Innovative entrepreneurial project case study
Consultant on Business & Project Management IE Business School
This paper presents the story of a successful initiative to build an online Professional Advisory Service for NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in Spain. It was launched in 1999 with the objective being to cover 11 professional areas. The service value proposal and delivery was recognized as being very innovative for 1999 (Jeffrey, 2011). However, it is still active in 2013 advising more than 6,000 users from many organizations (www.solucionesong.org). In 2012 alone, more than 1,600 new inquiries have been opened, nurturing the knowledge base. In that year, 2012, the number of accesses to previous inquiries was more than 1,350,000! The project's next phase is internationalization. This paper will focus particularly on the first 12 months of the entrepreneurship giving also some information about the second year and the situation by 2013. Satisfaction rates are very high and various different awards have been granted.
How was it started? What are the key success factors behind this success? What factors can be applied to other projects? What is the relationship between project management and business creation (according to business plans)?
This document will present the start-up history from the initial draft idea to his final state.
Some aspects that will arise while reading and discussing are: key success factors for those kinds of entrepreneurial projects, relationships between project and business plans, innovation triggers, stakeholder management, agile practices both in projects and business creation, nonprofit organization specifics, leadership, or internet service startup.
This case study was written to be used at PMI Global Congress 2013—North America. This entrepreneurial project has already been used in several different business schools. The purpose now is for it to be used to support discussion in this congress session.
The author here documents his own experience.
The entrepreneurial project scenario
In 1998 in Spain, a large number of not-for-profit organizations were covering many social needs, both local – homeless, extreme illness, drug rehabilitation, and in other countries –“development projects” abroad. Their service was very significant and social recognition very high. Their support was volunteer work and donations from many citizens and, of particular importance, economical support from the administrations (city, region, country, and European Union).
Volunteering activity was significant. Many young people were socially concerned. A large group organized to complain about the low social budget assigned to development projects. They camped for weeks in the gardens along the biggest street in Madrid (0.7% movement).
NGOs were strong in their commitment to social needs and empathy with people in need. Having said that, they also had a lot of room for improvement in terms of management and work organization. Their limited resources were in contrast with the real human needs they would be willing to cover. That was always a challenge!
In those years, the Internet was growing fast, but the service and functionality were quite limited compared with the situation in 2013. To give a few points about Internet access:
- It was available to employees in some companies
- Home access was commonly provided through “modems” transmitting tone signals across the telephone line. Slow connection adequate for “text” but very limited to access images and graphics.
- The main service was email rather than web browsing
- Mobile access was virtually non-existent: no email access and very limited web access (Web browsing was supported only with a pure text command interface and no graphics – WAP protocol)
- The number of web pages was very little compared with that we have now in 2013, and most of them were informative rather than interactive
- Google had not been launched yet!
Julio C., a 31 year old telecommunication engineer and master in project management, had been working for 7 years in Hewlett Packard Madrid providing remote support to IT workers in customer's, managing internal IT projects and providing solutions to customers. When he joined HP, email was a tool for HP employees worldwide to communicate only among them. That was already quite advanced!
Regarding his social activities, Julio had been volunteering for different organizations and projects: Manager and therapist “Asociación Proyecto Acogida” (drug rehabilitation) (1994-96), fundraising development projects in Paraguay (1989/92), on site volunteer activity in Bolivia (1994) and project manager for IT migration at “Manos Unidas” (1998). That delivered an intense and rewarding personal experience and many very good friends.
(First 6 months, October 1998–March 1999)
Julio's experience was that high-dedication volunteer activity was possible while studying at the university. However it was not easy while working at HP as “critical corporate accounts engineer” to provide 24/7 IT support! Sometime in 1997 he thought: “Wouldn't it be amazing to have an online platform offering me the opportunity to volunteer helping NGOs address problems? I could help in many different professional areas.”
Exhibit 1 - The three main elements in the idea and some examples of inquiries
In October 1998 our entrepreneur decided to work full time on the “NGO online professional advice” initiative he had been maturing in his mind. By that date, he had been granted a sabbatical from HP. The next step was to build a team in order to validate, detail, and implement the service.
Eight volunteers from different professional backgrounds formed a committed and motivated team in December 1999. The action plan was ready before January 1. Some of the activities were: Defining a name and logotype, public relations, looking for donors and volunteers, offering the service and responding to first inquiries. The service was initially provided using email distribution lists as the only tool –Quite laborious by today's standards. However, it worked!
“Asociación de Profesionales Solidarios” was registered in February. Then the second action plan was defined to cover the next eight months. Exhibit 2 includes pilot testing, qualitative and quantitative studies to fine-tune the service according to the main stakeholders.
Exhibit 2 - February 1999 Action Plan.
Listening to the “customer” was the only way to ensure service adequacy (bear in mind that NGOs were not customers in the sense of buying services, because the advisory service was provided free of charge). In early March, a meeting was organized with a group of nine people from NGOs to better understand their needs, requirements and expectations, and to involve them in the team launching the online advisory service. It was very productive, thanks in particular to the volunteer Exequiela Gómez, expert on qualitative studies for product definition, who designed and directed the meeting. One of the results of the conclusions is very surprising today in 2013. It was that many people from NGOs expressed that having e-mail was not a priority at their organizations!
March 24th the initiative was presented in an event at “Instituto de Ingeniería de España” (Exhibits 3, 4 & 5). Mr. Juan Soto Serrano, HP Spain CEO, and Mr. Jorge Pérez Martínez, Dean at COIT –Telecom. Engineering Official College, led the event. The audience was composed of people from NGOs, candidate or active volunteer professionals and, in general, supporters of the initiative. NGO “customers,” supporters, volunteers and, very important, potential donors and sponsors were obtained. “Hermanas San José” was one of the potential sponsors (family in this case). They offered an office at no cost and with room for four work places and a meeting room.
By this time a static web page providing information about the service, organization, sponsors and donors had been designed. It was hosted on a server at The Escuela Técnica Superior de Ingenieros de Telecomunicaciones, Universidad Politécnica de Madrid. In fact, email addresses were also provided by them.
Exhibit 3 - March 24th 1999 Event at Instituto de Ingeniería de España
Exhibit 4 - Pedro Jara, Julio Carazo, Javier Martín, Jorge Pérez Martínez, Juan Soto Serrano and Rosalía Giménez
Exhibit 5 - The service logo “bridging” nonprofit and professional worlds
Establishing solid foundations
Second six months (April 1999–September 1999)
The results so far had been promising: Support from the most important stakeholders (NGOs, online volunteers, office volunteers, donors, and institutions) had been obtained, the association registered, the organization performing and growing, experience was being gained providing the service (which proved to be very valuable for the next phase), donors were covering some expenses, and an office was very well located in the center of the city,…
The next challenge had many different aspects but all of them required quite a lot of effort and a bigger organization to assume them. Moving from “the garage” to an office, empty at that time, would establish adequate work conditions. A new sponsor, Fabio Casas, provided very good quality furniture (used office tables and chairs). Telephone and Internet access were soon available. It did not take very long to get PCs and a printer donated by Hewlett Packard. Maravillas Carazo's donation by early summer was very welcome: A portable air conditioning system!
This was a challenging and motivating project, significant support had been found and, finally, a place to work. Everything was ready to incorporate volunteers to support daily activity in a more continuous way. There could really be a team working together rather than different people having meetings from time to time and performing activities by themselves. Significant improvement! Laura, Leticia, and Gema joined later as highly dedicated volunteers. And many other people helped for some time or in some activities. The organization was extremely dynamic and flexible. The work environment was enthusiastic and full of commitment! The party to celebrate our new office took place early May and was a great opportunity for the many volunteers in the organization to meet and get introduced. At the same time a group of people from NGOs were also invited. It was a very empowering celebration with food, music, and over 50 participants!
A key project to work on was “Service definition and procedures improvement.” Its aim was to define a feasible way to maximize NGOs and professionals’ satisfaction. The project involved people from NGOs and volunteer professionals –most of them already taking part in the service –our IT team and the team working “at the office.” The IT people proposed technical solutions to automate the online advice process and, very importantly, ensure feasibility and future operation and maintenance. Exequiela, the volunteer expert on qualitative studies for product definition, was pleased to direct the meetings and elaborate the resulting reports. Her professional activity was directed towards “customers” in order to identify the keys to satisfy them.
The first meeting had been held in March with the main “customer” of the service (NGOs). To execute the second part, it was proposed that Exequiela would also consider volunteer professionals as “customers.” In fact, they were receiving the possibility to collaborate, to get the reward of helping. That is critical for the model to work!
After the meeting in March with NGOs, the next phase was to work with professionals, extract conclusions and prepare them for final validation. This final validation was completed late May 1999 by the original NGO team that started the process. The work with professionals required four meetings. The first was held with a group of volunteers from different professional areas. The next was with IT volunteers, then with lawyers, and finally with business people. All these meetings took place in the building of “Instituto de Ingenieráa de España.”
The NGO team met again to close the project. They were very satisfied with the final result obtained through this improvement project. Based on the final results, a new project was launched to:
1) Apply and test the new service definition and procedures –that was the second pilot of the service
2) Implement a web application and database to the manage all the interactions automatically
The second pilot of the service was run from June to mid-July 1999. Nineteen inquiries from nine NGOs were managed “manually” with e-mail and distribution lists (grouping the 100+ volunteer professionals in accordance with their areas of expertise). The result was very positive, and programming activity was launched based on it. By the end of August 1999, the web application and database were ready for testing (that is, operating)! Marvelous achievement by Joaquín Castilla and other IT volunteers in his team!
Besides redefining service and processes, two other important projects took place that second semester:
2) Public relations, with focus on the media
Fundraising activity was focused on two targets:
- Building a basis of private donor subscribers (mostly family and friends), and keeping them involved through detailed periodical information, invitation to events and open doors
- Identifying and applying for institutional tenders to provide funding for social projects.
As part of public relations and “corporate image,” a group of volunteers worked through July to identify new more commercial names for the organization and the service. The organization was renamed “Solired,” which comes from “SOLidarity” and “RED” (“net” in English) instead of the previous “Prosolid”. The online service was then renamed “ONGLine” instead of the previous “I.V.P.I.” (Internet Professional Volunteer Initiative). This was much better for communication purposes!
Public relations had been a continuous activity from the very beginning. The new focus in June 1999 was to get coverage by the media. Fernando Alberca, a young journalist very sensitive to social problems, assumed the challenge to get Solired in the media. Fernando's contribution was extraordinary! In three months and with €0 budget, he secured:
- Five interviews with Julio, executive manager, on radio programs broadcasted nationally
- Ten articles in the most important national newspapers, both in the general daily press and in the business daily press*
- Other less important references in press and radio.
*Corporations were an important communication target. They were, in fact, helping with products and services and there were plans to provide them with corporate social responsibility services in order to fund Solired.
Second year (October 1999–September 2000)
The new application was being tested and optimized to manage inquiries. Promotional activity to join and train more NGOs and volunteer professionals was pending. Pending also was the need to place more emphasis on facilitating the NGOs with an online system that was unfamiliar to them.
The “office” team was growing and getting organized –not easy task in a volunteer environment with discontinuity and varying levels of dedication. There was the need to count on more volunteers at the office to cover increased workload: Service promotion; operation and support (training materials, courses, support to new users and volunteers, etc.); IT support (office systems and web application); back-office tasks (administration, accounting, purchasing, regular donations…); public relations; looking for sponsors and applying for tenders; organizing events and participating invited in other's events; recruiting, training and managing volunteers at the office; coordinating all the work…all this with no budget outside of covering supplies (telephone, Internet access, electricity, paper, photocopies,…). Hiring employees was not an option!
More volunteers were required at the office. Several volunteer positions had been advertised September 1999. Over 100 candidates responded! That was very good news, but it was a new task to manage. First of all, the new volunteer Rosa Lacunza, HHRR and selection expert, joined. And a recruitment process started in earnest.
The office was moved November 1999 to a new space in the same building at no cost and with room for 11 workplaces and a meeting room! Later, Hewlett Packard donated a server and a new IT layout was set up.
At the same time in November 1999, the association was inaugurated as a foundation, which is a totally different entity: much more organized, audited and with tax reductions. Juan Soto Serrano, Hewlett Packard CEO in Spain, was pleased to accept Julio's invitation to be the first president. The initial board was formed by: Juan Soto, Jorge Pérez, Dean of the COIT (Telecom. Engineering Official College), Julio Carazo Quintana, GEFCO España CEO and our entrepreneur's father, together with social sector experts. Julio was working as secretary and as executive manager, reporting to the board. Josep Santacreu, CEO of DKV Insurance group and past president of “Medicus Mundi,” joined the board latter to add immense value.
While the organization was getting operational and productive, the next challenges to face were to push forward ONGLine, the online advisory service, and to look for more funding. The plan to increase the ONGline service activity included recruiting professional volunteers and getting more NGOs active (Exhibit 6)
Exhibit 6 a - Plan to increase ONGLine service volume 1Q2000. E11: Promoting new inquiries.
Exhibit 6 b- Plan to increase ONGLine service volume 1Q2000. E12: Managing volunteers E13: Process improvement
In September 1999, the ONGLine service was launched using the web application and database programmed during the summer, in line with the results of the study with NGOs and volunteer professionals. That was the “third pilot,” which resulted in a service with high satisfaction levels to NGOs, many volunteer professionals involved and high NGO satisfaction (see Exhibit 7).
Exhibit 7 - ONGLine third pilot results. From September 1999 – June 2000
The 100% volunteer organization had got a great result. But it was also clear that getting a core of employees was essential to moving forward. Obviously further funding was required to hire employees. A plan was developed to expand the service once the required financial support had been obtained (Exhibit 8).
Exhibit 8 - Expansion Plan to be launched once the required financial support had been obtained
The service by 2013
Fundación Hazloposible (www.hazloposible.org) resulted from the merger between Fundación Chandra and Fundación Solired. The ONGLine service was then renamed “SolucionesONG”.
The merger was very successful due in large part to the extraordinary skills, vision and work of Fundación Chandra. Both organizations had many aspects in common: they started up simultaneously, both were promoted by highly trained professionals with previous corporate work experience; they were both working to support social organizations and, notably, doing it through services provided on the Internet.
During 2012 alone, more that 1,600 new inquiries have been opened and the number of accesses to previous inquiries at the database has been more than 1,350,000! The project next phase is internationalization.
Exhibit 9 – SolucionesONG web 2013
Dyer, J.H., Gregersen, H.B., & Christensen, C.M. (2011). The Innovator's DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators. Boston: Harvard Business Press Books.
© 2013, Julio Carazo San José
Originally published as a part of 2013 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – New Orleans, Louisiana