Shooting for the Moon: How can we make Social Missions as inspiring as Space Missions?

SiG Note: This article was originally published on Medium on January 21, 2016. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author.

In the last couple of months, the world has seen the successful SpaceX ORBCOMM-2 launch and landing, heard US Vice President Joe Biden’s ‘moonshot to cure cancer’, and witnessed the unsuccessful SpaceX attempt to land first stage of the JASON-3 rocket on a drone ship.

Now, I haven’t done a thorough analysis, but a quick check on Twitter shows that Joe Biden’s cure for cancer moonshot announcement received 1,792 retweets and 4,307 favourites while Elon Musk’s successful landing announcement received 5,494 retweets and a whopping 11,100 favourites. I’d argue that far more people are impacted by cancer than they are about the future of space exploration. So this delta is intriguing for me, and raises a variety of questions.

How might social moonshots be as inspiring and compelling as, well, actual moonshots? What if we followed social missions as closely as space missions? What if we embraced social mission failures as learnings, in the same way as we did the recent unsuccessful drone ship landing?

As a trained aerospace engineer, having worked in the field for a few years and now working on things that help us do good better, I’m intrigued by these questions. There is such excitement, inspiration, and sense of possibility during a space mission launch. So where’s the wonder during a social mission launch?

I believe social missions can be as compelling and as inspiring for the future as space missions. For anyone who’s passionate about solving the world’s toughest problems, there are a number of course corrections (see what I did there) that we must consider for the future of social impact to be an exciting and inspiring one. Here are 10 ways that come to mind:

1. The narrative can’t be one of scarcity. 

People don’t say space exploration is needed because Earth has a scarcity problem or it needs fixing. This is almost never the narrative. It’s always been about extending human potential and building human capability. However, the narrative in the social impact space falls under “not having enough X” or “fixing Y.” Entire campaigns are built and run on this narrative.

The take-away: The scarcity narrative isn’t an inspiring one.

2. It’s about high-risk and high-value. 

There is a recognition of the quantum of investment and risk that’s needed to build a vehicle that can reach outer space. There is no room for ‘drip funding.’ One doesn’t hear, “Let’s commit to fins this year, perhaps guidance system next year, and maybe nose cone the year after. And to qualify for year 2, submit a report on how the fins are doing.”

The take-away: It’s easy to get distracted by drip funding but this often leads us to mediocre and piecemeal, not high-value solutions.

3. Find a sustained energy source. 

A sustained energy source is required for long space missions. Flying by Pluto takes time. In fact, New Horizons launched in 2006 and it only approached Pluto in mid-2015 — almost 10 years later. So, the spacecraft must be designed with the ‘right-sized’ energy source that can deliver on the mission as well as mild course-corrects, and not with a source that can only get it half-way. Spacecraft are built to mission and ambition specs.

The take-away: Building to ambition specs is inspiring.

4. Celebrate escape velocity (output), not securing the parts (input).

Reaching escape velocity (minimum speed for a spacecraft to break free from gravitational pull of Earth) is everything in a launch. This is celebrated by everyone. However, in social change, there exists a strange practice of, to use a food analogy, congratulating the chef for getting the ingredients. This is not inspiring.

The take-away: Let’s be mindful of celebrating inputs and be present to celebrate reaching escape velocity.

5. Jettison items that no longer add value. 

In space missions, the payload is exactly what is required (weight is everything) and in cases where redundancy is needed, extra equipment is worked in. When something is no longer relevant, it is shut down or jettisoned. Obsolescence is part of the design of a mission. Space missions cannot afford to service obsolete items or items that no longer add value as it might jeopardize the mission. However, more often than not, social programs and services are built with a sense of permanence in mind.

The take-away: We must design-in active obsolescence management such that programs and services stay relevant and inspiring.

6. Share the mission in real-time. 

Major space launches have been broadcasting live ever since live broadcasts were possible on TV and then on the internet. Today, anybody from anywhere in the world (this is key) can go to NASA’s website to get updates on any active missions. Launches, delays, blow ups, lost communications — you can see it all. In social change work, much of real-time progress is shielded, progress is typically shared in a closed-loop fashion with funders or donors. We have become accustomed to shield experiments, failures or delays from the public.

The take-away: When we share by default, we inspire.

7. Build with foresight. 

SpaceX could easily make a compelling business case just launching satellites — and potentially accelerate reaching profitability. Instead, they have decided that this isn’t enough. They bring a high degree of foresight to their work. SpaceX doesn’t just want to launch satellites the way we know how to do it today, but set the pace and build for how space missions might happen 25 years from now.

The take-away: If we build for how we want social programs 25 years from now, we would inspire millions.

8. Use natural forces as a slingshot. 

Gravity is our friend but can also be a nightmare. Once we reach Earth’s escape velocity however, gravity can be amazing and be used to our advantage — to boost the spacecraft farther and save energy. In space missions, everything (even natural forces) are viewed as assets. With an open mind, and a bit of creativity, we can look beyond classic forms of assets for social change. We could flip something that might appear to be a nightmare in one context but could act as a ‘gravity boost’ in another to advance the mission.

The take-away: Assets are everywhere in social missions.

9. Design to dock with a larger system. 

Interoperability is critical in space missions. Europeans, Russians, Canadians, Japanese and Americans all contribute components to the International Space Station. The parts are designed a bit like LEGO pieces — they are designed to “dock or connect” with one another. This level of interoperability makes platforms like the Space Station possible. Imagine organizations in different sectors working toward a shared social change ambition designed projects, programs or interventions with interoperability as a core function…we might have shared knowledge, shared assets, and shared human capital. We might even look at liabilities, governance, empathy, and risks in a shared way.

The take-away: Interoperability levels the playing field, gives us all peripheral vision, and allows us to bring our best ‘LEGO pieces’ to solving complex problems.

10. Steward ambition. 

People might come and go but leadership around an ambition stays. It is rare that a long-term space mission, like New Horizons gets unmonitored or falls to the bottom of the ambition stack upon change in people. Nothing is protected 100% of course, as there are always economical, political, and other factors at play. However, there is a recognition that space missions require a sustained level of ‘ambition stewardship’ by a variety of actors, and that a “start, stop, start” approach causes disruptions that ultimately causes setbacks to the mission.

The take-away: What if we moved beyond the 1 year, 2 year or 3 year support approach in social change and curated ambition commitments that last 10 or 15 years? This is inspiring.

This note is a thesis. My intention is to push us to disrupt ourselves, and to provoke a more nuanced way of thinking about our practice of generating social change. I hope you can use this to reflect on how you might make your social moonshot more inspiring, engaging, and compelling.

Author’s note: Thanks to Jason Pearman.

How Startups are Prototyping The Future of Business on Fogo Island

Uncovering the keys to resilience in one of Canada’s oldest communities

A social entrepreneur, an artist, and a fisherman walk into a bar. It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but it’s not. These days, collaborations are vital to mesh old ways of knowing with new ways of business – one that holds community resilience and prosperity at its core. Social entrepreneurship has become one of the fastest growing sectors worldwide and we’re just beginning to see the potential here in Canada. This new frontier of business lies in our ability to collaborate, support impact-driven enterprises, and combine our country’s diverse assets. For best online business marketing strategies click on Abrc website and get different strategies for business.

Affiliates: Incentivize people to link to your site.

Google to-do list app and you’ll get 5.6 billion results, of which at least a few hundred are unique software options. If you want your new to-do list app to be the top result, you need a lot of people linking to your product when writing about to-do list apps.

Thus affiliates. They were the perfect fit for the burgeoning blog scene in the early 2000’s. Software vendors needed traffic and links to their products; bloggers needed a way to make revenue from their articles. Much like how retailers would take a cut of the retail price, affiliate programs let you take a cut if you sent a new customer to a product.

What is an affiliate program?

Affiliate programs let anyone sign up to get a unique referral link where, when someone clicks that link and buys the product, the company will pay a set price or percentage back to the affiliate program member.

Affiliates make the most sense when you want a large number of people to promote your product, as perhaps they’ll link to you versus the competition since you’re paying. It’s nearly free marketing for software vendors. And it’s a genius way to build traffic to a marketplace like Amazon, since their single affiliate program covered so many products.

Except, not quite. Affiliate links encourage anyone to link to your product—fans and foes and forgettable alike. The software company and affiliate members’ interests are only aligned in that both want revenue, but both could find it elsewhere. There’s no product loyalty. And affiliate links may not even help your product’s search rankings, as Google increasingly scrutinizes the quality of linked sites.

The state of software affiliate programs today.

Perhaps that’s why affiliate programs for software are increasingly less common, with GitHub, Zoom, Basecamp, Ahrefs, Apple’s App Store, and more having closed their affiliate programs over the years. From our survey of 100 popular business SaaS products, today only 21% offer affiliate programs, I found this to be the best system to manage affiliates.

Software affiliates today give an average 27% commission typically for the first month’s payment, from a low of 10% for PandaDoc and QuickBooks to a high of 83% for Adobe Creative Cloud. Or they pay a flat rate per sale, where $20 is most common (ranging from a base of $5 for Office 365 and Freshworks to “up to” $1000 per customer for HubSpot).

But what if there’s a better way to spread your product than paying people who talk about it?

So, what does a more purposeful approach to capitalism look like? Some of the answers may be found in the unlikeliest of areas – the remote coastal community of Fogo Island, Newfoundland, for example. A recent visit uncovered a new economic model that may hold learnings for communities everywhere.

My journey to Fogo began with an invitation from Shorefast Foundation, a Canadian charity building a new model for economic and cultural resilience to experience a bold new way of doing business that blends a 400-year old hosting and craft culture with reimagining business principles as a force for good. People wish they never have to deal with pests, but the sad fact is that these pesky little creatures have invaded an astounding number of personal and business properties all over the U.S. It is quite common to find termites, cockroaches, rodents, bugs, ticks, spiders, fleas and many other pests in homes. These insects are also rampant in the food, hospitality, agriculture, construction and other important industries. The main reason why pest control is indispensable is the threat to human, plant and animal health posed by the pests. Almost all pests are carriers of some disease or the other and have even been known to cause severe epidemics and massive agricultural destruction. Apart from destroying valuable food supply, causing death and serious health problems such as allergic reaction, the pests also lead to serious property damage. However, it is a specialized service that you cannot manage on your own. The professional services of a pest control company have to be hired if you want to rid your residential or commercial property of pests. Locating the pests and eradicating them involves the use of special products and equipment that these companies have. Their technicians are trained in the use of these solutions and equipment in a safe manner. With their extensive knowledge of the different types of pests, they are able to identify the places of pest infestation and decide up on the best extermination plan to use for solving the problem. Their services are focused not only on one-time pest removal, but on minimizing the chances of future infestations as well. If you are interested in periodic pest treatment of your property as a preventive measure, the pest control companies can handle it too. Pest invasions can cause you great discomfort, physical harm and financial loss. It makes sense to engage a knowledgeable, experienced and reliable professional to deal with the issue.

On Fogo Island, the Shorefast Foundation approach to community revitalization has been to focus on three distinct elements: The development of a geotourism industry, with the construction of the Fogo Island Inn; Fogo Island Arts, an organization that facilitates artistic practice that is local in context and global in scope; and a micro-lending program where entrepreneurs can establish and grow their own small businesses.

In my observation, these Shorefast Foundation startups are going beyond classic business notions of keeping shareholders’ interests top-of-mind, optimizing value chains, protecting intellectual property, growth and scale as paramount aspirations, and so on – and shaking up the startup process. Two contextual pieces seem to form the bedrock of this new way.

The first is maintaining a jazz band approach.

The landscape (both physically and entrepreneurially) here is as remote, rural and rugged as it gets in Canada. There are no incubators, no hackathons, no business plan competitions, no startup drinks, no angel networks, no pitch fests, no entrepreneurship clubs, and no labs filled with post-it notes. Constraints of starting and doing business in such an environment are vast – ranging from resource scarcity and inconsistent access to goods, to infrastructure and unpredictable weather. Harsh constraints make one gutsy, force improvisation, and require flexibility, collaboration and a wider view of the ecosystem to which the business contributes. This approach is more akin to a jazz band than the classic way of doing business – top-down and rigid – which is more like an orchestra. As Miles Davis famously stated, it’s ‘the spaces between the notes’ that make all the difference.

The second is audacious questioning.

Shorefast Foundation startups are looking beyond recognizable patterns and ways, taking things back to first principles. They have given themselves the freedom and audacity to deeply consider, reflect on, and ask important questions such as: What is wealth? How much growth is good? Why is the value chain a chain? How might the community be stewards of a business? How can customers also be co-creators? How do you capture the value of resilience?

A jazz band approach and audacious questioning has led Shorefast startups to do a number of things differently. In my 50+ conversations with Fogo Islanders, I believe these principles – which have already started to take root there – will revolutionize the way business is done around the world. In particular, I’ve been obsessed with the following three mindsets and practices since my return.

#1: Look at the Long Picture, not just the Big Picture

Ocean“There is a ton to learn from the history of business in exploitation. They always said look at the big picture, but we say look at the long picture,” says one Fogo Island Inn team member. This got me thinking about conventional quarterly business cycles, sales targets, margins, and the one-dimensional accounting that captures “success.” The point made here is that business isn’t just a profit/loss story, but also an economy story. There isn’t just a gap-in-the-market story, but a long-term community vitalization story.

This reflection led to an equally memorable conversation on Shorefast’s thinking of moving beyond “profit as the sole proxy” to illustrate success. It reminds me of the notion that Dom Potter, a UK-based social entrepreneur articulated, “the profit proxy falls woefully short of capturing 99 percent of the value that an organization offers the world. It is a narrow definition of success that, as a standalone measure of anything but business model efficiency, belongs back in the 19th century.”

Shorefast startups are already demonstrating that we need to move on. Embracing the long picture means looking beyond profit. In order to do this, businesses must be incubated in and with community – and not “in silos” to generate rapid and maximum returns. Taking the long view means the product development does not happen in silo in a lab. Rather, in this case, the entire island is the lab – the businesses live, breathe and interact with the wider ecosystem every day from conception to boot up.

What might capitalism look like if we move beyond the profit proxy as a shorthand way of determining whether a business is successful or not?

#2: Let’s move from Value Chain to Value Mesh

Economic Nuitrition“Wealth for us is when the community benefits,” said an older gentleman from Tilting, a former fisherman who now spends his time painting, repairing and building houses This made me reflect on value chains and why there was a top and bottom. What if the value chain was more like a mesh? In which everybody contributes, creates, and captures value. A demonstration of Shorefast’s value mesh thinking is the new “Economic Nutrition label” for their products – likely a first in the world. Just as food nutrition labeling created a revolution in the food industry, the Economic Nutrition label is intended to spark the same change for a better understanding of value, giving consumers a clearer definition of a dollar’s impact along the input chain.

What if every business incorporated an Economic Nutrition label to demonstrate their value mesh? How might this type of radical openness improve capitalism, as we know it today?

#3: Democratize Making and Bring Back Craft

RoomCraft was alive and thriving everywhere I looked on Fogo Island – from boat building and textiles to furniture making and tool welding. Since the beginning of European settlement in the late 1600s, Fogo Islanders, by virtue of their centuries of geographic isolation, have become masters of making things by hand, recycling and devising local solutions to all manner of challenges. As one woman in Shoal Bay put it, “craft is the lifeblood of the community. It is what’s been passed on from generation to generation to generation.” Today, scale and corporates have effectively killed craft. So, in reimagining principles of business, Shorefast had to creatively think about how to ensure craft contributed to a new kind of enterprise. They engaged artisans and makers from across the Island and from around the world, effectively democratizing making and putting the emphasis not in scale-based production, but in growing hand-made craft. As an example, members of the Winds and Waves Artisans’ Guild produce much of the textiles of Fogo Island Inn.

Imagine a world where craft could scale and making is local and democratized – in which you could have the world’s local car, furniture, technology, toys and more. This might be the future of craft and organizations like The Fogo Island Shop and Open Desk in the UK are already paving the way.

There is much that Shorefast Foundation’s principles, practices and mindsets can teach incubators, governments, entrepreneurs, corporations, and others working in or supporting enterprise. A renewed form of capitalism is already upon us – one that embraces openness, generates resilience, and is relevant for our interdependent reality.

I hope that these observations and provocations spark the same kind of audacious questioning about business in your boardrooms, lunchrooms, entrepreneurship clubs and pitch fests, as well as ideas on how we might integrate them into our organizations. Together, Canadians can become rockstars in generating community resilience by creating businesses that redefine success and are good for the world.