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
We believe in the work we do and are proud of what we’ve been able to achieve! However, we’ve experienced a number of failures over the past years. To keep us grounded and sure we’re always striving to learn and improve, here are some of these lessons.
What is most precious to us is our values. We use them to hire, evaluate internal performance, select our entrepreneurs, and select our mentors. The first days of our programs are always devoted to sharing our values with our entrepreneurs.
Our biggest failures, from where we stand, come from when we fail to live our values. We have had moments when we were scared to be truthful, when we forgot to celebrate someone on our team, and when we didn’t support each other. We’ve learned that values are about posture, not position. We’ve learned that we will invariably fail to live our values, but that so long as we are willing to learn from those mistakes and endeavor as best we can to improve, we have to forgive ourselves. This is, in our opinion, our greatest challenge.
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 proud of the way we’ve managed and taken care of our own team. We’ve been slow to create clear justifications for salaries and raises, and 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 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 our leadership and management of our team.
Boy oh boy do we have some stories for you! Next time you’re in town we can sip some whiskey in leather chairs and tell the whole story, but basically over the years 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, nearly 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 our active ventures have raised, for example. But at the same time we know that this isn’t everyone’s story. We honor our entrepreneurs who had the courage to move on from their ventures.
- 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. Ha! 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.
At times, our funding and revenue has been inconsistent and lumpy. We’ve nearly been bankrupt on two occasions. We’ve had to prepare the team with lay-off plans (which we fortunately did not have to use). We’ve faced feast or famine dynamics due to our business and funding model, despite trying income-generating strategies including crowdfunding, charging tuition, taking revenue share in our ventures, and relying on philanthropy. Moving forward, we’re building confidence in a hybrid business model that comes from partnering with institutions (like The Rockefeller Foundation or the City of Denver) to run issue-specific programs and building a broad base of philanthropic support, which allows us to take risks and move into untested terrain. We continue to learn how to make the organization financially robust and will keep sharing what we discover!
Measuring impact is hard, but we believe it’s important because we want to understand the relationship between our efforts and whether or not it leads to meaningful change in the problems we take on.
Right now, we can see a consistent improvement in the capacity of our entrepreneurs to deliver impact. It’s easy for us to track the amount of money they raise, the growth of their revenue, and the growth of their teams. It’s much harder to understand how much we contribute to making a dent in a problem like poverty or the lack of clean water, though we do see that our entrepreneurs are making strides in these arenas. We use some vanity metrics like the fact that our entrepreneurs have benefitted over 25 million lives (which is an impressive number, but which doesn’t speak to how any of those lives were impacted, how deeply, and with what longevity).
Moving forward, we’re running programs taking on specific issues, like access to food in low-income areas in Denver. This enables us not only to measure capacity gains, but also assess how many people in particular, in this instance, gain access to healthy food. Learning about our effect on outcomes like this will enable us to build a stronger theory between our efforts and the meaningful consequences it has for the world. And that will really allow us to build an organization that can consistently deliver meaningful change. That’s what we are working toward!
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 usually 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 another 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.