Braving what might not work
To change the way the world tackles problems, we’ve moved into uncharted territory, which means that we’ve become comfortable with the unknown. We don’t have all the answers but we give ourselves permission to learn the hard way. We make mistakes. We consistently call ourselves out. And then we unabashedly keep pressing forward.
For an organization committed to tackling major social and environmental issues in our world, as a team we are personally quite removed from the problems we dedicate our work to addressing. It’s easy for us to commute from our homes to our office and never encounter someone living in a food desert or engage with a single mom who has two minimum-wage jobs to support her children.
At times, our understanding of the social problems Uncharted is tackling has been more intellectual and analytical than human and lived. We are taking some initial steps as a team to embed ourselves in the communities and with the people directly experiencing the problems we take on because we understand the power that proximity, empathy, and human relationships play in working to address complex social issues. We know we can do a better job understanding the human and lived experiences of complex social issues, and we’re excited to lean in.
In the past, as an accelerator that supported social entrepreneurs tackling a diversity of issues, we focused our impact measurement efforts on track the amount of money entrepreneurs raise, the growth of their revenue, and the growth of their teams. While we were able to understand our role in helping these organizations scale, we were not able to measure how much we contributed to making a dent in a problem like poverty or the lack of clean water.
As we use the power of an accelerator to tackle specific social problems, we need to go beyond just measuring the growth of companies and start measuring social impact outcomes like number of families that now are lifted out of poverty or number of children who are now kindergarten ready.
As we run more programs that target specific social issues, our current impact assessment approach needs to be updated to better evaluate the ultimate impact outcomes of our work. We are making investments in 20118 and 2019 in our impact approach, theory of change, impact system, and data collection protocols to ensure that we can point to Uncharted’s role in addressing social issues (not just growing companies).
We at one point believed that living our values was figuring out what was right and doing it. What we’ve learned is that running an organization is about making hard choices between two things that appear right, rather than something that seems right and something that seems wrong. Here are some examples of the places we’ve struggled to figure out where we fall:
Accountability to outcomes vs. helping people grow through mistakes. Sometimes, we just need something done fast and done well. But we also know that if you don’t give people a chance to do something they haven’t done before (even if they do it slower, even if they do it wrong the first time), you’ll never be able to grow and develop people (and, in turn, the organization). We know that great teams offer their people the latitude to try things and fail. How do we achieve real results while also encouraging people to do things they hadn’t thought themselves capable of? This is a place we wrestle.
Decisiveness vs. Buy-in in decision-making: There are circumstances that demand decisive, unpopular decisions, and there are circumstances where team buy-in is essential for the decision to be the right one. We have made decisions too slowly and inefficiently, sometimes getting paralyzed by the plurality of input and the length of the process. And we have made decisions too quickly without the right buy-in from the team. How do we balance the need to be decisive with the need for input in decision-making? We’re learning.
Impact vs. Money: There have been times when we have evaluated the strategic importance of a partnership or a program by its impact on our financial runway above its impact for the entrepreneurs and beneficiaries. We won’t compromise on our mission and our values, but some programs fall into the lucrative-but-less-impactful category. How do we wisely financial steward the organization forward while also remaining fiercely committed to impact? We’re trying to eliminate this tension by evolving our funding model so we won’t need take lucrative-but-less-impactful partnerships just to keep the organization going.
Warren Buffett once said “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”
We are fortunate to have a lot of opportunities, possible partnerships, and directions the organization could go. Sometimes we are more opportunistic than strategic, and being able to say no to everything non-essential is something we aspire to.
We firmly believe that impact starts at home. We want our team and our culture to be a microcosm of the world we wish to create, but there have been times when we haven’t been perfect in the way we’ve supported and cared for our team. There have been times when our part-time team felt like second-class citizens, even though their contribution was as important as any full-time member of the team. We’ve said yes to partnerships on tight timelines, putting significant pressure on our team to deliver under less-than-ideal conditions. There was a time when promised raises went undelivered due to a turbulent financial situation.
We’ve also been less-than-clear about job responsibilities and expectations, leading to confusion amongst members of our team. We’ve made mistakes in how we’ve communicated big decisions and updates to the team, we’ve fired people in ways that we’re not proud of, we’ve made unilateral decisions when we should have consulted more people, and we’ve made team-wide consensus decisions when we should have given specific people clear authority to make decisions.
Basically, we are a work in progress. Graciously, our team has always offered honest feedback on what’s working, what’s not working, and what they need to be successful. With such honest communication channels, we can learn quickly and make changes, and today we are far more mature, far more “professional” (whatever that means), and far more conscientious in how we show up as an organization.
We tried to help entrepreneurs raise funding by spending a lot of time honing their pitches. That didn’t work. We eventually started dropping pitching events and the extensive time that we put into helping entrepreneurs with decks, and instead started working with them on building businesses with measurable impact, strong financials, and great teamwork. And we helped them focus on building authentic relationships with funders. This has produced much higher success. Today, over 90% of our entrepreneurs have raised funding.
We started believing that merely by putting our entrepreneurs in a room with amazing mentors and funders, they’d get all the value they needed. If only it were that easy! We quickly realized that above all, we needed to learn how to build lasting relationships with mentors and funders and ensure that our entrepreneurs are well-skilled in how to do so as well. Once we did, this led to longer-term mentor and funder relationships, which translated to far higher value for our entrepreneurs.
We used to pack our programs with workshops and trainings every minute of the day. We’ve learned that less is more. Entrepreneurs appreciate practical frameworks from battle-hardened experts, but need time to digest this learning and figure out how to apply it to their own context. They are anxious to build and want to apply learning quickly. Now, the bulk of our programs feature much more time for one-on-ones and quiet work time than they did in our initial days.
We thought we could give entrepreneurs everything they needed in a few weeks. That was naive. We’ve realized that if anything, entrepreneurs need years of ongoing, customized support. The best kind of support we can provide comes from relationships with folks who know their contexts and domains and who are willing to provide customized mentorship to them over time. So we’ve worked to build a robust network of diversely-skilled mentors, figured out a way to match them to the entrepreneurs who need their skills, and figured out how to create an environment and preparation on both sides that leads to a last relationship. We’ve also added in ongoing support services like financial modelers, and fundraising coaches to some of our programs (thanks to our partnership with For Impact).
We started by thinking entrepreneurs needed as much exposure as possible. There’s no question they benefit from broad exposure, but even more precious, we’ve discovered is high quality relationships with the people (be those teammates, mentors, or funders). We’ve changed the optimization of our programs from public presentations to one-on-one conversations.
We thought big name mentors were critical. And they can in fact be great! But entrepreneurs, above all, get the most value from the mentors that are willing to devote real time to working with them closely over months and even years. We’ve shifted to focusing on finding those kinds of mentors.
We haven’t done enough to preserve the community we create in our programs into the long-term. Entrepreneurs tell us they leave our programs feeling like a family – feeling like a tribe of people they can lean on through difficulty. While over 96% of our entrepreneurs remain in touch with people they’ve met through Uncharted, we also get the feedback that we can do more to keep the community going after our programs. We are still experimenting with the best way for our entrepreneurs to stay in touch, share resources, and ask for help from each other.
There have been a few, memorable instances when we selected entrepreneurs that ended up not being who we thought they were. Selection is one of the most important thing we do, and it is also one of the hardest things we do. In selection there is information asymmetry: There is no way for us to know everything we need to know about an entrepreneur before we have to select them.
We’ve learned a lot about how to optimize the process to get to the information that actually matters when making a selection decision, but selection is more art than science, more investigation than evaluation. And there are people and teams that slipped through the cracks. From extreme un-coachability to intentional dishonesty to woeful under-preparedness, we’ve seen it all.
Of the hundreds of organizations that have come through Uncharted so far, over 20 have failed. The reasons these ventures have failed are varied, but are mostly due to co-founder struggles or failing to find a profitable business model.
While we don’t consider the entrepreneurs who have moved on from their ventures failures by any means at all (in fact, some of them have gone on to greater heights), we want to recognize that some of the ventures that come through the Uncharted don’t survive. We spend most of our time and most of our marketing talking about all the success stories. But we know that this isn’t everyone’s story. We honor our entrepreneurs who had the courage to move on from their ventures.
A failure is not always a mistake. It may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying. — B. F. Skinner