“Failing is good”


The Social Impact Award is an educational program on social entrepreneurship dedicated to students, and it is the largest student Social Entrepreneurship Competition in Europe.

Alexandra Rosetti-Dobslaw met Diego Heatherman, coordinator of the Social Impact Award in Austria, at the workshop „Impact Modeling – Business Models for Social Innovation“ at the Impact Hub Vienna.

The Social Impact Award (SIA) is more than just an award: You promote the knowledge and practice of social entrepreneurship among students. This workshop about impact modeling answers questions like: How do social entrepreneurs turn ideas into reality? – What would you say is the main goal of this workshop?

Diego Heatherman:
Generally this workshop helps raising awareness for social entrepreneurship. Some people came with their own ideas, some came to learn more about social entrepreneurship in general. People have different backgrounds, most of them have some experience with the things we are talking about, some have studied business, others have studied political science or architecture etc. We try to combine everything in one, so that everybody can benefit from it.

Which type of business models do the students usually prefer?

DH: They are usually targeting the unemployed – that is disadvantaged populations which are excluded from the labour market in different ways, or a lot of projects are about bringing people together and raising a community feeling. This is sort of a common trend, but I wouldn’t say that there is a common business model per se.

To what extent do established projects or previous winners of the Social Impact Award serve as a source of inspiration for the participants?

The more examples you hear about, the more different target groups, the more different ideas, the more real it seems, and the more plausible and the more touchable. Especially those examples that aren’t so crazily innovative and creative make people think: Okay, it doesn’t have to be this truly amazing new technology. But even the crazy ones are also fun and inspiring. If something is too inspiring though, it can also be scary. But the scary things are still inspiring. (laughing)

Some students came with ideas, others develop them on the spot, some start again from scratch… How many of them stick to their initial ideas?

DH: People will tell you that there are no bad ideas. Well, I would say that most of the ideas are bad – but they are a step towards a good idea, and the worse you can have is someone who doesn’t want to talk about their idea, people who stick to their idea forever and ever. And maybe someday they try it out – and they realize it fails. To me it’s much better if you say your idea aloud, you talk about it, you get feedback, you change it, and change it, and change it… At what point does it stop being your initial idea and at what point is it a new idea? I don’t know where that bench is. The initial idea that pops in your head usually isn’t that great, because you need feedback. So, if your idea never changed, probably it’s not that good.

At the beginning of the workshop you said ‘Failing is good’ – why?

DH: Failing is good, failing fast is good. You know, failing is failing, failing never feels good, especially when something very promising fails… But it depends on the reasons why it fails. When you fail, you always have a learning out of it. If nothing else, it’s that that way it didn’t work. And the quicker you find out why that didn’t work, the quicker you can change that. Sometimes your idea only has one problem in it, and you fail once and you figure it out, then you are going to be fine. Even ideas that work are still problematic and it’s about how many times did you fail so that you had to start over. To me it correlates to how much you will be able to improve your idea before you finally implement something. And even if you succeed to start a business that is profitable, if you are able to improve a lot ahead of time, then I think your impact will be higher.

You presented the concept of the Impact Canvas*. Where is the most difficult part in it?

DH: When working with the canvas it’s the difference between resources and costs. It’s often hard for people to comprehend what that difference is. And it’s an important differentiation.

But I think the true difficult part is the USP. It’s really difficult to say what is different about my project. And it’s not that projects aren’t different enough, but people don’t know how to identify that difference. And if you cannot identify the thing that makes you different, the thing that is why you are needed, you are never going to tap the potential of it. The rest is technical stuff. But it’s the USP where the heart of your project lies.

* The Business Model Canvas, developed by Alexander Osterwalder, is a strategic management and entrepreneurial tool with nine building blocks: customer segments, value proposition, channels, customer relations, revenue streams, key resources, key activities, key partnerships, and cost structures.

As the coordinator of the Social Impact Award in Austria: What is the most inspiring part of your job?

DH: For me personally it’s in the workshops, it’s running a workshop, especially the one about idea generation. Students come up with an idea, and then they inspire each other, I think that’s the best! It’s particularly rewarding when you can help them to realize their potential. If you join the Award Ceremonies taking place on 28 May in all countries, I’m sure you will also get “contaminated”!

The Social Impact Award was initiated in 2009 by the Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Vienna University of Economics and Business and is coordinated by the Impact Hub Vienna. In 2015, it takes place in ten countries: Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Greece, Macedonia, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovak Republic and Switzerland. ERSTE Foundation has been the regional partner of the Social Impact Award in CEE since its setup, while Franz Karl Prüller, Chairman of the Board of ERSTE Foundation, is member of the Jury of the SIA Austria.