When you're launching a startup, one of your first tasks is to identify potential customers and learn about their needs.
This may seem very different from the goals I have described in previous columns about defining your business's greater purpose and helping to tackle some of the big problems our society faces today, but in fact they are related. Getting involved in volunteer efforts may help you to find customers and grow a business with deep roots in the community, which may be integral to its long-term success.
When my friends and I were starting up Virgin Records in the early 1970s, we backed a student advisory center in London close to our headquarters, which provided guidance for young people on everything from dealing with depression to getting a job. This may not have led directly to record sales, but our work there did help us to keep in touch with our audience's concerns and the problems they faced at a time when the culture was changing very quickly.
Over the years, businesses in the Virgin Group have taken part in a number of local projects, though ''local'' now means close to our offices, stores and other locations around the world. Experience has taught us that during our Virgin Records days, we might also have looked at lending some of our equipment, manpower and other resources to local school music programs and other music-focused community groups.
What ideas can you think of for your business? Are there groups in your community in need of support, perhaps in terms of mentorship or equipment? Are there skills you could offer to teach? How would your team like to get involved? Just a few hours a month can make a big difference in people's lives and help with your company's development.
This has been seen at other companies than Virgin. A well-known example is Ben & Jerry's Homemade, an ice cream company based in South Burlington, Vt., which in its early years invested a great deal in its relationships, hiring everyone from dairy farmers to artists from the local community. (In fact, when the company went public in 1984, the founders, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, offered the people of Vermont priority when buying stock, in order to reward them for their early support.) Building on those relationships, the company advocated for good causes that came to its attention, promoting organizations such as Farm Aid to support family farmers; after a few years Ben and Jerry's began to donate 7.5 percent of its annual pre-tax profits to community-oriented projects.
While the company became part of the multinational consumer goods company Unilever in 2000, it still retains its local connection, its mission and its reputation. And in today's global and fiercely competitive market, this makes the Ben & Jerry's brand stand out from the crowd - a very valuable asset.
Seeing this process at work can be a powerful experience. On a recent trip to South Africa I visited Virgin Active, our health club business, and got an update on some of its local community activities. The team at our flagship club in Soweto amazes me with their focus on helping people to live healthier, more productive lives. Working with the government, they recently launched a youth development program called Future Crew, which helps local high schools to get physical activity back on school curriculums, as many schools in South Africa do not have adequate sports facilities and many students are not active.
Virgin Active piloted the program at Lavender Hill Senior Secondary School, which is in the heart of one of Cape Town's poorest areas, and where, against the odds, the school's headmaster, Faseeg Manie, has created a better and safer learning environment. We opened a new gym and launched after-school sports programs, and within days, a steady stream of students were joining exercise classes and using the equipment.
Lavender Hill has seen great results, and so we plan to pair up our other clubs with other schools. Our Active staff is training both teachers and pupils, and over time we will open these relationships up to members, so that they can help us to raise money for school equipment and volunteer to mentor or coach the students.
The point of such activities is not to make money - although, as Ben & Jerry's has shown, sometimes this can be an indirect result. Through the relationships you build by doing such work, your business will become a hub for the community, supporting and fostering the people around it. It will help you to build a stronger culture within your company, better relationships with your customers and staff, and ultimately a more successful business.
Take a look around. What can you and your team do?
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.