Keith Ippel On Building & Scaling Conscious Startups Which Create Positive Impact


With over 15 years experience as a leader in technology centric businesses, Keith has accelerated the growth of both small and large companies, launched new products, and raised over $20m in angel investment and venture capital.

He has an unparalleled ability to collaborate with entrepreneurs, employees, and investors to deliver amazing products to the market. Keith is passionate about creating opportunities that previously did not exist for people and co-founded Spring to bring that into the social venture space.


Keith provides strong insights for purpose-driven entrepreneurs, shares tips for effective leadership and talks about trends and a broad range of tools useful when running a business. 


Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Tom Allen] - To start things off could you please share a bit about your background and what led you down the path of working with purpose-driven entrepreneurs? [1:47]

[Keith Ippel] - I love to talk about this journey that I've been on because I think it parallels a lot of other entrepreneurs. And for me, I have a background in business, an undergrad in business and an MBA. I spent a few years doing management consulting and after that I got into the tech startup space. I spent a good ten years in the tech startup world with a lot of really interesting technologies and companies and grew some teams. We sold a business and we sold some IP.

We spun a business out and there was a lot of cool activity happening but as I got towards the end of that particular journey in my career, you know, it just really started to ring hollow.

And I really felt that I was struggling to find meaning in what it was that I was doing.

So that led me to take a sabbatical in early 2010 and that was really my opportunity to reflect on what it was that I was doing and why I was doing it. As a part of that process I had an opportunity to give back to the non-profits and charities and that's really what captured my imagination.

On one hand, there's some people doing incredible work in the community, non-profits and charities, cooperatives. But at the same time, I can see the potential to impact our communities and the potential to change the world through the for-profit model as well.

And that's what led me on the journey that has got me here today, was, 'how do I create this intersection between impact with for-profit and then also, between impact and all of these great sort of tools and technology resources and capital that have been available to the tech world for the last many years?'

So tell us more about Spring then. What are it's origins and how does it operate to deliver this positive social impact? [3:39]

Yeah, fantastic question, because how does it help to support is really about why it came to be. And for Spring, the organisation came about because we saw an opportunity to create this collision between the impact world and the technology community and so we thought, 'what better place to do that than early stage?' You know, an idea on a napkin through to say, a million, five, in annual revenue or annual turnover. And really trying to catch people at the formative stages. Idea creation, customer discovery, minimum viable product, company launch and catch them then when they're starting to think about things like vision and values and purpose and really have them weave that in while giving them some incredible tools to be successful, as they did it. And so that really is what created the launch of Spring and we really spend some time looking at different models that existed in the community like incubation models, acceleration, co-working spaces et cetera, to find what we thought would be a great fit for this purpose.

So what have been some of the biggest challenges that you've had to face until now and how did you navigate your way through them Keith? [4:52]

There's probably two things that I'll touch on. One is, we ourselves being a startup. This is my fourth venture but every startup is new, every startup is unique with it's own opportunities and challenges and our greatest challenge to be honest within Spring itself was how do we support entrepreneurs in 2017, 2018 and beyond? And what we realised is that some of the existing platforms and programmes, things like incubation and acceleration, while they supported entrepreneurs at a specific point in time, you maybe didn't provide that ongoing continuity of support and community and accountability and so for us that led us to the evolution of Spring to where we are today.

The second challenge that I'll share with you might be a little bit unique to Canada, which is where we're based in Vancouver, we, in that particular context, really noticed that most of the ecosystem support organisations here are supported by government funding. And we had made a decision to be a for-profit venture, to really walk the talk. And so that created it's own unique challenges in how we did it because we chose to forgo some of those earlier pots of funding from government support to tread our own path. So those were a couple of things that we faced early on and it's been an exciting journey.


Yeah it certainly sounds like it. So what advice then would you give an aspiring social entrepreneur who has an idea but is unsure of what steps to take to move it forward? [6:32]

It's a fantastic question.

I think we find that that question is a universal truth question, whether somebody is a technology entrepreneur or a retail product entrepreneur or a social impact entrepreneur. And that is, you have to find and foremost prove the idea.

And to prove the idea we're talking about customer discovery. Customer discovery is a tech term used to describe a version of market research, which really helps an aspiring social impact entrepreneur or impact entrepreneur to answer a couple of key questions.

The first one is, the problem that they're trying to solve, is it actually a problem at all? Do people face that problem and is it an important problem for them to solve?

The second question that it helps you to answer is, is the solution I'm proposing one that they want and one that will actually solve the problem?

And then the third burning question and ultimately the most important one is, do I actually want to go do this? And do I want to give into this world of entrepreneurship and eventually leave my day job and take the risk that is associated with doing something new and different and risky.

So customer discovery really helps on that path. The benefit that entrepreneurs have now, social entrepreneurs being well within that category is, they have an opportunity to get fantastic resources online to help them through that customer discovery process or they can also look at more local incubation programmes as well, if there is one in their community.


So once they have found those customers and validated that idea Keith, and are looking to scale up, what advice would you then give to someone who's looking to get that sustainable funding for their initiative and have you seen any changes in the way that social enterprises are tapping into different revenue streams? [8:25]

Yeah well, and maybe by extension, the different ways that they're tapping into different revenue streams but also funding sources. And so great, great question.

I think as social entrepreneurs start to validate the market, they've launched in the marketplace, the first thing that they need to do is stop and remember that it takes a village to raise a company.

And so what they want to do is wrap themselves with some fantastic other mentorship and/or advisors.

And we're looking for people who first and foremost have industry experience to help us avoid rookie mistakes. The majority of people start business in industries that they do not have experience in.

So really, adding that industry expertise by advisors and mentors is such a great way to shortcut the learning process and increase the probability of success.

Add on to that, people with good business model experience. So whether that's software service or retail or eCommerce or anything in between.

We're also looking for people who have a great network. And a network can be a network of investors, it could be a network of partners and customers. Or it could be a network of talent to add to the team. And then the last thing I always look for in advisors and mentors is people with geographic relevance. And geographic relevance comes in two facets. The first one is geographically relevant to me the entrepreneur. So someone local that I can engage with. And the other of course is geographic relevance to the customer. People who can give me that cultural or local context that would be invaluable to me both understanding my business but also increasing the chance of success. So that's what I'm looking for and that's the advice that I give.

Now, to touch on the topic of alternative revenue sources and alternative funding sources, you know, social entrepreneurs, one thing that I love about them is they tend to be better at bootstrapping. And by bootstrapping I mean generating revenue early to validate the idea, to get to profitability and to create some independence and less reliance on external funding sources. So naturally, they tend to go there.

We see some interesting trends like the real push, of course, into eCommerce for anything that's physical. Any sort of physical product. The rise of Amazon globally. The latest statistic is over 80% of US households have an Amazon Prime account. And so the impact that that has as a channel and also the ease by which you can get onto it. So eCommerce for physical products.

You see a lot of content players now where we saw an omni-channel trends for content creators. So people like Monocle and Refinery 29 and Vice would do a mix of physical magazine, app, eCommerce and Monocle would even take it as far as a radio station and events and a few other things. And now we're starting to see this more membership based model. Where the marketplace and consumers are now starting to get more and more comfortable with becoming members to a community to access content and to be a part of that content creation process. And so more recently I've seen organisations like Discourse Media in Canada, Rank and File Magazine, which is based out of Oslo, Norway, those would be a couple of examples of people who are now stepping more into this membership based model. So that are some of the new models and those are impact orgs that are leading the way. For-profit impact orgs is another factor.


What advice would you then give to someone who's looking to get that sustainable funding for their initiative and have you seen any changes in the way that social enterprises are tapping into different revenue streams? [8:25 - continued]

So that's cool to see. On the funding side, the continued growth of crowd funding in many markets like in the US and Canada, taking the lead of places like the UK and the Netherlands around equity crowd funding as an alternative funding source. You definitely see a lot more of that. Crowd funding continues to grow. We see more specialisation so platforms like Fundrazr for non-profits and charities. We see platforms like Wayblaze, which is a community place-based investing, crowd-funding platform. So we start to see some different elements there. So the amazing thing now is that people are doing some really interesting things and of course, we haven't even got to the cutting edge yet of people going for things like initial coin offerings and block chain and some of the other vehicles that are on the horizon and we're starting to see them touch in on companies and it's maybe a little bit early to tell what the impact they're going to have long term.

It'll be very, very interesting to watch those other technologies move forward. And it's very funny that you mentioned crowd funding as well, because just last week I had a conversation with Anna from PledgeMe and she was discussing those models as well.

So Keith are there any particular business or design tools, which have proven to be really invaluable in the development and daily running of your business? [13:34]

Yeah, so I'm really glad that you asked that.

The first one more than anything else, is to create a rich and robust community process for an organisation.

That's really been, I think, the most fundamental shift in business in the last, I'm going to say, seven years. In 2009, you probably could not find a job description anywhere, which had the title Community Manager. And so now it's not only pervasive but you're starting to see org charts where the community function actually sits separate from sales and marketing as its own strategic function within an org chart. And so having really effective tools around community is critical. So combinations of CRMs and data and analytics tools, appropriate use of social networking tools. So whether that is a private Facebook group or it's LinkedIn groups or other social platforms. But you also see things like community platforms that exist out there. So Mighty Networks would be an example where someone could create their own bespoke community platforms for their communities. So these are pieces that I think are critical.

Having an effective content management system is going to be gold for an organisation and then having robust analytics.

So in our world, we see a lot of people using things like Infusionsoft and HubSpot as tools that they can dive into when they get a little bit farther along. When they're at launch it's fun to watch the creativity of people trying to put tools together as they look to still get the benefit of analytics that a larger platform like Infusionsoft or Salesforce or a HubSpot might offer but still be able to make it work.

So we see a lot in the startup world things like MailChimp, Zapier, we see HyperDrive for sure on the CRM side. People pushing Google Analytics to it's limit. Facebook analytics as well of course. So we see a lot of that activity happen. So those are some of the key tools but what I would say, to take it a step back and step up, tools like Strength Finders 2.0, Strength-based Leadership, Meyers-Briggs so is a great resource for that. Really getting the team lined up and aligned quickly and then wrapping that around an effective leadership structure and so there's some great tools out there. One Page Plan would be an example of this. There's a book that I love to recommend to entrepreneurs and it's called the Metronome Effect. And the Metronome Effect is a book written by Shannon Susto who was a two-time exit serial entrepreneur, very, very successful. And she actually did us all a favour by condensing about 30 of the most famous business books into one really nice tight guide for how to create a fantastic leadership rhythm early in a business. So even when you're two people you can fully take advantage of it but it will help you grow from two to 10 to 50 to 100 and beyond and ultimately to the realisation of your vision, however large that is.

It sounds like a fantastic book. And so I mean you work within a co-working environment Keith and you're no stranger to collaboration. So what do you believe are the fundamental ingredients then that are necessary to generate a collaborative culture in today's work environment. [17:36]

So it's interesting. I guess from my perspective there's kind of two tiers to that answer. One is a collaborative work environment within a company and then one is a collaborative work environment in the community where you work.

And so within a company, the first thing that I think a leader has to do is after they've embraced a rhythm such as one proposed by the Metronome Effect, is that they need to release the traditional sense of what an office place used to look like and also what a team looks like.

So now, we're in this world where we have fully distributed teams, global presence, no more than two employees in any one location. We also have this really seamless merger now of full-time employees along with freelancers in every possible role within an organisation and so really a collaborative work environment needs to allow for those two ... What I consider to be the future of work, those two key components need to be present and need to be allowed to thrive.

So for me, having very effective communication tools. Having a very effective and structured rhythm to the organisation is critical to allow that to happen. And so for me that's critical within an organisation and finding those cultural elements within the company, which is really born out of company-wide division in the values. Then from there, you can make sure that it works well regardless of where your people are and how you work together.

Within a community, it's really critical for entrepreneurs to plug in. And I think entrepreneurs need to plug in at two levels. One is by stage. So finding those people that are plus or minus six months from facing the same opportunity and challenges that you face. And the second one is type of business, and I encourage people to keep it broad. Like, type of business would be all things business to consumer or business to business or it could be all things software or it could be all things bricks and mortar, which could be product or service or food for example. Because you want a bit of diversity of opinion wrapped around you but you do need to target the community for feedback, for advice, for access to talent and everything else so it's really important for people to invest in their local community for that.

That's what brings people back to the local community and that's what stitches thing together right?

So which inspiring projects or initiatives do you believe are doing this really well whether it's locally there in Vancouver or nationally or internationally, which of these organisations do you believe are creating some great positive social change? [20:34]

Where do I start? So there's a few that stand out. Impact Hub is, I think, right now doing some incredible things. And part of the reason is because it's been around long enough that it's had it's successes and it's wins and it's lumps and it's learning moments. And there are over 110 cities around the world now and they have done I think a very effective job of embracing a global mission to work day to day, week to week, month to month, to change the world and make it a better place in all of the ways that it's community of entrepreneurs will do that, whether through product or service or software or hardware. And at the same time, fully embrace the local context. And so whether you go to a really well-established community like in Zurich or you go to one of the up and coming communities like Belgrade or you go one of the nascent communities that they have such as San Salvador in El Salvador, then I think you really get a strong flavour for that.

Another one, that I'd love to highlight is Fledge. Fledge is the conscious company accelerator and it is based in Seattle but has currently four locations around the world where it runs an impact accelerator and they have really unlocked the ability to have entrepreneurs in the impact community move seamlessly from country to country to get the support and the network and the capital and the momentum needed to really take things to the next level and change the world in the way that they've defined.

So those are a couple of fantastic organisations that I think are doing an amazing job. And for us at Spring, we're trying to emulate some of those learnings and for us it's really about stitching together global communities that impact entrepreneurs and where we're trying to do it, is we're trying to do it in the day to day and the week to week and the month to month through our round table groups, which run both online and in person. As well as some of the workshops so that, you can take a big programme like a Fledge and you can be in a co-working space community like an Impact Hub and you can also get the ongoing support as well. And so for me, that kind of stuff just really gets me excited when I start to see that happen within this impact entrepreneur community.

Yeah absolutely. We were very lucky at the start of the year Keith to spend some time with Impact Hub in Amsterdam. And we interviewed Tatiana Glad. And you know, the community there was just doing such amazing things and it feels like such a great place to work and launch a business. So I can certainly relate your reflections there and I think you've added a couple of really great organisations and examples. So to finish off, you mentioned the Metronome Effect before, are there any other books that you'd like to recommend to our listeners? [23:24]

In addition to The Metronome Effect, Strength-Based Leadership, which is the companion book to Strength Finders 2.0. For those listeners who have established organisations with a Board of Directors, I highly recommend Boards that Deliver by Ram Charan. It is the formative book on board governance and how boards function and it's such an invaluable resource. I do love Creativity Inc., which is a book on Pixar and I love it because it actually has not a whole heck of a lot to do with creativity, it has a lot to do with operations. And it's kind of an under served topic. Given that it's written though the lens of the COO, I think it's a pretty amazing book for people to grab on to.

So those are a couple that definitely reach out to me and if I can, you know, maybe extend it a little bit farther, there is a website that I think can present some really interesting learnings for people that is Great Big Story, which a lot of people know, but the interesting thing is a lot of people will go to Great Big Story, because there's' human condition stories, you know, frontiers in food and so forth. But if you actually take a step back and look at a lot of those stories through the lens of an entrepreneur, you will see some incredible world-changing people there and so I just really encourage entrepreneurs, and especially entrepreneurs who want to make the work a better place to read this at Great Big Story but in that lens of being an impact entrepreneur because there's some real hidden gems in there.


Recommended books


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