This start-up is One Step Closer to making CSR simpler

3 Sep 2018

One Step Closer founder Joanna Mulkeen. Image: NDRC

Our Start-up of the Week is One Step Closer, which helps brands to communicate their CSR work to consumers.

“One Step Closer is about giving more people the opportunity to influence projects with a positive impact,” said One Step Closer founder Joanna Mulkeen.

“We want people to feel empowered and excited when thinking about their own role as change-makers, and we want to help give them a sense that many small steps have the power to make a big difference.

“To achieve this, deploys a digital platform that helps brands communicate their CSR work to their consumers through active collaborations.”

‘69pc of millennials say that a brand’s CSR ethos and tangible commitments are now the key determining factor of their brand loyalty as well as brand employee relationships’

Mulkeen said that consumers engage with brand corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects by voting for projects they believe are important, and that the brands will dedicate more resources to.

“Once voting is completed, helps brands to share the story of the impact that those projects make possible.

“This helps boost awareness of important global and local challenges, and gives consumers clear and tangible steps to create positive influence.”

The market

Mulkeen said One Step Closer is targeting medium-to-large companies and organisations with CSR stories to share.

“Companies all over the world are facing up to the pressures, internal or external, to increase investments and make a clear stance on their strategies and performances on environmental, social and community, and workplace dimensions.

“There are now EU directives on mandatory non-financial performance as well as national government strategies on CSR and sustainability.

“But, despite many companies and organisations investing significantly in CSR, and with 65pc of CEOs saying that they will increase this investment over the coming five years, in some cases (with as much as 50pc year on year), these companies really struggle to tell their story to key stakeholders.

“At the same time, business values translated into tangible CSR investment means more and more for people (consumers), in terms of how they view and value brands.

“69pc of millennials say that a brand’s CSR ethos and tangible commitments are now the key determining factor of their brand loyalty as well as brand employee relationships. Successfully getting your CSR story out to your customers or employees has become paramount.”

Mulkeen said that One Step Closer helps brands get the story of their values told through the voice of their consumers, who vote for and share information about CSR projects.

“This helps address the problem of consumer inertia, it builds awareness, and builds and nurtures consumer brand trust.”

The founder

Mulkeen has an honours degree in business from Trinity College Dublin and took on later courses in strategic sustainability, environmental management, social responsibility, sustainability reporting and project management.

“Following on from this, I worked as a sustainability consultant, advising companies on how to build their CSR strategies and how to link these with core business objectives and strategies,” she said.

In this capacity, she worked with companies in the ICT, textile, food, consumer goods and travel sectors.

The technology

“We make CSR simple,” Mulkeen said.

“The data shows that consumers don’t want to read long and extensive CSR reports that come out once per year. They want bite-sized information on what brands are doing. They want to focus in on the stuff that they find interesting, and they want to have their voice heard.

“They want all of that in the context of wanting to make a positive contribution ‘through their consumption, not at the cost of it’.

“Based on this, we built a platform that addresses these consumer concerns. We give them what they want.”

In the back-end, One Step Closer collects data on user preferences that both brands and causes can use to improve their communication on CSR. All of this is done without the need to download an app and it works seamlessly across all devices.

More interesting data and network effects come into play as consumers collaborating with one brand on One Step Closer come across the other brands on the platform and want to get involved with their projects as well.

“Our goal is to inspire a shift that for when you ask a random consumer about one of his/her favourite brands, he/she will not only describe that brand through the products and services it provides, but also through what that brand stands for, its core values, and how those values are expressed in concrete and tangible projects that make a difference in the world. He/she will share that story because it is personally relevant.

“That shift will be disruptive. Our technology can help facilitate that change.”

From MVP to deployment

One Step Closer built a minimal viable product (MVP) and trialled it extensively with microbusinesses such as restaurants and cafés.

“We saw a big demand both from consumers and those microbusinesses, so we needed to scale quickly. We rebuilt the platform from the ground up and started to onboard much larger companies with nationwide reach that will be launching with us this autumn.

“We have also attracted third-level educational institutions to the platform, and Trinity College Dublin has already signed up to use it. A number of other third-level institutions are coming on board with start dates in September, when students return. In the trials we have already conducted, we have seen very heavy use and positive uptake and response from the student populations. We are really looking forward to the next few months. It feels like fun and exciting times ahead.”

The start-up has received support from the Local Enterprise Office (LEO) in Sligo as well as Enterprise Ireland and NDRC.

“We have paying customers and so we are not in need of financing. However, we are always interested to talk to people who share our ethos and want to accelerate the pace of positive change that One Step Closer is helping create.”

Taking a leap of faith

An important lesson was learned in the construction of the platform.

“We spent a lot of time successfully convincing large multinational companies that our solution held value for them, including building the platform we believed they wanted. None of them, however, wanted to be first to trial it and they all wanted usage data before taking the leap of faith.

“That was where our focus on microbusinesses really paid off. We down-scaled the platform, they trialled it, liked it, reused it and gave us invaluable data on consumer usage that now allows us to re-engage with those large companies.

“We may have been quicker to revenue if we had just done this first but, on the other hand, the validation (albeit verbal) from the multinationals gave us the confidence that we would deliver value and scale our business.”

Mulkeen believes there is phenomenal support for start-ups in Ireland in terms of funding and mentorship, adding that the encouragement from NDRC, Enterprise Ireland and the Sligo LEO has been invaluable.

She added: “Engaging forums to meet, be inspired and learn from others, such as Startup Grind, as well as the many small, local start-up groups, are a source of real strength.”

Her advice to fellow entrepreneurs is to focus.

“Stay focused on the problem you want to solve, and be open for the ways that it might be solved. We wasted time being too focused on our initial product. We needed to pivot, twice, to find a leaner way to help our customers.

“Get out and try it. Early. People told us to go out to customers and try our solution much sooner than we did. We didn’t. We thought we needed to have every possible aspect of the solution solved and developed before putting customers on the platform.

“You learn with your first customers; learnings that are invaluable, and ultimately help you assess not just the viability of your proposition, but help you make it stronger than it ever otherwise could have been.”

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years