Why Startups (and Animal Rescue Groups) Fail
The #1 reason startups fail, according to a variety of surveys and articles from the past few years (like this comprehensive overview from CB Insights), is due to a lack of market need; basically the problem the startup founders were trying to solve just didn’t exist or exist in a big enough form to warrant moving forward.
For animal rescue organizations, the need to rescue animals won’t stop anytime soon (unfortunately) so this is not so applicable. But rescues - like startups - can still fail, for a couple reasons (among others):
- Animal rescuers just starting out may not thoroughly understand how intense the work to save animals can be (in terms of compassion fatigue, financial strain, etc). Similar to how startup founders can face 'founder fatigue'
- Animal rescuers might not always establish upfront what their unique mission is, articulate it in a way that will set them apart from other groups, and leverage their existing skills to further that mission. In other words, their mission isn't clearly defined to begin with and therefore, over time, becomes more difficult to adhere to
Let's focus on reason #2 in this post.
What’s your rescue's FIRST mission...
Last summer we consulted with a young rescuer based in the Midwest who was thinking of starting her own rescue. Similar to what we found with a lot of rescuers we had spoken to up to that point, she had been working for another rescue group but wanted to take a different approach to animal welfare based on her experience and background as a vet tech.
We spent ~10 hours working with her to think about how she might structure her rescue and also had her run through several exercises (like building a financial model) that would give her a better sense of how to accomplish her goals (we’ll leverage some of that content in later posts).
But almost half our time was actually spent just asking her questions aimed at getting her to realize and CLEARLY ARTICULATE what it was that she REALLY wanted her rescue to be and how it was going to be different than what she was already doing at her current organization
While most animal rescuers, like our client here, tend to 'fall into' the work and don't always have the luxury of planning out their organizational focus in advance, it's important to make the time to figure that out. Why?
A mission statement will keep you going. It may seem almost too simple, but a single sentence that clearly explains what you do and why you do can help you stay focused and inspired when things get tough. Taking Sparkie as an example, our mission is to make technology that is simple, easy, and fun for animal rescuers to use. When we are tired after a long day at our day-jobs and just want to sleep, coming back to this mission (and thinking about how hard our clients' work) gives us the boost of energy we need to keep going. In addition, while we eventually would love to make software that also supports pet parents, since it's not part of our mission, we don't spend the time on it. We follow and live just our mission for now.
A mission statement can set you apart from other rescues and give your organization a USP (unique selling proposition). We’ll call out here that there are other ways to achieve a USP - like through marketing/branding - but having a unique angle to animal welfare is perhaps the longest-lasting way. With more and more rescue groups for potential adopters and fosters to choose from, clearly communicating your unique approach to animal rescue (whether it's focusing on a specific breed or animal welfare issue) will help you stand out and attract the best adopters/fosters for your organization. For example, if you are a rescue group focused on a specific breed of animal - like Pit Bulls - stating that outright and why you have chosen that mission will make it easier for those looking to adopt Pit Bulls to find you and work with you.
Maybe you have a mission, but not a mission statement. Here's some questions to help you come up with one or refine what you already have (and when done, add it to your website front and center to set yourself apart!):
- In <50 words (yes 50!) tell someone what your rescue does
- How is your rescue different than the 5 closest rescues near you?
- If your rescue group were a person, what 3 words would best describe him/her?
...and when should you consider a "second?"
Getting back to our story about the rescuer we worked with, she was just completing her vet-tech degree and so, as a result, not only had hard skills critical to the physical rehabilitation of animals (like giving shots and vaccines) but also had access to a strong network of veterinarians.
Recognizing the advantage she had, we came up with a secondary mission for her future rescue group that focused on how she could leverage these relationships to secure free office space that could be used to give out free shots and medicines to people who couldn’t necessarily afford this type of care for their pets. This was a goal distinct from "rescuing" animals that leaned into what would be relatively easy for her to execute but also supported her overarching vision of improving animal welfare throughout the community.
This is an example of what we call a “second mission” that can help not just bring additional innovative solutions to animal welfare but also provide rescuers with balance that is very important when working in such an emotional capacity day in and day out (did we just say 'balance?!?!' - yes balance!)
In other words, having a parallel goal to work towards in addition to physically rescuing animals can help counter the most emotionally draining aspects of rescue work and keep you sharp in other areas critical to running a rescue. "But how can you possible go about doing all this?" you might ask. The key is in picking a secondary mission that leverages what you're already and naturally good at, like our rescue client above did. This is similar to what startup founders tend to go through when forming their companies. For example, for software/technical startups, typically there is a technical co-founder who can oversee and do all software development work, and then a non-technical co-founder who oversees sales, marketing and other corporate functions.
You can think about how your rescue might achieve a first and second mission in the same way. Whether you have another founder there to help you, or are left to rely on volunteers, evaluating what each person can naturally bring to the table and crafting a mission around that, or establishing your ideal mission first and then going out to find people who have the skills to explicitly support it, will ultimately lead to more efficient, and presumably more successful, outcomes.
So what’s your natural advantage and are you making the most of it in your mission? Here are some questions to help think through that:
- What is the easiest part about running your rescue today? Why?
- What do you enjoy most about running your rescue?
- What skills do you have that you aren’t necessarily using for your rescue yet?
- What’s the most difficult part of running your rescue today? How do you currently handle that?
- What skills do your most successful volunteers have? How they currently support your mission?
The Pivot: How Your Goals and Missions Can Change
Congrats on establishing your rescue groups mission and, if possible, a second mission! But, as important as this is, recognizing when that particular mission(s) may have run its course, and adjusting - or pivoting - accordingly, is just as critical. (The analogy to this in startup land is a ‘pivot’, though usually a pivot refers to completely changing the purpose and product that is built by the company. Some famous examples of pivots are social site Pinterest and content marketing software firm Newscred).
Let’s look at a different rescue example.
We know a rescue based in the Southern part of the US that has been physically rescuing animals and running a spay/neuter clinic for the past 4 years, in an area that is lacking in general animal welfare. After a particularly difficult year due to a series of natural disasters, the rescuers are taking a step and contemplating if staying in physical rescue is right for them. In fact, they are considering gradually closing their rescue and becoming involved - in an official capacity - in local politics in order to effect more permanent change in their communities. This isn’t giving up but rather it’s acknowledging where they will be able to be most effective moving forward.
Here's some soul-searching questions you can ask yourself about your mission, to see if now might be right for a small (or big) change:
- How, if at all, has your rescue work evolved over the past 5 years, and how do you see it changing in the next 5? Why?
- Do you still feel like your rescue group is accomplishing what it set out to do? Why or why not?
- What have you observed about animal welfare in your community in the last year or so? Is it changing? It which direction? Do you see any needs that have recently arisen? If so, are you interested in tackling them?
- Have other animal welfare organizations in your area opened or closed in the past 5 years? Why?
Re-evaluating at least yearly - if not more often - what your mission is, if it’s still right for you and your community, and then revising your work is an important step to take to ensure long term success and avoid burn out. This is something startup founders and early-stage employees might often find themselves doing as they face the uphill battle of getting their companies off the ground.
OK, so what does this mean for startup pros?
As we laid out in our post introducing this series, we want each article to be applicable to professionals working in the startup industry as well as animal rescuers. In the case of ‘mission’, many of the same questions from above need only be slightly modified to guide non-rescuers who want to become more involved in animal rescue.
So, when thinking about your ‘mission’ as it relates to volunteering, here’s some questions to consider:
- What's your goal in becoming involved? Do you want to spend time with animals or are you willing to take on some of the more boring (but important) admin work?
- What do you like doing most outside of work? Do you like being front and center at events? Or crunching numbers on a spreadsheet while watching Netflix on Friday night after a long week?
- Imagine your “perfect” weekend (since most volunteers only have time on weekends to help) - where does volunteering fit into that? What time of day would you be happiest volunteering at? How many hours do you want to devote?
It’s important to be honest with yourself about what you want to do and how much time you have to do it. There’s nothing wrong with ‘just wanting to walk dogs’ or ‘play with kittens’ (which we hear a lot) so if you want to just do that, do it, but within a time commitment you can keep.
Why this matters
You might not realize it as a volunteer, but animal rescuers spend sometimes as much - if not more - of their time just managing volunteers as they do trying to save animals. As a volunteer, offering to do something and backing out is much more damaging to a rescue than you might suspect. In fact, this is what one rescuer told us when we asked her what the implications are of a volunteer backing out:
- "If you've said you would assist with that grant but cancel every time you were scheduled that deadline will sail right by the group and that is money lost."
- "If you say you are going to come answer the phones for 2 hours but don't show now the director or staff can't do that interview with the paper or tv for the much needed coverage because they have to stay/sit and answer the phones."
OK, you get the point, and we’re not trying to make you feel bad here; but we are trying to encourage you to be realistic.
And like anything, when you do decide to get involved, focus on finding the right fit/culture for you and start small and set boundaries. It’s better to say no, and say it early and often, than risk getting burnt out and ultimately backing out.