When it is more complex than “Just ask”: Purpose-driven entrepreneurs and asking for feedback

“Seek feedback!” is a mantra that entrepreneurs hear all the time. It is at the core of the lean start-up method. Mentors, advisors, coaches, facilitators, investors repeat the mantra. Indeed, investors make favourable assessments of entrepreneurs who seek feedback. And this is with good reason. Feedback can help entrepreneurs to learn, avoid errors, improve products and services. Beyond these benefits, feedback from beneficiaries, customers, collaborators, and other stakeholders can help purpose-driven entrepreneurs to build trust, catalyse social impact, and remain accountable.

We know quite a bit about the potential benefits of feedback. Yet, we know very little about how purpose-driven entrepreneurs navigate the process of actually asking others for feedback. Indeed, there is an implicit assumption that purpose-driven entrepreneurs have ready access to feedback. They just need to use this feedback.

In a new article, we investigate how social entrepreneurs in the early stages of their start-up activities, as one group of purpose-driven entrepreneurs, navigate the process of seeking feedback through interpersonal interactions with beneficiaries, customers, employees, funders, collaborators. We found three interesting aspects of why and how social entrepreneurs seek feedback.

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

Why seek feedback?

First, seeking feedback can serve different purposes. Social entrepreneurs seek feedback to co-create with community members, to improve their entrepreneurial practice, to develop a public image that emphasises prosociality. How social entrepreneurs define themselves in relation to the social issues they target (i.e., their identities) shapes their purpose for feedback seeking.

Seeking feedback to co-create: Those who define themselves as community members and started their ventures to support their community, seek feedback to co-create products and services with the community.

Seeking feedback to enhance one’s entrepreneurial practice: Others see themselves as emerging entrepreneurs taking action on an issue that had personally affected them. For them, seeking feedback is a way to transition to the new entrepreneurial role for which they feel unprepared.

Seeking feedback to be seen as caring and responsive: Yet, others have established professional identities as serial entrepreneurs, teachers, social workers and their social ventures address social issues they have not personally experienced. For them, seeking feedback is a way to present themselves as caring, responsive, credible. Seeking feedback is a symbolic action to increase awareness of the organisation. It is a signal that the founder cares about the social issue and those affected by it.

Seeking feedback is challenging

Second, our research shows that feedback is not readily available to social entrepreneurs. They struggle to access feedback because those approached may not respond to feedback requests (for many reasons). Social entrepreneurs struggle to access feedback because they may not have the time to ask in safe ways. They may not have access to the right networks. When social entrepreneurs access feedback, the feedback is not always meaningful. This can be due to power dynamics or due to different perceptions of what entrepreneurship is for.

Navigating the challenges when seeking feedback

Third, social entrepreneurs do not give up on seeking feedback when facing these challenges. Instead, they reflect on what these challenges mean to them: how they see themselves and how they are seen by others. They experiment with solutions that are consistent with their identities and purpose for seeking feedback.

Making it easier for community members: Social entrepreneurs who see themselves as community members and started their ventures in service of the community experiment with the process of seeking feedback. They invest significant time and effort to make it easier and safer for community members to provide feedback by strengthening relationships and developing feedback channels (e.g., coffee mornings, WhatsApp groups, confidential 1:1 conversations).

Making it safer for the emerging entrepreneur: Social entrepreneurs who see themselves as emerging entrepreneurs addressing a social issue that had been personally traumatic experiment with how and whom they ask for feedback. They carefully frame their requests and often used humour. They are  very careful with whom they ask for feedback and even avoid asking specific individuals for feedback.

Making it less damaging to one’s image: Social entrepreneurs who see themselves as professionals or serial entrepreneurs and address a social issue they had not personally experienced experiment with the timing of feedback requests. They have rules of thumb for when to seek feedback, how frequently to request feedback. They even temporarily refrain from seeking feedback so individuals would not feel “pestered” and “hounded”.

Overall, our research shows that how social entrepreneurs define themselves shapes why and how they seek feedback and even how they refrain from seeking feedback.