If you’ve ever been hand-delivered a cease-and-desist, you’ll probably agree with me they’re pretty under-whelming—just a plain manilla envelope of papers that kind of resemble some high school essays teachers return to you at the end of the semester. When I got mine years ago from a former employer saying the startup my friend Josh and I were launching belonged to them, it turned out to be my first lesson as an entrepreneur that it’s often a lot easier to do well than do good.
The developing world has a lot of bad problems, but along with issues like water and sanitation energy poverty is definitely in the top five. One in four people don’t have electricity, and, if you’re on the wrong side of grid access, the negatives are much worse than not being able to charge your phone. In many poor communities kerosene is the go-to economic substitute, despite the fact that it’s expensive, emits noxious, nostril-stinging fumes and doesn’t provide high quality light. Worse yet, it’s dangerous. My friend James from Uganda once told me about a boarding school on the outskirts of Entebbe where the students used kerosene lanterns to do their homework. One night a lantern got knocked over, the only water on the grounds was a tiny well for drinking, and the entire school went up in flames.
The idea for “Social Solar” was to use GIS and public grid data, the Google Maps API and marketing automation to identify and qualify leads in the US for grid-connected solar system installations. Because customer acquisition costs for solar installers can go as high as $1/Watt (~$3,000/system), companies like One Block Off the Grid make a business referring customers to installation financing companies like SolarCity and SunRun in exchange for success fees. Social Solar then, would identify and refer solar customers (or subcontract the install) , collect affiliate fees, then reinvest its profits to fund and deploy solar lanterns, batteries and other resources to energy-poor communities outside the US, similar to the “one-for-one” model popularized by TOMS.
I haven’t found many things in life more personally satisfying than doing something new that helps people. And that’s what Social Solar felt like. If “purpose in life is to find your purpose and give your whole heart and soul to it,” as cliche as that may sound, I get it. We were there: a pretty good idea, decent timing, and a mission we couldn’t wait to go to bat for. We started to get customers, I bought a flight to Kampala for our first face-to-face meetings with local partners, and then came a knock on the door, and a hand-delivered envelope telling us litigation was imminent.
The ensuing fight lasted for months. Unfortunately, the gravity of our legal system can be tough on early-stage startups: even if you win in court you probably still lost. You can’t afford the legal bills, the other side can.
By summer we were in the clear but our money was gone, my co-founder was gone, the product was stale and our leads had gone cold. We were in no position to raise or apply for grants, particularly with the specter of a court appearance hovering overhead. I pivoted and abruptly applied for a job at charity:water, but I bombed the phone interview and they never called me back.
Of all the challenges I’ve faced as an entrepreneur, rebuilding a broken sense of purpose has been the most difficult to overcome. It’s particularly frustrating because in most parts of the innovation community it’s a lot easier to do well than to do good. If you’re technically competent, it’s not hard to get paid well to code this or design that, nor is it hard for a good team to identify attractive profit pools left unguarded by stale incumbents. Days go by, you’re productive, and there are always new distractions, sprints and fire-drills to keep it going. And that’s exactly where I wound up, focusing on doing well rather than doing good, building weapons to win sandbox-sized wars, still waiting for the call or email that would ask me if I wanted to truly make the world a better place.
It’s taken me a while to re-draw the distinction between doing well and good. Although the two certainly are not mutually exclusive, they can be quite different. Regrettably, it’s way too easy to mistake doing well for good in the short-term, particularly in a culture that loves to glorify data points like user acquisition rates and ARPU that can frequently be glass-half-full.
It’s also disappointing that—for all the charities, volunteer opportunities and social entrepreneurship out there—finding good can be harder than you might think. No doubt there are incredible people working on wonderful things to help others, but it takes humility and overcoming quite a bit of inertia to discover and embrace it. It’s hard to want to wade through the outer reaches of my extended network, or run dozens or hundreds of Angelist pages through MTurk to get contact emails to throw cold asks at. Maybe I’m not the right fit, maybe there’s already somebody in my role, maybe I’m Django and they’re Rails, maybe I’d just be a cog or a bench-player, maybe I should have gone to that event, maybe I’m not being creative enough, maybe I’m just scared of rejection, maybe I’m being totally apathetic and self-defeatist. Until one day when you wake up, realize you’re waiting for Godot, and accept the fact that if you can’t be the change maybe change isn’t coming.
I finally feel like I’m back on track now. I’ve got a fresh ‘project for good’ I’m excited about, and in my personal life I’m back working with students and mentoring other startups. I wrote this essay for myself, but I really want to share it with you in case you need a friendly reminder to think not just about how you’re doing well, but how you’re doing good.