What is your product? Who is your customer? Questions worth exploring. | Blog | Foundation East
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What is your product? Who is your customer? Questions worth exploring.

Belinda BellOver the summer I was tutoring on the Ariane de Rothschild Fellowship programme which was held at Cambridge University. This programme chooses entrepreneurs from around the world who are working to create social change.  Most Fellows are from either a Jewish or Muslim background and alongside enterprise training the programme provides structured opportunities for developing cross-cultural dialogue and also learning and scholarship focused on the humanities. It is an exhausting two weeks for the Fellows and staff!

My role is to focus with a group of the Fellows on their business strategy, and to help them prepare to pitch their business to a panel of judges. We can consider whatever is most pertinent to the Fellows - their businesses are in different sectors and territories, as well as being at very different stages of development. What arose was pretty much what comes up whenever doing business mentoring including questions of business planning from first principles (on this occasion using the business model canvas methodology), legal structures and team building, investment raising, competition and the role of the entrepreneur.

However, before we could have a useful conversation about those issues we focused in on the two questions above – What is your product? and Who is your customer? My experience with social enterprises in particular is that these questions provide enough material to unpick for days on end and this group was no exception.

Let me offer as an example a pre-start business called Our Veil that plans to sell materials and workshops into the secondary education sector in Canada. The products are all concerned with veiled muslim women, and increasing cultural understanding of why women may choose to wear a veil. There is an exhibition of photographs of different veiled Canadian women accompanied by their biographies, and the exhibition links to pedagogical tools which will be delivered in school-based workshops led by veiled women (volunteers).

So, firstly, what is the product?

It is ‘workshops for students’: Schools in Canada have a relatively recent obligation to provide education along the lines of Citizenship teaching in the UK. There is a real lack of educational materials and appropriately skilled facilitators and schools are looking for a product that fills this need.

It is ‘increased cultural understanding’: the obligation has been imposed nationally because the government seeks to increase cultural understanding. This is also what Our Veil and similar projects deliver from the government perspective.

And who is the customer?

Matching with the above the customer is both individual schools who make decisions to buy one or other workshop and at one remove also the government, who may turn off the tap on funds if the schools are not purchasing appropriately products which meet the government need, presumably for reduced cross-cultural tension.

But it’s more complicated when you talk to the social entrepreneur. Her priority is actually for the ‘beneficiaries’ – the recipients of the social value. We are wrong to assume the primary beneficiaries are the students, as it turns out Our Veil considers the volunteers, the women who deliver the workshops, to be the primary beneficiaries, as well as veiled women more broadly. By acting as facilitators the volunteer women develop skills and capacities. If it works well then veiled women in Canada will have a better deal – less discrimination and hatred directed at them. Our Veil would look for other routes to market it the schools market did not exist – it is not a product built with a customer in mind but with an outcome in mind.

The women volunteers who may be the beneficiaries are not the paying customer, the paying customer (the schools) are not deciding independently to spend money on their choice of product for their students as their choices are being somewhat constricted and directed by government. When the buyer-seller-product relationships are convoluted like this the normal feedback loops are not in place to ensure quality of product and so the enterprise has to ensure additional measures to track actual progress against its own metrics.

Social entrepreneurs are often working in complicated markets of this type with frequent market failure, public sector distortion, intervention and subsidy, and a need to retain focus on the double or triple-bottom line.

The product and customer questions are pertinent for all businesses not just socially-motivated ones, and will very often provide useful food for thought. However, if you are running that rare business which involves selling a specific widget, to a clearly identifiable single customer group then take a moment to reflect – it could be a whole lot harder!


  • About the Author
    Belinda Bell

    Belinda Bell

    Director