Aksana Shauchenka has managed the Homel company "Meteorite Plus", which employs people with disabilities, for more than ten years now. The company is a well-established market player producing high-quality educational toys and sports playing modules from environmentally friendly materials using the latest expertise in children's psychology and teaching methods. Aksana spoke to Biz4all-2 teams about the most valuable lessons she learnt over the years: common mistakes social entrepreneurs make in Belarus and how to avoid them.
You can read more about the Homel social enterprise “Meteorite Plus” on our website: Social Enterprises of Belarus: Why Produce Special Toys?
Aksana Shauchenka, manager of “Meteorite Plus”, Homel, and Natallia Danilenka, commercial director of the company
Photo: official website
"In our country, social entrepreneurs are pioneers in their field. We might not see the prospects or the overall goal, but the enthusiasm that people have for using business to solve social problems is the path that in the end will help us to build a society where people are comfortable living next to each other”. Aksana told Biz4all teams that “Meteorite Plus” only started positioning itself as a social enterprise only several years ago, even though it had been around much longer. The company began as a basic trading one, later starting to sell books and then switching to toys — first reselling and eventually manufacturing.
After that Aksana took part in the Community Connections programme and did an internship in the USA. According to the entrepreneur, this radically changed her views on business, so, having returned to Homel, she decided to put her newly amended approach into practice. “Before the internship we considered the company to be a strictly business one. However, in the USA I leant what social businesses were. Social entrepreneurs have an important mission: taking care of those around them. For example, we are now launching free-of-charge sowing courses for the deaf-and-dumb where we are going to train professional seamstresses both for the needs of our own company and for other similar enterprises. We have introduced a number of CSR programmes; we organize regular charity events for children from orphanages. The latest result yielded by our social entrepreneurship “immersion experience” is the “Social Entrepreneur” school, which was launched in the end of last year in Homel”.
Aksana Shauchenka's advice to new social entrepreneurs:
• It is never going to be easy, especially in the beginning. Do not be scared of problems; each problem is a gift. Our company has worked for more than 10 years now, and we still face new challenges every day. Encountering challenges is normal. But if you face a hardship and give up, then you are finished.
• Do not obsess over the social aspects of your project: think about your development strategy and sales, set yourself commercial objectives in addition to the social ones.
• Search for like-minded partners. Get a team of people who have the same spirit as you do, work out your common interests and goals. It is important to delegate. Also, get rid of those who do not believe in your goals. Take into account every little detail of how your company works, so you can create a company you will actually be proud of.
• Build up your personal brand: people will trust you, not the product. People are interested in other people. They do not come to buy a product; they will come to buy the story behind the product — and there are always people behind each story.
• Become visible to the public, do newsworthy things, tell journalists about yourself.
• Segment and find your niche. Do not try to satisfy the needs of the whole market; focus on a small segment that will be yours and yours alone.
• Modernize your work methods: Internet marketing, business and community relations, professional software, etc.
• Research your market and keep up with it. If you fail to notice your competitors, that does not mean that they do not exist. There might not be much of a competition at the moment, but some might appear in six months. If you promote yourself, competitors will notice and start copying you. This might flatter you, but in no way does it make your business more sustainable. Always be a couple of steps ahead and a couple of thoughts wiser.
• Go beyond the limits of schemes and stereotypes. For some reason, people who create a start-up always try to rip off a scheme that already exists. Try to think of something new, e.g. even if you really love children and want to set up an education centre for children, it must be different from what your competitors can offer, look for customers where no one is looking, place your centre in a different place, and use different methods to find your customers. Break stereotypes and go beyond.
Participants of the offline session on marketing and sales of Biz4all-2 social entrepreneurship training programme. Minsk, 2018
• There will always be risks so be ready to deal with that.
• Only rely on yourself — neither grants nor the government or charities will help you. You can hope this happens, but it will be a one-time event, e.g. so you can purchase some things for an easier launch. After that you should always assess your efficiency and count your money, and think of how you can use it better.
• Look for partners and develop your partnership network, always cooperate with mass media.
• Aim high. Your overall goal must be one that people can laugh at incredulously — otherwise it is just a simple task.
• Come together and help each other with your competences.
• Do not be afraid of making mistakes. The major mistake beginners make is being afraid of making one. However, everyone makes mistakes, business gurus and young startups alike. Mistakes make up your journey, so if you are afraid of making a mistake, you will never take the next step.
• Build up your community of people who are enthusiastic about your ideas. A community does not just consist of buyers. A community empathises with you, helps you, thinks with you. A community thrives on your goals and your ideas.
Text by: Valeriya Nikalaichyk
Photo by: Alyona Lis
|The goal of the programme is to develop a package of social entrepreneurship training programmes in Russian using innovative international practices, as well as the experience of Belarusian diaspora representatives who have become successful entrepreneurs in European Union countries and the USA.|
The material was prepared within the framework of the "Social Entrepreneurship Incubator", implemented by ODB Brussels in partnership with TNU Network University (Netherlands), Belarusian Youth Public Union "New Faces" and International Civil Association "Union of Belarusian of the world “Motherland", with support from the European Union.