The Social-Cause Business Experiment

It took 3 years after my last corporate paycheck to realize I didn’t need a job. Maybe even 4 years. No matter how well things were going, I kept checking LinkedIn to see if something out there had my name on it. Six or seven times I submitted applications. I even had two interviews.

But they knew I wasn’t interested in a standard 9 to 5.

I guess I knew, too.

When three months pass and your bank account hasn’t experienced a deposit, you start to look over your shoulder to see if reality is catching up to you. That’s when you know if you’re supposed to be on the entrepreneurial path. That’s when you decide if you’d rather struggle on that treacherous road than enjoy the ‘security’ of a ‘real’ job.

So I struggled.

Mind you, I have a wonderful support system that begins with my wife (who has a real job) and kids, but extends through my extended family and peers that keep me grounded and fed. The creative agency I founded five years ago has happy clients and a steady diet of fun work. Some days it even feels like a ‘real’ job.

However, I found myself walking on two paths. The consultancy was obvious, but my side projects were a junk drawer of ideas that never received enough attention to prosper. They all found a wonderful home on Good Thin.gs so I didn’t worry about what their future might become. It was all just extra credit.

Until now.

Over the last year I’ve created a brand that was shaped from two pillars — quality product and social change. Ninety Nine Products — a B Corporation — is the evolution of conversations and samples from nearly every one of my friends in every industry. The idea of driving business growth through community service makes perfect sense for how I live my life.

The idea of letting the community drive the success or failure of the business is more comforting to me than finding an investor willing to sacrifice profits over sustainable social and economic change. I’m certain that there are plenty of investors that would find the business model interesting, but I’m not interested in fighting that uphill battle. I’m not wired to ask for approval. I’m wired to go out and win or lose.

A common concept among investors I’ve spoken with has been their belief that they are undertaking all of the risk when they put their money to work. I have no filter, so I generally laugh at that idea. If the only tool at your disposal is money, then that’s your job. Do your job. That doesn’t make your job more important than any other job in the business. If the money dries up than the business shuts down. The same is true if the creatives stop creating. or the factory shuts down or the warehouse stops shipping.

The profit margins in the footwear industry are typically quite high — thus the success of brands like Allbirds and Toms. But instead of putting that money in investors pockets, I’d like to see this project continue to grow it’s outreach in social responsibility. The hook is that 99% of our marketing will go toward social change — celebrating a teacher, funding a classroom, building a house. I like the idea of the triple bottom line, but I’d like to skew the percentages with a bias toward the community that’s spending their money.

So for this particular project I’ve decided to simply engage in communities that appreciate the positive vibes that we’d like to share. We’ve already thrown two events in Brooklyn and Harlem for Seniors and we are headed back to benefit Teachers. Plus we are reaching out through other forms of engagement like the Milbank Center and Harlem Grown in order to spread good will and grow the community.

If people believe in our product and our outreach, hopefully they’ll also buy a few things along the way. The more they buy, the more outreach we can deliver. It’s like a church without the religion or a co-op without the food. The community simply needs to show up and support us as we support them.

And if we run out of money in six months, that’s cool, too. I’m easy. We will have thrown some great parties and helped a few people along the way. I’ve already gotten the opportunity to build with my new friends in the running community, the world of STEM and the Native American community — three worlds that have greatly affected my life. And my business portfolio is strategically diverse so I have other projects that follow the standard path of pure capitalism.

But I’d like for Ninety Nine Products to be different. Like the Green Bay Packers — owned by the community.

I hope Ninety Nine Products is a success. I hope our team is asking all of the right questions and solving all of the necessary problems that help teachers and veterans and doctors and any other people who help people. I hope you remember Ninety Nine Products because you’ve read it 10 times in this article.

So if you need a good running shoe AND you want to support a teacher or health care worker or a journalist, grab the Point and tell a friend.

Good things.

Photography: VisionsByJeff (no relation)

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