Advice for the Young Social Entrepreneur

Alan Fitzpatrick is a tech company founder that balances engineering and operations with marketing, sales and business development. He enjoys working with early stage technology companies, and in addition to the companies he co-founded, he has served as Head of Marketing, Head of Business Development, and advisor to several startup SaaS and Data Analytics companies. Therefore Alan is in the position to give invaluable advice to startups and young entrepreneurs in Charlotte.

Alan, when did you decide to start your own business?

AF: I had always wanted to start my own business, but I was just waiting for the right timing.  So far, I’ve started two companies, been acquired, and now I run a third one. Open Broadband is an Internet Service Provider, offering a hybrid of fiber and wireless last-mile broadband service to underserved areas. We specialize in public-private partnerships.

How do you define social entrepreneurship?

AF: In my opinion it is a business that, while focused on society and people, it does (and must) make money.

What activities consume your time day to day?

AF: As an entrepreneur, I would like to focus mostly on the solution and the core of the business. The reality is that 90% of the time is spent on activities that are purely business management and are time consuming (applying for a permit, submitting tax forms, paying bills, networking etc.). Only 10% of the time is actually spent on the work and the fun side (designing and improving the solution). Entrepreneurs have got to find a way to increase that 10%.

What activities do you want to be doing day to day?

AF: Anything that drives my company forward. Working to better my solution or to find new clients. I want to work less in managing the company, things that can be delegated.

At the end of the year how would you like to be evaluated?

AF: A social entrepreneur is likely to look at how many people have been helped and the impact on the society. A for-profit entrepreneur will look at numbers (revenue, expenses, profit etc.), total number of clients, trends (where is the company going).

Looking back, what would you have done differently in your first business?

AF: Definitely time management, learning to say ‘No’ and prioritizing.  The correct mindset is to always ask yourself, ‘What’s in it for me?’ This also applies to everybody, try and make it a win-win situation. Whether it is a partnership, a meeting, anything…

What do you wish you would have known before you started the business?

AF: There are two things that the young entrepreneur cannot do without:

  1. The ability to make a product (product/service/solution)
  2. The ability to sell the product

Anybody starting a business has to have a clear understanding of how the company makes money. Even a social business or a non-profit has to make money to at least pay staff, office, etc. The entrepreneur has to have the clear understanding as to how much money comes in, what the expenses are, what the margins are. Marketing skills are very much tied into the selling. The entrepreneur must invest into broadcasting the brand, reaching an audience, reaching the customers, making himself and the company known. This is key to the survival of the company.

What management and technical skills did you have when you started the business?

AF: I knew how to solve a problem, and my solution was capable of generating money.

The young entrepreneur does not have to reinvent the wheel necessarily or solve a big problem. That means a problem can be solved in part. For example, one cannot solve world hunger but can alleviate it in a certain part of the globe at a particular time. Therefore, a business has to solve a problem, otherwise it is irrelevant and nobody will invest in it.

How did you use technology when you started? How has using technology changed today?

AF: Technology is one of the pros or assets that the young entrepreneur has. By that, I mean being tech savvy. Technology can be leveraged for the solution. For example: Oh, an app can solve this problem, or an online service can automate this, and so on. That is the business, right there! On the other hand, technology can be used for marketing and sales. It is a lot easier and cheaper to reach potential clients via Facebook or Instagram and the targeting can be so much more accurate than the traditional channels.

Where did you get the money to start your business?

AF: A lack of resources was one of the biggest challenges I faced when I started my business. But there are a few ways the young entrepreneur can take to address this. Now, regarding people, work force and payments:

  • First thing, obviously is to raise capital – find investors.
  • Motivate people. There is only so much they will be doing for free.
  • Pay people on a ‘per project basis,’ or offer percentage of the project revenue.
  • Offer equity in the company.
  • Have sales people work on commission only.
  • Pre-buy and pre-sale. Have clients that are willing to buy before you do the product in a kickstart campaign.
  • Have people committed to work on a project before you have a client to sell it to.

Either way, people must buy into your goal. You have to be able to project the goal into their minds, your vision and they will follow you.

Did you have mentors? How did they help you get started? Do you still have mentors today?

AF: Mentors and experts are very good when you are in the process of raising capital, when you are looking for an investor. You, as the entrepreneur have the idea but you might not have the experience or the skills to back up the success of the project or business but you can take with you an expert in the field. So if an app is the solution that you want to design, you can take with you a programmer. If you want to start a bakery you can take with you a baker or a chef. Some of the investors can offer a lot of advice and help you raise even more capital. They can be the first mentors.

What would you tell a young social entrepreneur who is just starting out in Charlotte?

AF: There are some Pros and Cons of being a young social entrepreneur:

The Cons are no real experience, no money, and no network connections. But the Pros are:

  • Able to take risks easily
  • No strings attached (no family, no mortgage etc.)
  • Can work 20 hours a day
  • Low expenses (can live and work from a small apartment, or share a house or a cowork)
  • Can live on a small budget (low maintenance)
  • Tech savvy and can leverage that a lot for production, sales, and marketing

The entrepreneur must begin by identifying a particular need, and frankly, young people can see needs that mature or older people cannot see– like the startup that does the laundry service. Not many people would need such a service, but many enjoy having that taken care of by a company. They use that freed time for something productive instead.

The key to success here is to leverage the Pros. Generally speaking in business, the execution is everything! Good ideas, even brilliant ideas are everywhere, but the investors look at both the idea and the team that will execute on it.

Interview with Alan Fitzpatrick conducted by Sebastian Bucur