Developing a Go-to-market Strategy for Social Impact Start-ups

Go-to-market strategy should not be an after-thought, but a critical aspect of an enterprise's existential thought process while building a solution

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By Shradha Mani


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The product, check.

Team, check.

First time customer, check.

Repeat customer sales, three-year plan, and market strategy – loading…

Once the initial thrill of being a bootstrapped start-up working to solve societal challenges has worn out, it's time for the entrepreneur to answer some tough questions - has the market been defined? Are customers ready to welcome this new product? Is there a product-market fit?

It is never too early for a start-up to map out its go-to-market strategy. Strategy, operations, turnover, profits – buzzwords traditionally synonymous with large corporations and consulting firms are equally important for fast-growing social impact start-ups.

Where to Begin?

Universally, start-ups begin their (ad)venture targeting a perceived gap in the market. Social impact start-ups have ambitious mission statements to improve billions of lives. However, a lack of foresight about how the start-up can scale may lead to mission-drift. Start-ups must first develop a profound understanding of the market, bring their product to market, and iterate on growth strategies. Once a start-up has achieved a positive cash flow with repeat customers, it can focus on improving technology and chasing market share.

Is it game-over if a start-up does not get its formula right the first time around? It's time to pivot - maybe the product can be modified for use by another industry, or can solve a latent need of a different customer segment.

The Customer vs End-user Conundrum

When the customer is different from the ultimate consumer, how do start-ups define the value proposition for both parties? For instance, state government schemes may purchase water pumps en masse for distribution to small-holder farmers at low or no cost, but the purchasing department and the ultimate farmer may differ on what makes a water pump "efficient".

A market sizing exercise can help see which market of the two porous customer segments is larger – the customer or the ultimate consumer – and identify the costs required to reach it. Concentrating on core competencies to reduce costs works towards destroying market imperfections.

Money Matters

For fledgling start-ups, with undefined products and markets, availability of finance can decide when and how start-ups scale-up. Growth phase start-ups need to be cognizant of capital available, to avoid failure fuelled by uncontrolled cash burn. Social enterprises should focus on revenue and profitability – two universal truths of strong business models. Even e-commerce behemoths are expected to generate turnover and revenue, if not profits, by their investors.

Availability of early-stage finance can make or break a start-up, especially one with proprietary hardware technology that requires multiple prototypes. Access to equipment and testing laboratories through the thriving Technology Business Incubator ecosystem can take start-ups a long way on their lab-to-market journey.

Entering Unique Markets

Start-ups using technology for social good find that articulating the value proposition becomes important. It's tough to win over customers in rural areas, with pioneering products, due to entrenched behavioural patterns, low literacy and limited access to the internet. Sometimes the rural market may have already been saturated either by cheap Chinese imports or plain jugaad.

Through field trials with actual consumers, product improvements can be made in real-time. Critical feedback of product functionality, pricing and marketing strategy can be obtained while simultaneously introducing the market to the new product. Customers in rural markets may not have superfluous spending money but value products that improve their quality of life on the farm or at home.

Affordability, accessibility and user experience are equally essential elements for the adoption of new products by the underserved – their aspirations should not be underestimated or assumed

Partnerships for Promotion

Partnering with an organisation that has already made inroads and established distribution channels may seem like an apparent solution for any new entrant in a rural/semi-urban market. However, this could expose the start-up to the inefficiencies of the partner organisation, who may not be financially or philosophically incentivised, to put the start-up's goals at par with its own. The costs and benefits of mobilising the start-up's own sales team need to be considered.

Achieving Scale

Scaling up does not mean simply multiplying operations by a factor of ten. It implies being cognizant of additional economic costs- working capital, manufacturing, sales, servicing- that complement expansion and the maturing of a business. Scaling up also calls for a shift from human-resource oriented methods to procedures and processes for autonomous operations. Such processes should stay true to the start-up's culture and mission.


As the start-up evolves, it must constantly reinforce its choices, as it seamlessly progresses from idea to venture to business. Thinking about customers and value proposition helps build clarity about customer strategy, synergetic partnerships and product roadmaps.

Shradha Mani

Portfolio Manager, Social Alpha

Shradha is a Chartered Accountant, with experience in tax and corporate law, and a deep interest in social finance models. She is working to strengthen the social entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem in India.

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