Social entrepreneur, Elliot Costello, is on a mission to significantly and measurably changing the lives of 1 million people by 2018. Read as he shares the failures and missteps that helped him start a movement.

Last week social entrepreneur, Elliot Costello came to the Wade Institute to share his journey with our Master of Entrepreneurship students; discovering his passion, creating a movement, and leaving his corporate life behind.

Through his social ventures YGAP, Polished Man, and Feast of Merit, Elliot is on a mission to significantly and measurably change the lives of 1 million people by 2018. Despite the usual stories we hear, it doesn’t take a big bang to start such a movement.

Start with a problem you want to solve

The genesis of YGAP was an accident. In 2008, Elliot and a group of friends wanted to volunteer overseas and were shocked to discover the exorbitant fees attached to it “Organisations were charging a couple of thousand dollars per person to spend a few weeks in Africa. We thought that was crazy” says Costello.

“We decided to do some fundraising ourselves and next thing we knew we had a business. And in the height of the Global Financial Crisis in September 2008, we launched the worst business model possible; a charity. As the global markets were in decline, we were running around Melbourne asking for fundraising money, and we somehow managed to raise over $100,000 in two and a half months. We put it towards a project in Malawi to construct four classrooms and a vocational centre in Ghana, where over 8,000 children from three to 13 years old are enslaved in bonded labour.”

“When we came home, ready to return to our lives, we recognised there was a huge gap in volunteering and international development.”

Elliot and his friends started to think about unique ways to address the problem.

Failure is just a speed bump

From the outside, everything looked great “We’ve started four social enterprises and have been featured in Forbes, but we’ve launched a lot that didn’t work. We made Australia’s first biodegradable water bottle. The product was phenomenal, but the price point was wrong. People weren’t prepared to pay that much for water at that stage.

“At the time we didn’t stop. We just put our head down and kept going. At times, early on, there were campaigns that made us how were we different from every other NGO in the sector. You have moments of doubt, but it’s all about the ability to acknowledge it, strip yourself naked, and pivot in a new direction.”

I don’t regret my corporate experience

When asked how Elliot found the transition from his four and a half years working in the finance sector to running his own NFP, Elliot spoke about his rebellious past “It was easy for me because I didn’t thrive at school; I got suspended around five times. I found it much easier to do things on my own. That’s probably why I didn’t thrive in the corporate sector.”

“But there’s a certain ease in working for someone else. You can turn up at 9am and leave at 5pm. You’ll never have that luxury when you own your own business; I can’t remember the last time I worked eight hours. But I probably stayed in the corporate sector for longer than I needed. We had enough money at YGAP, and I was just waiting for the time to be right.” says Costello, “I didn’t like parts of it, but I would never go back and not work in the corporate sector.”

Entrepreneurship is about hard work

Asked if he had an entrepreneurial flair at an early age, Elliot said “A little bit. I had a paper round. I was so good that I employed my brother and my friends to do it as well, and I made half of their money. I also started a company when I was 16 with a friend organising events”

“I don’t think you need to be born an entrepreneur, I think you can develop it – it’s about hard work, rather than having an amazing flair for it. It takes courage to put yourself out there and be very relentless with it. So probably a little bit of flair, but the rest of it was teaming up with the right people who were optimistic and stupid enough to think we could do it. And to be clear, we still call ourselves a startup – we’re still trying to find the right model; we’ve only just started!”