Interview with Suneet Bhatt, ideablob.com winner

Cristian: Hi Suneet, and welcome on board. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Suneet: Hi Cristian! Thanks for reaching out and offering to cover Dream Village. We’re excited that people want to learn more about our project and appreciate that you are taking the time to share our work and our story. Before I introduce myself I want to introduce the team. I have been lucky enough to launch this company with some very close friends, ranging from people that I’ve known for over 20 years to people I’ve known for less than a year: Ashish Patel (developer), Hina Sheth (photography), Matt Eisenberg (co-author), Melissa Corbett (funding and outreach),

Pinki Shah (strategy), Soniya Sheth (strategy), Trupti Patel (illustration, creative design) and Xavier Thomas (creative producer, technical lead). Our strength is our ability to get things done based on our respective backgrounds and the ability to source additional help from accomplished people within our network.

As for me specifically, I have always had a desire to do work that makes a positive social impact. After college, I wanted to go straight into the Peace Corps but was advised against it and guided toward taking a more traditional job. Practically speaking, I learned a lot and developed some great skills (I also had some unbelievable bosses and mentors), but I was never really happy—no matter how large may paycheck became. In 2003 I realized that I needed to make a drastic change and decided to get my MBA from Duke and focus on an emerging field, Social Entrepreneurship. Since graduating, I have continued to pursue opportunities that I know will keep me energized and fulfilled while also

making sure I do not make that “traditional job” decision again. The result: a social impact consulting company that I started with a few friends (Social Symmetry) and now, Dream Village, which I have started with another group of friends.

My friends are amazing, so is my family. I’ve spent the past 17 months without a formal place of residence, surfing couches and living in guest bedrooms across the US (San Francisco, Fresno, Chicago, Atlanta, Durham, DC, Philadelphia, Boston, New York, all over New Jersey, and just last week, hotels and airports in Houston, Midland and Dallas, Texas). Without my network of support and supporters, my lifestyle would not be possible.

Cristian: You recently won the ideablob.com $10,000 monthly contest for your project Dream Village. What is Dream Village all about?

Suneet: I love talking about Dream Village, but sometimes I get a bit long-winded. So here’s a description that Matt (mentioned above) put together for Dream Village…and to help keep me in check:

Dream Village uses picture books in combination with an interactive web portal to educate children on social, economic, and environmental issues and to promote social responsibility.

Each Dream Village book tells the story of a specific, real-life social, economic, or environmental challenge from the perspective of a child who experienced the challenge and benefited from its resolution. For example, the first book, titled “Saved by the Well” features the organization PlayPumps International which installs merry-go-rounds in public spaces in rural Africa. These PlayPumps double as water pumps which allow a village to access and store clean fresh water, and improve the overall health and quality of life of its population. As they say, “Kids Play, Water Pumps!” The story is told from the perspective of children in Mozambique who discuss what life is like before and after the PlayPump was installed.

Upon completion of the book readers are invited to visit the website, which offers more comprehensive coverage of the issues discussed in the book.  Readers learn more by using engaging tools such as customized videos, articles, animation, and video games. After exploring the site, readers can select a story-specific charity to which they would like Dream Village to direct its profits—at least 50% of profits will go to charities. After the donation, the child is recognized (via certificate) for their contribution.  Thus children learn about important issues, develop a sense of social responsibility, and earn a sense of reward and empowerment from their actions.

Cristian: How is this different from a classic donation program?

Suneet: Our concept actually rests on the work and successes of some other amazing organizations that are focused on giving individual donors the ability to find projects that match their specific interests, and then give to those projects directly; organizations like GlobalGiving, Kiva, Network for Good and Donors Choose. In my experience, one of the issues with what you refer to as a “classic donation program” is that people are too far removed from the work being done and from the outcomes being produced. If someone is donating their money or their time, they are entitled to know what affect their contribution had. It’s actually in the best interest of the recipient of the funds to share that feedback as it will usually drive the individual to give again.

Dream Village takes that entire concept and directs it toward children. We repurpose existing content, projects, even videos for children. The goal is to speak to children in a language they can understand and using characters and concepts to which they can relate and connect. Then, we inspire them to give, and reward them for doing so. Our hope is that our readers are inspired to continue learning and making a difference in their own way after interacting with Dream Village.

Cristian: Why do you think it is important to implement the theme “giving back” into children’s books?

Suneet: There are a few discrete elements of this question that I’d like to answer. First, I want to talk about the idea of “giving back”. Dream Village is less about teaching children to “give back” and more about inspiring children to “make a difference”. It sounds like semantics and wordplay (maybe even a little hokey), but our whole team believes there is a difference. We want to tell very powerful very human stories about pressing issues, and connect children to the characters, locations and causes in our book on a personal level. We believe that after reading our books and interacting with the supporting content on the Website, children will feel a very natural desire to help. Dream Village makes it easier for children to capitalize on that desire. Instead of telling a child to make a donation, we want to inspire them to make a donation, and then make it very easy and very obvious for them to do so. In our model, children’s books are the perfect vehicle to kick-off this entire process. The goal is to educate children, but it’s also to produce something that gives children and the adults who are important to them (parents, grandparents, uncles/aunts, teachers) a reason to spend time together. Plus, there’s something to be said about interacting with something “tangible” and something “real”.

Cristian: I know you have a MBA degree in Social Entrepreneurship, so what exactly is social entrepreneurship?

Suneet: The best definition I have heard is that Social Entrepreneurship is “applying the principles of Entrepreneurship in an effort to solving social issues.” A social entrepreneur is therefore a person who has identified a need, an opportunity or an issue, and looks for creative, innovative and sustainable ways to help resolve that issue. I have seen other definitions of SE, most notably one that contrasts it with traditional forms of philanthropy and development which have historically been very “top down”. In this context, SE can refer to solutions that are developed in a grassroots way and taken to scale. I like the first definition better because it’s simpler.

Social Entrepreneurs have been around for generations. I think it bodes well for everyone that the concept is going mainstream and gaining tremendous momentum. It shows that more and more people are trusting their natural instincts and finding ways to “do good”.

Cristian: What are the keys to success for social entrepreneurship projects?

Suneet: My first response was, “Can I get back to you in 6-12 months?” Sometimes it’s how I feel because so much changes for us on a daily basis.

The keys to success for a social enterprise are no different from the keys to success for any other enterprise (public sector project, nonprofit project) and rest on one’s ability to address a few questions: Is there a need for your project? Do you have a compelling, realistic business plan in place to help deliver your project? Do you have the people and resources in place to execute on that business plan? And, can you continue to expand, grow and develop your business plan so you are self-sustaining? I think our Ideablob victory validates that we have believable, convincing answers to all of these questions.

The one additional key is that a social enterprise has to have a “cause” that people support and can get behind. A social enterprise has to make a case for its project and products, but it also has to make a case for its cause. This places you under additional scrutiny because of the standards you have set for yourself as an organization trying to make a difference in the world. If Coca-Cola wildly reduces its charitable giving in 2009, people are still going to drink Coke. If Dream Village does not give away as much of its profits as it has committed to (at least 50% to start), people will not buy Dream Village books.

Cristian: I’m not really sure about the best way to market a social entrepreneurship project, what are you finding works best, and what doesn’t work?

Suneet: Again, I think at a high-level the principles are the same: understanding potential customers and their purchasing habits, securing access to the right distribution channels, and finding advocates who will push the product on your behalf. Advocacy may be the most important tool for an SE project. In my experience, SE projects benefit a bit more from social networks and word-of-mouth advertising because both require people who are willing to go out and promote your project for you. When there’s a cause element to something, people are more willing (even inspired) to get the word out. We believe that will be one of our strongest drivers of new sales at the outset.

A beta copy of our first book and our web portal are scheduled for launch in late January. A more formal launch plan is currently being developed and is scheduled to coincide with World Water Day (March 22, 2008). We anticipate a multi-city launch with our books being featured at elementary schools and community centers across the US. Several partners have already been confirmed, including schools and community centers in North Carolina, Washington DC, New York, and parts of California. An intern will be joining us for winter break and will help us develop this plan further. I would like to say a quick hello to Lindsey Arielle Smith from Vanderbilt! We are incredibly lucky to have someone with her skill and passion help us out.

Cristian: Ok, I really have to ask this, how did you come with the idea?

Suneet: I run a social impact consulting company and in 2007 I was responsible for researching, designing, developing, and launching a charitable gift card platform for GlobalGiving. A pilot test of this project revealed an unexpected customer segment/profile: adults (parents, grandparents, uncles/aunts) purchasing charitable gift cards as a means to introduce children to global issues.  Something clicked and I realized that 1) many people want to introduce children to important issues and to the concept of altruism as a way to resolve such issues; 2) these introductions are very personal in nature (based on country of origin, or issues of personal importance); and 3) they are often forced to take content and information intended for an adult demographic and then tailor the message for children.

I played around with a few different approaches to addressing this market, but I wanted to make sure we provided an end-to-end experience. There are a number of products on the market that address one element of the lifecycle, but nobody that is really providing a full-service solution for boys and girls. As I involved more friends and more mentors, the idea continued to evolve to what we have today, and what we will launch in a few weeks.

Cristian: Any success stories to share so far?

Suneet: With our formal launch still about 4-6 weeks out, our successes are more in the momentum and support we’ve generated with our concept alone. Just look at the team we have in place to get this project off the ground,, the advisors who believe in our project and want to guide us to success, and even the partners who have come out of the woodwork to help us get this done (accountants, lawyers—we even struck up a deal this morning with an animation and design school who is going to help us with some animated features on our website). At this stage, I defined success by our ability to find more and more people who believe in our team, believe in our idea, and, most importantly, are willing to invest their money (or their time) in helping you succeed. If I have any advice for folks reading this interview it is to pay attention to who is willing to help you. If you can’t generate the support you need based on the concept alone, you should rethink your pitch or rethink your idea.

If you are looking for one particular success, I guess we would say Ideablob. We were able to get hundreds of people to review and support our idea in a matter of a week. That translated into $10,000 in start-up funding, but it also gives us credibility. For example, I know for sure that the Ideablob win is the reason you contacted us. It has also helped us secure additional funding. We made our first pitch to Angel Investors a couple of weeks ago, and we were specifically told that the win was one of the reasons we received a Letter of Interest.

Cristian: How do you plan to use the $10,000 ideablob.com award?

Suneet: We are going to spend a portion of the $10k on building out our web portal, and we are going to spend the remainder (probably around $6k) on producing our first batch of Dream Village books. Though many of the books produced in the first batch will go toward retail sales, we believe this first batch will help us generate interest from new investors and secure all of the start-up funding we need to launch.

Cristian: How are you coming up with new ideas for books? I understand the stories come from real life experiences, so where do you find out about these?

Suneet: We have a pipeline in development. The team has identified seven storylines and developed one-page briefs for each already. Book number 2 is in its second round of revisions, and Book number 3 has already been outlined. We are also constantly fielding new ideas for new books. Submissions come in via email and through our Website, though the most exciting and promising opportunity has been from our friends and peers. A number of people we know and respect as authorities in their particular field (healthcare, education) have approached us with book concepts. This approach allows us great flexibility, ensures that we are considering and evaluating a wide variety of nonprofit organizations and causes, and allows us to scale rapidly (if necessary).

PlayPumps is a great example. I have known about the organization for years and when we started thinking through book concepts, it was the first that came to my mind. After talking it through with our team, I approached the folks at PlayPumps to see if they were interested and more importantly, to learn about what kind of story they wanted us to tell. First, we engage in an immersive up-front relationship where we learn about what is important to the organization and their beneficiaries. Then, we review their case studies and their research to understand the experience. What we have seen so far is the story grows almost organically from the information the organization already has at their disposal. Our responsibility is to make it accessible for children.

From a more functional standpoint, each cause is evaluated and vetted thoroughly before a final decision is made. It is necessary that we partner with and feature organizations in good standing who have demonstrated, long-term staying power. By piggy-backing off of the due diligence processes of some organizations we respect (like GlobalGiving), we are able to ensure our featured organizations are of the highest quality.

Cristian: Besides the money, what does receiving an award mean for you and for your colleagues?

Suneet: Our team is incredibly grateful for winning Ideablob. The $10k in start-up funding will go a long way in helping us launch our beta and start selling books. But the greatest thing to come out of the Ideablob win is buzz and credibility. It has generated some press interest in the work we are doing, which is fantastic. It has given us credibility with other potential investors; a process which is just getting underway but already has momentum. And it has given us something to talk about with potential partners. There are organizations that are willing to partner with us because they believe in our potential, and Ideablob was instrumental in advancing that story. In a few more weeks we’ll be announcing some of these strategic partners which will be an integral part of our distribution strategy.

Cristian: When you submitted the project to ideablob.com what were your expectations?

Suneet: We had a range of expectations. At worst, we felt that participating in Ideablob would allow us to test our concept and our project with a fairly large market at a very low cost (really, nothing more than our time and effort). When the competition got tighter during the last few days, we had already started focusing on the support we had received from the voting community. Win or lose, our concept had been validated and our team had been further energized. To be honest, I think our whole team believed that we could win, and that was why we pushed so hard to generate votes. That was our goal. But our expectation was that we would learn more about Dream Village’s potential.

Cristian: How did you win? What was your strategy to stand out among so many ideas?

Suneet: I’d like to think our idea was simply the best, but there were some amazing ideas competing against us (other education projects, another focused on developing an attachment that can convert any car to a hybrid vehicle, and yet another focused on raising money for children and families facing autism). Our strategy was to be incredibly active and personal. We responded in detail to everyone who left a comment or a suggestion on our page. When we sent emails out asking people to vote, we made them as personal as possible. I actually got kicked-off of Facebook because I sent individual, personalized messages to half of my friends (about 400 people). (Facebook, if you read this, I’m really not a bad guy.)

But the real reason we won is because we had an army of people working together and getting out the vote. Our entire team was dedicated to getting their friends and families to vote. Our friends and families were advocating on our behalf. My parents and sister were bugging friends and co-workers to vote. People who were two or three degrees away were rallying support for us. For example, my girlfriend’s cousin got married a few days after the contest ended and I remember random members of her family who I was meeting for the first time asking me instantly “So, how did you do? I voted!” People liked the idea, and I also think people really believed in our team and our ability to make Dream Village a reality. It was a great feeling.

We were also persistent and unabashed in our outreach. I, for one, am definitely indebted to everyone who received our emails, phone calls, text messages, and other forms of badgering—whether they voted or not. We are lucky and blessed to have the support we did.

Cristian: If someone wants to give a hand and support Dream Village, what is the best way to do it?

Suneet: Just let me know. Look, as a start-up organization, we can use all the help we can get right now. I would recommend they visit the “Contact Us” portion of our Website, and submit an email indicating their specific interest and any relevant background. The more you tell us about you, about why you want to help, and about what you’re capable of (or even interested in) doing, the easier it is for us to find you a way to help. If you are sincere about your interest, we will find a way to work with you.

Cristian: What are the next steps for Dream Village?

Suneet: The fun part is getting ready for launch. We are on the final iteration of our beta book and the technical team is making amazing progress on the web portal. The not so fun side is the pan-handling. The next big push is for funding. As I mentioned, an accredited investment group has provided us with an Expression of Interest for partial funding. It’s a tremendous start, but we still have some work to do before we can close our first round of financing. We believe we have a great story for investors because our estimates indicate that Dream Village will be profitable in Year 1 even after giving such a substantive portion of our profits to charitable causes as directed by our reading audience. Arguably my primary focus for the next few months is finding people who are willing to listen to that story and hopefully, on the strength of our team, our idea and our plan, closing the deal.

One of the more exciting things about this process will be introducing our two new characters to the world. I’ve attached a picture of Jonzi (derived from the Swahili word “Njozi”, which means “Dream”) and Jiji (derived from the Swahili word “Kijiji”, which means “Village”). A special thanks to Luisa Gonzaga, for developing the characters, and to “l3fty” for helping us come up with the names.