Being Social Means Being in Business

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Social business models stress equally on securing economic and social advantages for their shareholders and stakeholders.
 
--By Shrijana Tha Shrestha 
 
Way back in my college days at the Padma Kanya College and later at the Tri-Chandra College, I often spent my mornings at this newspaper shop, Dhurba Stationery, in the slope of Dillibazar. It put up a wide range of newspapers and magazines on stands and allowed its visitors to read them all - cosmopolitan or The Times of India - each and every piece. No payment. No staplers on the covers - unlike the trend around. It was all wide open - a library on the street. I wondered how could this business prosper, when all its visitors were reading its products for free. Out of concerns, whenever I could afford, I purchased magazines from it. After almost a decade, I finally figured out how this stationery not only sustained but also prospered, through these years. It’s a well conceived and crafted model of social business and that can be inspirational to people with business and social development intent. 
 
Social business models stress equally on securing economic and social advantages for their shareholders and stakeholders. They aim at providing solution for a particular social issue while also securing financial gains for the organization. It’s like hitting two targets with a single shot. These issues could be anything, it can be a village level cooperative committee that produces and markets seasonal vegetables through a value based cooperative marketing chain; or an enterprise that provides the facility to plant a tree on your or your loved one’s birthday by tying up with local community forest user group thereby earning benefits for you, the community forest user group and itself; or it could be a stationary shop, like Dhurba Stationery, that caters to the need of the people of acquiring information, provides them space and media materials and gets benefited economically equally from it. 
 
Three decades ago, the autocratic Panchayat regime was very much repressive on media- radio, newspapers or even literature in its frantic efforts to suppress the ongoing rebellion for democracy. During this time, Dhurba Neupane, than just in his twenties, lost his job as a librarian at the now defunct Russian Library in Kathmandu. He was out on the Kathmandu streets looking out for ways to be a master of his own fate, while also being part of the Nepalese quest for emancipation. During his short service at the Russian Library, he had become close with books, readers and the whole reading culture itself. And when he figured out Kathmanduities were desperate to read newspapers or to lay their hands on mainstream or underground political materials, he figured out his business- a stationery shop that would avail this.
 
Starting with an initial investment capital of around three thousand rupees, presently the shop has half million as its capital. But Neupane downplays the economic gains, while preferring to focus on the unprecedented human capital that it has earned through these years. Through his lively and encouraging discussion habits, he has built strong personal relationship with most of his readers. Most of these have been his loyal clients to these days also and some of these have even provided and continue providing business opportunities to him. Some of them even recognize him as a pioneer in securing the right to information in Nepal. 
 
A French documentarian made a documentary on his business highlighting how the shop served the purpose of securing people’s right to information. Similarly, noted documentarian from the Mandala Theater, Binod Khatiwada, also filmed his shop as part of his documentary series under the same topic, he informed adding, “As a businessman, you don’t get a Nobel. These are my Noble prizes.” Along with this, his business story and his shop, which he claims is tagged as mini library by his customers and readers, have received ample media attention and acclaim. Following are some of the values and dimensions that transformed this ordinary stationery shop into a thriving social business and that could help in similar vein any enterprises- profit or non-profits.  
 
Need based business value
Any living and thriving business model, if analyzed for its core form, receives its life form from the value that its supposed users strive for. Enterprises are for catering to particular needs of a particular section of the society. It is the selection of the need and figuring out the value that it will add to the users, that determines the sustainability of any business. “People wanted to read. They were desperately looking for a place, which could provide them access to informational materials,” Neupane said adding, “It is then when I realized that I could become a bridge between publishers and the readers.” Despite the fact that in those days very few people cultivated reading habits, Neupane says that his shop had enough readers to keep him engaged throughout the day. These were that section of the people for whom the shop was meant for - the targeted users. Despite greater Internet connectivity these days, he claims that the explosion in the size of the educated mass and in the production of variety of newspapers and magazines in the capital, has kept his business still relevant to its core value.
 
Lead generation and conversions
Corporate houses invest a significant amount of their profits in marketing stunts. This is considered as an investment capital that keeps the business afloat. Even famous multinationals like Coca Cola invest a significant part of their earnings in advertising to generate leads that would subsequently convert into a actual consumer of their products. “I receive around 30 thousand visitors to my store. Most of them just check out what they want in newspapers and magazines, some of them take their time and read whatever they feel appealing and some of them buy. At the end of the day, I sell enough to keep my business afloat,” he said adding that “visitors who don’t buy anything, are leads that have the potential to buy something tomorrow, if not today.” By providing free access, he is catering to his visitors needs, but as a marketing strategy, free reading facility generates leads, loyal customer base and a prospect for subsequent product sale conversions. 
 
 
Building rapport and PR
Businessmen are always looking for opportunities to expand their business. None of the business trend remains trendy for eternity. Everything becomes outdated. With the online media flux in Nepali media sector, which is well complimented by ever increasing Internet connectivity, readers of print media have been dropping significantly in the recent years. Neupane is aware of this and as a smart entrepreneur he has been continuously exploring channels through which he could sustain his business. As part of his business interactions with visitors, he has been able to develop good rapport with persons who are now leading business personalities and public figures. These contacts have brought him new business avenues- that of supplying office stationery goods, apart from others. From a provider of newspapers and magazines, now his stationery shop caters to the stationery needs of many public and private institutions that his personal contacts, groomed at the shop,  are associated with. 
 
Dhurba Neupane
Dhurba Neupane
Dhurba Stationery, Dillibazar
Engaging customer relationship
After seasoning these insights, Neupane recently has been expanding his investment in the production and marketing of Japanese mushroom - shiitake (Lentinulaedodes). This special Japanese mushroom is widely used in leading hotels and restaurants in Kathmandu. One of his contacts, earned from the shop, had shared this fact. He researched into this as a prospecting business idea and with his wide range of contacts it did not took him long to establish a shiitaki mushroom production unit in his hometown Banepa. His villagers work on the production, and his PR has helped him in establishing a marketing channel with leading hotels and restaurants. This latest venture is based on a cooperative model. Neupane says this enterprise has been helpful in bringing a new hope to secure a stable income source for him and his villagers while crediting his readers at the shop for germinating, materializing and grooming this business plan. 
 
Social enterprises are businesses whose primary purpose is the common good. Like any good social business, Dhurba Stationery not only fulfilled its objective of earning profit on a sustainable basis but also continued to cater to the value, it originally conceived, on a sustainable basis. This set it apart from the rest of stationeries that existed and still exist in Kathmandu. As part of its strategy to share its profit with its consumers, it provided access to all the newspapers and magazines and thereby earned unprecedented costumer reach and made a loyal customer base. It helped in elevating the living and thinking level of its reader, while also catering to the business need of its investor. Neupane’s conviction shows that entrepreneurs can earn by doing things differently for greater good of the society.
 
The writer is a social researcher and development enthusiast. She is presently associated with the Social Welfare and Support Organization Nepal (SWASON) – a Kailali based non-profit-institution, as its vice president and can be reached at shrijana.shrestha12@gmail.com

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