it wouldn’t be worth all the hard work ahead. I also know myself well enough to be very confident in my ability to glean information and trustworthy opinions on which to help base my business decisions. Em offered to invest a fair amount of start-up money and, although it went against every fiber in my body, I almost accepted. The deal, however, was that she’d have 15 to 20 percent partnership rights.

As weeks passed, Em became more territorial and domineering in mindset. She felt free, for instance, to tell me that she didn’t want a specific non-profit to be a beneficiary of a donations link on-site because the organization didn’t have national appeal. It “wasn’t a smart business move,” she said. But that single link was only one of a potential infinite number of links; there was plenty of room for other national and global causes. Em was failing to see my big-picture “tree” for the old traditional “forest.” My mission was exactly all about thanking and supporting the “little” things people did for one another. Incorporating this regional organization was a very grass-roots, “organic” thing to do. And, most importantly, it helped fuel my spirit. Without spirit, the whole idea would be destined to fail. Em’s objection made no sense to me and was only the first in a series of others, like her disapproval of the Web site developer having called me to discuss a meeting we’d just had, rather than calling her. Then one day, trying to make a point, she cited the published opinion of some “expert” who’d declared that entrepreneurs were not, and could not be, leaders—something about our creative natures preventing us from effectively directing. I wondered what Steven Spielberg or Bill Gates would say to that and, more importantly, why she’d chosen to believe it.

I also think that Em’s mindset led her to judge me as a person—something that tends to evoke anxiety in me. I have an active, growing family, around whose schedules and needs I have to work. I see my ability to do this as adaptability, without which I’d never accomplish anything at this stage in my life. Em never said it, but I sensed that she judged me as disorganized. For me, every project, every stage of life, is a work in progress. Therefore, to judge is almost always to pre-judge. And I don’t see that tendency as fair, productive or wise. In fact, I believe it’s foolish. But only because Iknow and I trust myself at least as much as I trust anyone else on Earth. And that’s the mindset that leads to resilience and persistence, without which too many great ideas end up flapping on cutting room floors worldwide, often only to be picked up by someone else willing to act with more resilience and persistence to give them life.

Finally, Em requested a 50/50 partnership in exchange for the money she’d planned to invest and her efforts during the initial launch period. I knew that I didn’t want to be responsible for gains or losses of her investment—too much unnecessary pressure—and that for this project to work it would take much more than efforts at the launch. That ongoing effort would be my responsibility and I dreaded the thought of all the obstacles we’d hit along the journey because we didn’t see eye-to-eye on the fundamentals. Hesitantly, I increased my offer to forty percent partnership and Em declined. I felt relieved and I think she did too. I took a personal loan for start-up costs—something I didn’t take lightly and don’t believe anyone should. I had to ask myself honestly whether or not I’d be okay with having spent the time and money on this project even if the only “gain” it ever produced was that people who’ve made a difference in the lives of others finally discovered the lasting, positive impact they’d had in their lifetime. From Day One I’d understood the profound, life-affirming impact this could have on the recipients of the stories of gratitude posted at ThankingOfYou.com. I decided that it was worth it; that if nothing else, it was my way of honoring and “paying forward” the gifts others have given me. And, based on the testimonials of people who’ve engaged—a woman who finally reached out to thank her sister after years of estrangement and, in doing so, has rekindled a relationship that’s changed both of their lives; a woman who wrote that discovering the influence she’d had on another has brought her “closer to God”; and my own former teacher, who told me he can hardly express the fulfillment he feels knowing that he’d impacted the life of a student so profoundly as to inspire this movement—I see that this was the right decision. I’m motivated to continue and further develop the mission and am currently actively focused on creative funding.

I now believe that one inherent and critical difference between Em and I is that she’s naturally inclined to not act, forfear, and I’m naturally inclined to act, despite fear. Em’s simply more comfortable with the tried-and-true; I’m perfectly at home with the try-it-and-see. Neither personality type is “wrong”; our personalities serve us individually in different ways.

This may be the same difference between you and those closest to you. And it’s perfectly okay. Stay grounded, consider the opinions and experiences of those who have gone before you in the entrepreneurial spirit, focus on those who do support your vision and stay in tune with your wisest inner voice. Read a good book now and then—I recommend “The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success” by Deepak Chopra, “Tribes” by Seth Godin, and “No B.S. Time Management for Entrepreneurs” by Dan Kennedy. Maybe watch a Steven Spielberg flick, too.

You’re a breed, a pioneer, a “babe in the (new) woods.” Welcome. From my perspective, you’ve already “come a long way, baby!”

Nora Firestone is a Virginia Beach-based journalist and the founder of ThankingOfYou.com, the Web-based forum for posting and receiving stories of gratitude (messages of thanks) to recognize, affirm and honor the people who’ve made a difference in our lives. Founded in early 2008 and launched in ‘09, ThankingOfYou.com was inspired by Firestone’s own longtime desire and unsuccessful search to thank two elementary school teachers who’d each said or done something that left a lasting, positive impact on her as she grew. Now people worldwide can express their gratitude to anyone—teachers, mentors, friends, rescue workers, charities, even strangers—no matter where they are today, nor how much time has passed. Firestone speaks and interviews about the power of gratitude and its role in the everyday experience and can share key concepts from her upcoming book. Contact her at 757-705-7174 or[email protected]

Gratitude affirms life. Express yours at www.ThankingOfYou.com

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