Today we have with us Daniel de Gruijter, CEO and Co-founder of Incitement; the impactful social business – powered through inspirational talks to create sustainable impact, connecting proactive youths towards social causes, and corporates/brands to contribute in tackling global issues together.
Incitement was founded by Daniel and Zikry in late 2011 and today its communities are spreaded across 46 countries to drive awareness around equality, diversity, and sustainable impact. Nominated for ‘Most Inspirational Movement’ by FACES Magazine, ‘Fastest Growing Global Movement’ by MasterPeace, listed in Forbes 30 Under 30 company, and received recognition from Richard Branson’s Talent Unleashed Awards 2014, Incitement has become the most influential youth organizations in the world.
Please tell us how it all got started and about Incitement and Liter of Light.
Thank you Smruti for having me here.
Incitement started as a platform for talks where speakers share their stories, visions and ideas to incite positivity into others. Eventually it has become a global business which designs and implements CSR projects to contribute to a better world and strengthening a brand’s identity.
I am currently serving as the CEO and Co-founder of Incitement. Going back 8 years, when I came to Malaysia, I met Zikry Kholil, who is the initial Co-founder and one of two business partners with me in Incitement. We started Incitement as a pet project as a sort of an extracurricular activity, where we started organizing local community events.
We started receiving great feedback with increased number of participation where we also included people outside the company and started organizing frequent events. It was a great hit in KL and one day, one of our friends approached us with an idea that he wants to help this school where the kids don’t have proper materials or study resources. So he wanted to pitch this idea in Incitement and see if he is able to get volunteers or donors for the school. It WORKED and worked pretty well. The guy recruited a bunch of people with similar interests to help him with this cause.
That’s when I and my partner Zikry realized this was a great way to give our events purpose. So we planned to create some tangible outcome from these events where people are at their peak of the motivation and convert it into actions throughout the form of volunteering or social contribution. Non-profit organizations seek all kinds of support, it can be building a website, helping with accounts or building solar lights. This concept worked really well and Incitement became a great platform in Kuala Lumpur which lot of non-profit organizations started reaching out to, to get volunteers and generate more awareness for their cause.
At some point several NGOs approached us to tell us that we should stop sending them volunteers because they had too many. That’s a great problem to have, we thought. How about instead of cutting of the volunteer supply, we help these NGOs raise more funds, so that they can run more projects, and can accept more volunteers.
We aimed at government grants, grants from foundations, impact investors, philanthropists. None of these went well. That’s when we started focusing on Corporates who have a CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) division and run projects which aim to address some social cause in line with their strategic direction.
As of now we have done 100s of projects to help promote non-profit organizations and initiatives through the corporate sponsorship of brands like FedEx, Loreal, PepsiCo, Cummins, and many more. We aim to raise corporate funding for social causes to not only create sustainable social impact, but also to generate brand awareness and exposure for the sponsoring brand. We have also been official government partner for Ministry of Finance (Malaysia), working directly with National Strategy Unit to implement social business frameworks for for-purpose organizations throughout South East Asia.
There is a lot of stigma around CSR. Many people are of the opinion that large corporations use CSR to wash their hands of sins. There is no denying that there are many large corporations out there who’s business models leave a huge and unnecessary footprint on the planet. And so we acknowledge that perspective. We also believe that when working with large brands we can act as the organization that ensures these initiatives have sustainable impact, and are not just mere profit generators.
“My personal philosophy is that every company should incorporate an overarching social mission into their business model to create a healthy balance between profit and impact. Every business should be a social business. It’s really not that hard.”
Note: Chief Magazine is also trying to create small happiness in people lives through small contribution under the name of “Act Joy”. While it’s still at quite at a nascent stage, but we are planning to do frequent events to create joy. Please check the Facebook page of ACT JOY here.
Have you received any funding for Incitement or bootstrapped so far?
We are currently 8 years old and are completely bootstrapped, and have not received any external funding, although we tried to raise funds twice and both were unsuccessful. In hindsight, that has been good because it allowed us to mature without the influence of investors, who usually focus on making profit and exit, which wouldn’t have been good for Incitement at that point.
Raising funds is quite an experience for us as a social business, as some investors were respectful, while others came with great feedback or didn’t reply at all. Some literally laughed at us for raising funds for a social business. Even though our business model addresses the profitability side, and our profits are healthy, the moment the investor realizes we are driven by a social mission and not by profit – they lose interest. Even though Incitement’s revenues have been growing consistently year on year between 300-400% since 2014, and we operate efficiently and lean, and have the numbers tio show it, still we faced challenges raising funds.
Though we have run successfully till now through bootstrapping, we are opening ourselves for the first round of investments very soon as it will help us expand the team, infrastructure and technology adoption. We believe we have built the assets and resources towards the strategic benefits of the company and now we are well-equipped to interact with selective investors and that’s the way forward. In fact, next month we will start the fundraising for a platform which we had been working, called Inpactor. The MVP (Minimum Viable Product) is ready, clients have signed MOUs with us for this platform, and we have just embarked on a partnership with one of the largest tech companies in South East Asia who will be helping us with building out the platform further.
This is the area, among others, where my other business partner played a pivotal role, his name is Iman Sedighi and he is the acting CTO. Though Zikry and myself started Incitement a few years prior, soon we realized that having a technical cofounder is a must. We had hired Iman as a freelancer initially, brought him on full-time not long after that, and he is now an equal shareholder in Incitement.
What would you advise to those entrepreneurs who are working towards social impact?
I will share two of my learnings as a social entrepreneur.
The main piece of feedback we have received from lot of the investors who were quite upfront to us, is – “execute first”. Investors want to see that you have the capability to create traction, even though you have a ready MVP. If you have closed one client, they wanted to see five clients as the social business is relatively unexplored segment and it needs more traction to win confidence among investors.
The second piece of advice would be to balance the social mission and the revenues, to put more emphasis on the development of a strong and predictable business model, especially in the social/humanitarian industry. We can’t create social impact without money and thus you have to sometimes prioritize revenues over social mission. So focus heavily on designing a good, strong and predictable engine that can create revenue for you.
Image Credit: INKLINE
Who are your competitors and how do you handle the competition?
Haha. I have not honestly given a thought on competition for a while, as being a social mission driven business it is important that we collaborate and share resources. So till now, I believed that there is no competition and there is only collaboration. But I will be glad to correct myself as it would be bit naïve to ignore competition as a business owner. So I will say we have few competitors, but we don’t really pay attention to them much, but rather we focus on what we do & improve our understanding of the market and the problems and challenges our users face. We work with a lot of brands, causes and volunteers where our main focus is to understand their problems and challenges. So all of our attention goes into the product market fit and at some point we put everything together into one table and find out the alternatives in the market. That’s how we understand the competition and put together our efforts and resources to create a better outcome.
We are currently in talks with one of the competitors who has approached us for a strategic partnership, about half a year back. We are having conversations with them on how we can complement each other and possibly go for a joint venture to scale the business & scale the impact. So this is how we view our competitors, either as strategic partners, or if the possibility of collaboration is not there we ignore them.
You are from The Netherlands and your business is in Malaysia. Two different segments of the world – where the cultural differences are huge. How were you able to manage and successfully run a social business in Malaysia?
I started my business while I was a student in Netherlands. We helped startups with advertising, design, marketing and websites. Although it was not very interesting to me, it was quite a lot of fun to learn and pick up skills. I always wanted to have my own startup and do something meaningful towards society. In The Netherlands doing business is often straightforward and based on handshake. If you have the solution to a problem, you shake hands and you proceed to implement. When you come to the South East Asian region, the lead time to close a project is quite huge in comparison to The Netherlands, as there are multi-level of interactions and decision making process. In Malaysia is it not uncommon to have several meetings, lunches, shisha-sessions, and even meeting friends or family before a leads is closed. It can take years.
How we solve this in our business is, I have a Malaysian business partner and we complement each other very well. He focuses on initiation of conversation, networking and relationship building. I come into the picture when there is detailing needed in terms of finances, prerequisites, scope and planning – the phase where we work towards closing the deal.
Entrepreneurship is certainly not easy and needs hardship where people usually give up. How do you keep yourself motivated?
There are several factors that keep me personally motivated and on top of the list is the Team. Our current core team is like family to me. We have been through a lot of hardship together. We have been evicted from our office, we have not been able to pay salaries for months in a row. The team was there right beside us through thick and thin. Without them we wouldn’t have been where we are today. They are the company’s most important asset and they push me to become better and better.
Then, there are my two business partners, who never fail to inspire me. I started out with Zikry, who has been there since the beginning and later we brought on Iman as well. We have a very good balance among the three of us. When the stress hits me – my partners complement my behaviour and maintains the balance to keep things going on – both on personal and professional level, and vice versa. I look up to the both of them very much.
Then, the excitement to work on new things is another motivation for me to keep going on. The huge benefit of being an entrepreneur is that I get to decide what I work on, the creative freedom I have is fantastic. On the flipside, the things that nobody works on fall over to my plate and you have to work on those too. But I have the freedom to use my innovative thinking inside a creative space which I really like in my life as an entrepreneur.
How do you keep yourself organized? What kind of tools you use?
When it comes to notes, I write everything using pen and paper and that’s how I prefer it. I don’t write notes on my laptop personally, as you usually end up writing irrelevant things that just end up in the clutter. When you write using paper you try to write as concise as possible. A tool which I use personally and professionally is LastPass, which is a great password manager, generator, and vault. Then we use G Suite – mostly Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Drive. For communication we mostly use Slack and inevitably WhatsApp also, but mostly Slack is used for work related communication. For project management we use JIRA and for documentation we use Confluence. There are many more tools, of course, but these are on top of my personal list.
Coming towards the end of this interview, please share your advice for aspiring entrepreneurs.
One of the common and most important pieces of advice followed by many legendary entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and Larry Page, is to be – Customer Centric. Every successful entrepreneur should be focused to design and create products, services, and experiences based what your customer wants. As a social business this is not different. We also focus on creating a flawless experience for our customers, while making a social impact for the beneficiaries. Another piece of advice, which I follow personally is to manage expectations. When it comes hiring people, making business deals or partnerships, I am always blunt, extremely upfront and I try to sketch worse scenario as I believe in under promising and over delivering, rather than the other way around.
Could you explain a bit about Inpactor, the platform you are launching?
One of the key issues we saw in this industry, an issue that we feel no one was solving (and still isn’t) is that the landscape is incredibly scattered. We didn’t only experience this ourselves, but we heard this time and time again from the brands and causes we work with. For funding you go to website A, for volunteering you go to website B, to manage your project you go to website C, to measure and report impact there’s website D. To work on a social project with various stakeholders means having to go to all sorts of places to get different things. We feel all of these necessary tools could be integrated into one place. And that’s what Inpactor is.
The platform helps Brands connect to Causes on a social network equipped with features to fund, manage, measure, report, and showcase social impact. Using blockchain technology Inpactor provides a transparent, reliable, and measurable approach to CSR. All of this happens in one platform. There is no need to go elsewhere. We are launching the pilot run of Inpactorend of January 2019, and the public release is scheduled for 1st of June this year.
That would be all from us now and I thank you Daniel for giving his time for the interview and sharing his story and advice for our readers.