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A lesson from rock aristocracy

by Colleen Baldwin

I love a bold metaphor, and so my congratulations go to Ken Banks for his audacity recently in drawing a comparison between social entrepreneurship and arguably the world’s greatest living rock band, the Rolling Stones.

Did the founder of FrontlineSMS see similarities between the sex and drugs-fuelled lifestyle of the band’s early career and some of the wilder start-ups perhaps? Or was it the sheer resilience and leather-faced longevity of the gyrating grandads of pop that struck a chord?

Actually, as creator of a programme of free open-source software which has helped millions in the developing world, Ken was not casting himself, or anyone else, you may be disappointed to hear, as the Mick Jagger of social enterprise. But he was making a serious point about how the Stones’ survival and success has been dependent on a solid management team working backstage while they strutted their stuff. And most importantly, he was emphasising that the group, in its long history, has changed its manager three times as it faced different phases of development.

And that, Ken reminds us, is the important lesson for SBEs. His blog The Rolling Stones School of Management Innovation was a precursor to an announcement that FrontlineSMS is now in a period of transition, ready to face a new stage in its growth. It’s time for Ken to turn his labour of love over to others with different skills … step down Andrew Loog Oldham if you like.

Ken’s approach to his role in building the organisation is pragmatic: “I had the idea, I relentlessly pursued it for a number of years, I worked very hard to push it out,” he says of the software which now has users in over 80 countries and in its various guises is estimated to reach around 13 million people. “But just because I’m very good at all those things, it doesn’t mean I’m good at figuring out a business plan, or good at figuring out a marketing plan, or good at figuring out how we make best use of foreign currency in a project grant, or whatever it might be.”

Like many of the best ideas in social enterprise, Ken’s was a solution to a problem. While working on conservation in southern Africa, he became aware that the national parks needed a communications network for areas with little or no internet coverage. For an anthropologist who was also an expert in mobile phones, the solution was simple technologically, and so was born the “reluctant innovator” as he sometimes calls himself.

By linking a low-cost mobile to a laptop, the software can send out multiple text messages to thousands of recipients, get answers back and manage information. Today sees the global launch of version 2.

The programme allows users to adapt it to their own requirements, but in the early days the take-up was slow, and Ken was seriously considering giving up on the project. But when it was used to monitor elections in Nigeria in 2007, it attracted the attention of the media and donors.

“That was the first time I thought this could actually be quite useful,” Ken confides. “I’d always had a hunch, but hunches don’t always bear out, and there are lots of good ideas that never go anywhere. The Nigerian NGOs were doing something nobody else had ever done before, and that was quite exciting.”

Today, the software has been downloaded over 20,000 times and its multiple uses include running a rural health-care network in India and sending commodity prices in El Salvador. It has been adapted for radio broadcasting, legal support and microfinance. In Cambodia, it saves lives of potential malaria sufferers in remote villages by relaying their symptoms instantaneously to health workers miles away, where previously this information could have taken weeks to arrive.

“I’m very happy with what I’ve managed to do, building software that works and was relevant and has proved incredibly useful, and building tools that really empower non-profit users to do their work,” continues Ken. “I was the right person up to this point, but now we need more skills and different skill-sets and a larger team, and I need to relinquish a large amount of control of my projects to enable it to grow and enable it to fly. And many entrepreneurs seem to struggle with that.

“There’s a “˜founder’s syndrome’ I keep hearing about that I don’t seem to suffer from,” he explains, adding that in the entrepreneurship world there is often a “˜laser focus’ on the entrepreneur, and as the organisation around him or her grows not enough attention is given to the team around that person, to the fact that their work is vital.

As Ken steps back from FrontlineSMS (he will retain the role of Chair of the Board), there is also a shake-up of its business model, with the organisation setting up a community interest company and looking to attract investment, in addition to the largely US-sourced donations it has relied on until now: “We are looking to diversify our income streams. Donations will still be a significant part of the money that we take in, but also there’s a large demand for consultancy services, particularly from some of the larger international NGOs who for some time have realised the potential of mobile technology but haven’t necessarily grasped the best way of using it.”

Other ideas under consideration include a tiered pricing model for software licencing, which has been free until now.

Photograph courtesy of Kiwanja.net. You can read more about Ken’s work at kiwanja.net or follow him on Twitter.