From September 15th to 22nd, we ran the first mini-accelerator for social entrepreneurs in Virginia. It was an experiment, and viewing it as such takes a lot of pressure off the endeavor! My friend Andy Stoll, co-founder of Startup Champions Network, gave us a great piece of advice when we first told him about our plan to run Unreasonable Lab in February 2016: “Get rid of the idea that the first version is going to be perfect. The first pancake of a batch is never 100%, it’s 80% at best. And often, that’s good enough.” It was reassuring. We went into Unreasonable Lab VA striving for 80% success, fully acknowledging that some things would probably go wrong. Only we had no way of knowing what these things would be. But that was OK, we told our partners, mentors and founders up-front that we were in it to learn. In a true Lean Startup mindset, we were running an experiment to test our assumptions about whether or not Virginia was ready for such a program. We looked at three variables in particular:
- Would we find high-quality entrepreneurs that were eager to learn how to to create social change through entrepreneurship?
- Would be be able to recruit committed mentors with the right skill sets and networks to help our founders move forward?
- And thirdly, would we find sponsors and partners to help us carry this endeavor?
Looking back onto our program I can say that our first pancake came out as expected, if not a little better:
We recruited eight teams that worked incredibly hard on building a business to create positive social change. Half of the ventures focused exclusively on serving disadvantaged communities, the other half expanded their reach to everyday you-and-me’s as well as under-served populations. We knew going in that not every founder was a textbook example of a social entrepreneur, but each of them was working on a market opportunity that was directly linked to social progress. To us, that’s a great starting point for any mission-driven founder.
One of the things I love about the Richmond ecosystem is the overall commitment to giving back and nurturing the next generation. I am involved with a number of startup programs and the one thing I can rely on is an army of experienced entrepreneurs and professionals who work with fledgling entrepreneurs without expecting an immediate return. I can’t thank these mentors enough, Richmond as a startup ecosystem wouldn’t be what it is without these dedicated mentors!
As our Mentor Day proved, we succeeded in recruiting 15 incredible experts from our ecosystem who spent up to an entire day working with our founders. In total, we facilitated 48 mentor sessions in one day, each of which lasted 45 minutes. And we could have run another Mentor Day. Even on the day itself, people emailed us from all over Virginia with an interest in becoming a mentor and working with the founders.
Raising funds for the program was one of my biggest concerns from the beginning. I personally don’t like asking people for money; it’s not how I was raised and the idea of going around with my tin cup made me cringe. Because we were running an experiment with unknown outcomes, I felt as though we had little to offer in return.
I have spent a lot of time and energy researching effective support models for social entrepreneurs. One of my key conclusions is that accelerators must lead by example and monetize their value proposition, instead of running on donations. Easier said than done, trust me. As co-founders we agreed that this experiment was our prototype, and we were going to raise funds in the traditional sense through a fiscal sponsor (thank you Altron Foundation for putting up with all the paperwork!). Believe it or not, a handful of organizations and individuals were happy to support our efforts by funding an experiment! Thank you!
One of our key objectives with the program was to expose participants to the wider ecosystem of startup activity in Central Virginia. We tried to ensure the program was not taking place behind closed doors in isolation from the community. We hosted partner breakfasts and invited other support organizations (RVA Works, VCEN, UnboundRVA), local founders (Lighthouse Labs’ cohort 4, Katherine Wintsch of The Mom Complex), foundations (Robins Foundation, The Community Foundation, Cameron Foundation) as well as government agencies to spend the first hour of each program day with us. These breakfasts were unstructured, informal rounds of conversation over bagels and coffee. Some of them highlighted the divide between institutional stakeholders and early-stage founders, others brought so much conversation and collaboration that the entire space (Annex Startup Incubator) seemed to be humming with startup energy!
Where does this leave us?
All in all, we are very happy with the outcome of the first Lab. It takes time to see what the real impact is on the founders who participated, but their immediate feedback was encouraging. One founder confirmed “I met every goal I set for myself when we started out a week ago: I am clearer on my customer segments and verified that this venture is worth pursuing.“ This is all we could ask for with a business model validation lab!
When the program concluded, I was looking forward to writing this very review, ponder on all the changes we would make based on this first round, meticulously documenting all the things we had learned on how to improve the program… I was surprised to find that I couldn’t seem to find a good angle to start writing. We had learned some small things but were missing the big revelations. Was my post-program blues inhibiting my ability to write? Was I not being critical enough? While these may be true, the real reason was that things actually went really well. We learned a few obvious lessons that I outline in this post, but it appears that we avoided the big pitfalls.
In case you are wondering who “we” is, meet the Lab team in alphabetical order:
- Larkin Garbee: Entrepreneur, founder of 804RVA, co-founder The Annex Startup Incubator and all things startup in RVA (Startup Next, Startup Weekend, Code for RVA, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. No joke.)
- Stephanie Hepp: Co-founder & senior associate at Run Rate
- Ashley Ray: Owner of Emergent Social Solutions
Special thanks to our day-to-day volunteers:
- Mike Bottorff: senior Creative and Strategic Advertising student at VCU, head photographer
- Ashleigh Rynberg: senior Commercial and Advertising student at VCU, social media cadet
- Sarah Slotnick: senior Small Business Management student at VCU,, logistics