How to design a social business

Tools and frameworks that help you create solid social business concepts.

Guest blog by Meret Nehe, who hosted a two-day workshop on social business design at Kaospilots

It’s a myth that social business ideas just fall into the founder‘s lap just like that. In most of the successful  cases there is actually a lot of thinking, researching and prototyping happening before the actual launch of the organisation or project. But (speaking from my own experience) it’s not that easy to know where to start and how to navigate through the jungle of information when you want to explore and develop your own social business idea. That is where we can let ourselves be inspired from how designers work. So did the Rotman School of Management. Their methodology of the 3 Gears of Business Design is inspired by the innovation method Design Thinking and provides you with an actionable framework to orientate yourself when you are developing a business (or project) idea.

Source: Rotman School of Management (2016): What is Business Design?

Source: Rotman School of Management (2016): What is Business Design?

I like to introduce the 3 Gears of Business Design simply as a framework and structure that gives us an orientation in our process of developing an own social business idea. For each of the three phases of the development process (the three gears), I will give you some tools that will help you develop your concept further.

Phase 1: Empathy and need-finding

You need to know your potential customer, your beneficiaries, your stakeholders etc. very well to be able to provide a product for them that actually meets their needs. Instead of just scratching the surface (which usually happens with a lot of market research tools), I’d recommend that you take time for the following research:


Phase 2: Prototyping and experimentation

In case you feel like you learnt enough from the first phase, you can now start translating your learnings into a concept. For that, based on insights from your research, you can ideate new ideas and develop existing ones further.

You can later sketch out these ideas using e.g. the Business Model Canvas which is a great tool to visualise business model concepts. Do not make the mistake to think that a business model on paper is a concept that will work in reality! You now need to make sure that you test the underlying assumptions of your business model. Create prototypes (mock ups, storyboards, role plays…) and go out with them into the real world to see if the concept works with your customers and if it creates the social impact you’d like to see.

Phase 3: Business strategy

Only now, after you have prototyped, tested and evolved your business model it’s time to set up the strategy. It might be useful to write a Business Plan at this stage or make use of a more detailed business model canvas to translate your full idea into a strategy. And only then (and let me tell you, this is the real hard work) you put your strategy into practice. You will notice that not all parts of your strategy go according to plan. Be open to go back to the first or second gear again and again, making smaller or bigger adjustments. Only fitting first gears will make the third gear run smoothly!

I cannot promise you that following the suggested steps will automatically make you the next social entrepreneur of the year. But trust me, when you stick to the key steps of the process and when you remember that one gear depends on the other, you will have high chances of avoiding big mistakes that entrepreneurs before you did (me included).

In case you have questions about specific tools or need help guiding through the process, you can contact me through my LinkedIn profile.

About the author

Meret Nehe is a consultant in social innovation/entrepreneurship and strategic sustainability and also works as a Design Thinking process facilitator. In the past couple of years, she has been coordinating and hosting training programmes at a social business incubator in Switzerland which allowed her to coach and accompany numerous social enterprises in their development process. During her studies, she co-founded a textile business herself and later worked as a project manager in charities and sustainability organisations in Germany.  She studied in the Netherlands, Chile and Sweden and holds a MSc in Strategic Leadership for Sustainability.


seif Awards for Social Entrepreneurship 2016

The seif Awards for Social Entrepreneurship represent the largest business plan competition in German speaking countries with a total of CHF 40.000 in cash prizes available to four outstanding social enterprises in the categories of seif Award for Social Entrepreneurship, UBS A wards for Entrepreneurial Innovation, SUV A A ward for Integration and Prevention, and PwC Award for Future Trends. Applicants do not need to apply for a specific category and each of the four winners will receive an award valued at CHF 10.000.

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What Kaospilots really is?

Adapted from an article written by The Changer, a German platform for social impact careers

BusinessWeek has recognised Kaospilots as one of the best design schools in the world, and Fast Company has named it in its Startup Leagues Big 10, preparing you for the fast moving startup economy. Moreover, The Changer mentioned it as one of the best alternative schools for changemakers. What could explain such repercussions?

The Kaospilots is an international school for creative business design and social innovation. Originally founded in Denmark in 1991, more than 600 students have passed through the doors of this alternative business school – over a third of which have gone on to found their own businesses or NGOs. The methodological focus is on learning by doing, constant reflection and iteration, and collaboration. They acknowledge the role of human nature in making business decisions and interacting in the work environment. Rather than trying to suppress them, they guide their students to make productive use of their own and others’ values, beliefs and dreams in all of their tasks.

The students work with real world challenges not just theories and essays. They develop ideas, concepts and business plans for clients. They create prototypes, facilitate workshops and make graphic recordings. A KaosPilot is trained to communicate their ideas, design strategies and implement campaigns for actual projects and products.

On their fourth semester the students spend in an external classroom, the so-called Outpost, in Cape Town, South Africa. The purpose is to get to know a new landscape and to develop and implement their tools in business projects in an unknown territory.

In Switzerland, Kaospilots is based in Bern and the curriculum is based on the same education which the school in Aarhus/Denmark is offering as a 3 years program. In addition to that, students in Switzerland go through the Council Guide Training, which is a personal development training and a teaching on how to move as tribe. Below, a description about the Swiss school by the headmaster Matti Straub:


How can martial art be love?

Written by Sam Nuesch 

If you would watch a class of Aikido with the KaosPilots you would see a bunch of freaks rolling and crawling on the ground, then doing some breathing – into the belly, the chest and reverse, active, passive to maybe spend some time rolling over each other after having been pushed around.

What should this be good for?

Doing some sports doesn’t seem to be a bad idea – but why Aikido though?

Ultimately Aikido is love” – this is what Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei, the founder of Aikido insisted on. But how can martial art be love?

Here’s a perspective: take some time to reflect your experience. How do you feel when you feel love – when you love life, love you just being, love what you sense, see and hear, love the people, the beings and everything else around you? Would you agree that it’s a kind of harmony, a deep relaxation and connectedness?


Master Dragisa Jocic in action. Picture from Aikido Schule Bern.

This is where this path is pointing to. This is the practice in the dojo. We aim to relax and breathe in “stressful” situations, under “attack”, in confusion to calm down and center, keep your balance and move with what is. And still we keep our intention – on love. We are going for unity with what we usually call our adversary, be it a person, a situation or a feeling – like pain.

That’s how it comes that every KaosPilot smiles hearing the legendary Dragisa reminding us again: “Enjoy the pain!”

And we know, the dojo is not just that physical space with some mats on the ground. The dojo is our life! KaosPilots practice love.

Can you see now parallels being a project leader/changemaker/entrepreneur and practcing Aikido?

Below, a snippet of the Master Dragisa Jocic, from Aikido Schule Bern.

How can we use money as a tool for consciousness?

What is money really? What’s the real weight of money for our business, ideas and dreams?

We use money to pay bills, groceries, meet our daily needs, etc. But what is our relationship with money really? When have you last observed your relationship with cash? How to include money to help in our growth? How can money help us become more conscious? How can we use money as a tool for growing consciouness?

pic money

What is your definition of money? Is it a form of exchange or a necessary evil? What do you believe it is?

Interestingly, many of us have been brought up to ideas about money that don’t fit our goals, dreams and ambitions well; it’s a big challenge to bring the relationship with money into awareness, to notice where we react, what we have to claim and embody a new understanding in order to meet our needs according to circumstances we face.

Good questions to surface our beliefs can be:

Are you having fun with money? How responsible are you with money?

What about the people around you?

How do they react when finances don’t go well?

Do they panic?

Do they enjoy it?

Do we need to be serious with money?

Have you ever imagined about expanding your capabilities with and without money?

If you associate a positive quality to money, probably you associate your feeling of being enough/complete/secure/whatever you feel…to the fact of having money. What’s your feeling behind money?

How do you neutralize the feeling(s) you have towards money?

And what about if you associate money with negativities?

How can you feel good having this negative feeling(s) associated to money?


Or look at the beliefs you are discovering about cash and finances. For example you may hold a belief:

To get what you want, you need money.

To earn money, you need to work hard.”

And maybe you will find under this logic, that money is a compensation for a sacrifice, for a work you don’t love to do.

But…did you really do what you want to do after you have made a specific amount of money? Do you feel you are having enough (money)?

What we are learning and practicing at the KaosPilots – this week with a teaching from Peter Koenig, money researcher from Zürich, is that what we really want is to live our lives and do the things we love with and without money. And each of us needs to find out what we need and want for our dreams to be implemented. And pay attention to the relationship with money, but not running after it only. That is simply stressful. As Peter Koenig expressed from his 35 years of research on the topic:

In the end, you can have either pleasure or agony, both in credit or in debt“.

So a simple exercise you can do is this: imagine yourself being dead right now and ask yourself the question “what is my life about?“. What would really matter for you after your whole life?

As entrepreneurs we need to explore our relationship with resources and money and go deep below the surface, otherwise it becomes a force that runs our lives. And that is not what we want.

Interesting exhibition on “Money“ from Stapferhaus Museum in Lenzburg:

How improvisation techniques can help on teamwork?

Life flows without any script and in our daily lives we face challenges out of our control. Impro techniques are quite often used outside the artistic contexts in order to help on solve problems creatively, develop communication skills and boost team-building, as they reveal insights on team members’ thoughts, feelings, relationships and behavior.

A team can work and succeed in many different ways. The same principles apply for how to work with impro techniques, there are lots of options and it’s necessary to pay attention to which ones fit best to a team context. It’s not about a one-solution-fits-all, it’s about training to face challenges going with the flow.


Frank Renold in one of his works at Kaospilots Switzerland

We at Kaospilots Switzerland, for example, have worked with the actor Frank Renold using several impro theater techniques. Below, we share a video working with the “Ball-Game” (unfortunately, we didn’t record our Ball-Game while enjoying it), just an example of a tool to exercise our attention, our presence as individuals and as a team while playing memorizing 2, 3, 4 or more keywords when throwing the balls with the team members.

Curiously, Barcelona Football Club’s teamwork remembers the same principles with the so called tiki-taka, where most of all the performings happen just at the moment. It looks quite simple watching the players passing the ball from one to another, however, it requires a high degree of teamwork and synchronicity. That’s the same for impro techniques.

Do you have an experience with impro techniques? Feel free to share with us!