Before You Start or Support a Socially Responsible Business, Read This First

lemonade stand for a cause
Photo via Larry W. Lo on Flickr

I get calls every week from people that want to start a socially responsible business (or cause business as I like to call them). Good, intelligent, well-intentioned people who really want to change the world. They call. We talk. I never hear from them again.

They never call again because their business goes nowhere or it fails. Here’s why: they put the cause before the business, and violate the number one rule of running one: the best way to help a cause is to be a great business, first.

I’ve been saying this for years. But no one is listening. I bet you’ll listen to Dan, because he’s a causepreneur just like you.

Dan Lubetzky is the founder of KIND Healthy Snacks. I’m sure you’ve heard of KIND. It’s hard to miss KIND’s tasty products on the supermarket shelves! Dan’s business is cause-driven, but he’s not banking on cause to drive his business. Neither should you.

Here are Dan’s rules.

Lead with an outstanding product or service.

You have to because nothing else will work. U2’s Bono and his wife, Ali Hewsonfound this out the hard way a few years back with the couple’s clothing line Edun. When the clothes didn’t measure up, sales fell through the floor. “We focused too much on the mission in the beginning,” explained Hewson to the Wall Street Journal. “It’s the clothes, it’s the product. It’s a fashion company. That needs to be first and foremost.”

Like any good business, KIND leads with its products. The bar’s value proposition says it all: Kind to your body, your taste buds and the world. It’s not a coincidence that “the world” is last. A bar that tastes good is first.

Cause isn’t the marketing, but it belongs in the marketing mix.

KIND has grown through product quality, guerrilla marketing, social media, and targeting small stores—among other things. And its cause-focus helps it stand out. Period.

But too many causepreneurs lead with the cause and think the waters will part at the mention of their social mission. Maybe its because cause begins with the letter “c.” But the only place cause comes before product, marketing, social media, community and distribution is in the dictionary.

Cause will contribute about 5% to your success. Maybe a little more. But most of the people I talk to are expecting a lot more from dipping their product or service into magical waters. Lubetzky learned the hard way with a previous business that you can’t lead with cause. Almost everything needs to come before it. But, when added, cause makes everything better.

People ask me all the time if cause marketing will help their business. “If you’re doing the other hundred things you should be doing to run a successful business, then yes,” I tell them.

Where, when, why and how to inject cause into a business is a bit of a mystery. I don’t think anyone knows when the timing is right, or how much is needed to goose sales or to change the world. But I do know one thing, the first ingredient of a successful business isn’t cause. Of that, I’m sure.

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