Sourcing Social Business Concepts from the Crowd

“Enviu emerged in 2004 when society looked pretty much black and white at the evil corporate sector in one corner and the do-gooders from the charity/nonprofit world in the other. The founding group of Enviu, headed by official founder and current Director Stef van Dongen  wanted to get young people involved in breaking open these crusty paradigms. Under the mantra “Inspire. Engage. Make it happen.” they started Enviu.” This is how Wouter Kersten introduced me to Enviu in March 2015.

After a week in Scotland I stepped off the plane in Amsterdam on Tuesday afternoon and made my way to Rotterdam where I was going to visit Enviu. Fast forward 2 hours and I found myself at Panekoekstraat (pancake street – promising, I could tell already!), stomping up the stairs with my backpack and burst into their very silent large office introducing myself. The next two hours of that sunny afternoon I talked to Wouter Kersten – innovation manager – about the challenges and upsides of developing lean social businesses and – in several cases – crowdsourcing ideas for social innovation.

Initiating Social Enterprise Concepts

As a support organization for very early stage social entrepreneurs, Enviu is an idea incubator for pre-start-ups. Many of the ideas they are working on come either from inside or individuals outside the organization.They ideate, develop and test (validate) new social business concepts with two outcomes: either they prove to be viable (launching customers, partners and investors) or turn out not to work (better catch it early).

In various cases, there is not a single idea as starting point. The purpose is to mobilize the wisdom of crowds through a process revolving around co-creation. Together with their partners (at the moment primarily, family offices, larger foundations and governments), they design a challenge and call their community of innovators to come up with possible solutions. These innovators are individuals who have an interest in the subject and are keen on co-creating with others. “In the process, inspiration, concrete ideas, enrichment thereof and entrepreneurs are brought together.

The ideal outcome is one or more social business concepts that can be developed towards start-up. Click To Tweet

The community that is created usually results in various network spin offs (people connecting to each other) and inspiration (people using the challenge as starting point for own endeavors)” Wouter says.


The most promising concepts go on to the second stage of “business development” during which ideas are refined and various stakeholders – including the (potential) entrepreneur, experts, customers, partners and investors – work together in teams towards validation. Only then the start-up process starts, at which point the entrepreneurs have a validated business model thanks to initial testing with early customers and other stakeholders. Wouter: “At any given time we have between five and ten concepts – in various stages of development – running.” Start-ups are then ready to begin operations. The entrepreneur is now in charge and Enviu remains involved as minority shareholder.

What makes co-creation for a third party difficult?

There are many reasons why any approach has its challenges. Two specific ones when trying to combine co-creation, entrepreneurship and social business development are:

#1: The partner suggesting the challenge will in some cases have an idea in mind about what the solution should look like when, in fact, the process of Social innovation does not work based on assumed, desired outcomes. I would go as far as to say that pre-defined expectations and the need for certainty are detrimental to generating innovative ideas and thinking the unthinkable.” In Wouter’s words: “The outcome is by definition uncertain, so partners must (learn to) be comfortable with this.”

Social innovation does not work based on assumed, desired outcomes. Click To Tweet

#2: Finding the right mix of people who are willing to co-create. Everyone who has been involved in promoting a support program, and further, in the selection process of participants, knows how difficult it is to find entrepreneurial minds who are coachable and good team players. Enviu’s model specifically aims to trigger a community of social innovators who enjoy the process of presenting their ideas and working on them with others, always at the risk of dismissal or adaption-beyond-recognition in the next step. While the Lean Startup preaches the idea of rapid testing and – possibly – dismissal of a product idea, it is difficult – in particular for early stage and less experienced innovators – to put their ideas under the scrutiny of a larger audience.

Enviu is looking for entrepreneurial team players with a great idea. Click To Tweet

Enviu manages to activate a great number of individuals to contribute their ideas to Challenges, Wouter also recognizes that you need different types of people to take the “right” idea forward. This is why they are all brought together in the process: ”In the end, to succeed we need individuals that make good entrepreneurs, have a great idea, and are willing to co-create! It’s rare to find all three qualities in one person. Amen.

Enviu in review

When I asked what makes an effective support program for social entrepreneurs, Wouter responds “Having own experience and having ‘skin in the game’: “If your stake is the same as the entrepreneur’s you can truly co-develop. Click To Tweet” If you only ‘facilitate’ or ‘provide network’ you stand to lose very little.”

Enviu’s program taps into a large pool of people who suggest new and enrich existing ideas. At the same time, working with external partners requires skills in managing expectations. I need to find other support programs that apply the crowdsourcing approach and explore how they facilitate the process online and through web-based platforms.



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Calling it a day in Rotterdam

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