May 9th, 2011
Portland and Social Entrepreneurship: A conversation with Darius Monsef of COLOURlovers and All Hands
[Editor: Dale Davidson of TrekDek shares another guest post with us.]
I recently sat down with Darius Monsef IV aka Bubs, the founder of COLOURlovers. Though much of the tech world is focused on the recent $1 million dollar funding they recently received, I thought I would try to get his perspective on the world of social entrepreneurship and Portland’s role in it. Considering that Darius is a co-founder and an active member of the non-profit All Hands, a disaster relief group, he is extremely knowledgeable about the subject.
What do businesses and non-profits have in common?
In the tech world, the path of a successful start-up goes something like this: a) two friends decide they want to start a company, b) the two friends build a product and get some traction (hopefully), c) two friends decide that founders can’t live off ramen and water forever, decide to pitch to investors, d) after months of rejection, one angel invests in the idea, and then e) the company expands and goes through multiple rounds of funding until they sell the company to Google for a billion dollars.
The path of the non-profit follows a similar trajectory with a few key differences. The non-profit’s “product” doesn’t generate revenue and the company is constantly fundraising to stay afloat. In the case of All Hands, whenever a major disaster occurs, the organization has to quickly raise funds to help meet the needs of the disaster-struck community.
The skill set that is required to build a scalable non-profit looks very similar to the skill set that is required to build a scalable tech start-up. The entrepreneur and social entrepreneur have to be able to raise funds, work with limited resources to accomplish an objective, and to adapt to an ever changing set of obstacles. In 2005, Darius volunteered to coordinate AllHand’s largest project in Biloxi, MS following hurricane Katrina.
“It felt great to be able to coordinate All Hand’s response to Hurricane Katrina,” said Darius. “Organizing volunteers and figuring out where we could contribute the most value on a limited budget was extremely difficult but also extremely rewarding.”
It isn’t hard to find similar stories from startup founders. The narrative is well known. The start-up founder, at least the good ones, are what Paul Graham describes as “relentlessly resourceful.” They figure out ways to get the product released and support themselves on a very small budget. Though painful at the time, the successful founders usually enjoy recounting their harrowing tales of having only $20 left in the bank account and against all odds, succeeding.
Despite the similarities between startups and non-profits, it is rare to find cases where the two worlds intersect.
Portland and success, a love-hate relationship
Darius, a native Portlander, believes that “Portland is a city trying to be a town.” After reflecting on that statement for a while, I’ve come to agree with him. Portland is certainly a city in terms of its size and resources. However, it is not a major player in any industry. New York is a world financial center, Los Angeles is the world entertainment leader, and San Francisco has Silicon Valley. Portland is the microbrewery capital of the US.
Portland doesn’t hate success, but rather, the city is suspicious of success beyond a certain point. The city reveres its food carts, its indie music scene, and of course, its coffee shops. Unless it’s a sporting goods company, native Portlanders would probably be suspicious of the motives of a tech company that is raising millions of dollars in financing.
Darius believes that it’s because Portland doesn’t have any good role models. Though the city is trying to change this, many Portland tech companies leave for Silicon Valley. If tech start-ups were to stick around Portland, the same skills that lead to success in the tech world could breed an ecosystem of social entrepreneurship that Portlanders would be more inclined to trust. After all, altruism is pretty respected in this city.
Take Darius for example. The skills he has obtained in running COLOURlovers are being put to use for All Hands and vice versa. If there were more successful start-ups in Portland, I imagine that they could do pretty amazing things with non-profits and social business while drawing upon Portland’s desire to make a positive impact on the world.
Changing the Narrative: Make money and help people simultaneously
In our conversation, Darius brought up the point that many startup founders believe that they need to become financially successful before they can really dive into the world of philanthropy.
Though its true that startups require an inordinate amount of time and energy, it is definitely possible to be involved in both. Our multitasking COLOURlovers founder raised $30,000 for All Hands from his investors to build a school in Haiti. It is a matter of taking advantages of opportunities when they arise, something entrepreneurs excel at.
If more start-ups were to move to (or stay in) Portland, it’s not hard to see how the city would inspire entrepreneurs to delve into philanthropy while building their own companies. If more people like Darius stick around, Portland, in addition to being the microbrewery capital of the US, could become the social entrepreneurship center of the US.
(Image courtesy Darius Monsef. Used under Creative Commons.)