Unreasonable Lab VA — What’s next?
Many people have asked us whether we are going to run another Unreasonable Lab (and when because they already have someone in mind who should apply!), and what’s next for the program. While our founders are busy implementing their strategic road maps, we are collecting feedback, following up with mentors and partners to figure out what’s next for social entrepreneurship in Richmond. In startup language, we refer to this part us customer validation (read more about the Lean Startup).
Having run our first prototype in mid-September, customer validation allows us to learn from the first round and use all the feedback and suggestions to create an even better program. It is too early to say when it will run and in what shape or form. We have some more conversations scheduled to help us figure out some of the blindspots (read here about our early learnings) but until then, we want to share some of our key take-aways:
Team selection and support
If we run this program again, we will pay more attention to our staffing. Having spent a good bit of my young career as an intern, we need to pay our interns who carry some of the heavy day-to-say load of running a program, from photography to social media to logistics support. While internships are great learning opportunities, students need to make a living, too. In the future we will spend more time carefully selecting interns and volunteers. We were very lucky to assemble a great crew of volunteers this time around, because everybody knows somebody, but we can reduce this stress factor next time if we plan ahead more and take our time to get a great group together. Thank you to all of our incredible volunteers who rolled up their sleeves and got to work! THANK YOU!
The leadership team that helped with planning and running the program also volunteered their time. That’s right, nobody got paid. Planning for this program started in December 2015 and we operated at maximum capacity for the last four months to pull this program off. We overworked ourselves to run a great program and while I’m incredibly grateful for everyone’s determination, that’s not the type of work environment that makes us happy and perform to our highest standards. While pay is not the primary incentive for anyone on the team, it helps justify all the night- and weekend shifts. Most of us let other responsibilities slide. Working with passionate ecosystem builders, this hardly comes as a surprise, but we need to look out for each other and make sure our jug is always full so we can keep pouring into the cups of founders.
Let me tell you, we probably learned the most before we actually ran the program. I dedicated an entire post to these early questions and mistakes. We noticed early on that the one-week full-time format immediately disqualifies a great number of potential participants who are trying to hold down full-time jobs. Secondly, we want to dramatically increase the reach of the program. We did not take enough time to build alliances with other stakeholders in other regions of Virginia when we know for a fact that Roanoke, Blacksburg, Hampton Roads, Fredericksburg and Charlottesville have a lot going on in that field. A trip to these areas would allow us to better promote the program and become more inclusive as to how to run it. And even within Richmond, we still have a lot of the heavy-lifting to do in order to build a program that fits the needs of our communities, groups that we did not successfully include in our first round.
We were trying the Unreasonable Lab curriculum as we went along. Customer discovery and validation needed more time. Participants were briefed on the necessity of meeting with potential customers and/or beneficiaries during dedicated time slots and it still proved to be very difficult for them to schedule these meetings. I also believe that allowing more time for this process allows founders to reflect on their value proposition and have more meaningful conversations with customers. We have gone and forth discussing alternative timing and schedules. Our main concern of spreading it out over several weeks/weekends is that founders would jump in and out of their ventures mentally. Day jobs, family commitments etc. call for a switch between working on their startups and leading their “regular lives”. We will try to work out a format that keeps founders engaged in between sessions.
Overall, I would definitely allow for more more time to review business model canvasses; we managed to do it in between but dedicated time slots and deliverables hold founders more accountable and ultimately, make the tools as useful as it is. Also, I probably wouldn’t use the special canvas provided by Unreasonable again. They are running businesses, they should be able to use traditional canvas.
As mentioned, not all founders got a chance to drill into the social impact promise their ventures hold. We touched on it as we spoke about employee selection and nonprofit partnerships but I would have liked to spend more time carving out each venture’s specific impact objectives to make sure it is intrinsically anchored within their overall value proposition. I am a great fan of Theory of Change and will probably include a half day on the impact models in the next round.
We had a lot of food and produced more waste than we’re proud of. We gave leftovers to students, other startup-founders and the homeless, but we probably could have cut our catering expenses and landfill had we planned differently.
Would do again!
With all this being said, we also did some things well and I already look forward to rolling with some of these initiatives again next time!
- Some incredible guest speakers came in and ran our sessions! Local entrepreneurs talked to us about customer discovery, a UX designer traveled up from North Carolina to spend a day prototyping with us, and another entrepreneur came all the way from Blacksburg to build strategic road maps. Simply incredible!
- Mentor Day was a success. On my way to the Annex Startup Incubator that very morning, I was afraid that 45-minute long sessions were going to be too much. We had scheduled out the entire day a week in advance to accommodate mentors’ requests and preferences, so there was no way that we could make any changes the morning of. We had set them up for some intense and potentially loooooong conversations. Instead it worked great. We had told everyone that if they ran out of things to talk about, it was polite to thank one another and go for a walk around the block or check emails. But it didn’t happen. Conversations carried on into break time, no-one ended early, and the founders gained a lot of insights and contacts. It was a success!
- We made an effort of bringing our participants together with other founders. On our very first day, we had a happy hour with all startups that work out of The Annex and the vibe was great! Day three started with a partner breakfast with founders that are currently going through Lighthouse Labs, a local accelerator for high-growth companies. Lighthouse founders are going through a similar process, only their ventures are farther along. It was great to witness the energy among founders. Breakfast ran very late that morning.
- The Final Event was a humbling experience. We kept our Community Dinner simple but delicious and encouraged conversations around each table. Each guest received an envelope with $200 Monopoly dollars to invest in the startup of their choice as they arrived. It was great to see some of our key mentors and partners join the founders at their tables. The location — Richmond’s historic Main Street Station — was heaving with chatter about making a difference for our communities. Again, we couldn’t have done it without this army of volunteers that materialized the day off and rolled up their sleeves to make the evening a success! Thank you!
While these adjustments are exactly what we hoped to learn, I have found myself a lot more occupied by the big questions over the last weeks:
What value proposition can we offer local businesses, foundations, higher ed institutions, nonprofits, and other support organizations?
How are we going to put such a program on financially sustainable feet without sacrificing mission or experimentation?
What is the best growth model?
What is our endgame?
My gut tells me that “just” raising funds to run several programs for social entrepreneurs is not going to cut it. For one, we don’t have the density of local founders that fit the Unreasonable profile. Organic growth is key. Even more important is the question around how to build something that is integral to the existing startup infrastructure. I don’t want to build a stand-alone-program that is yet another fragment in the ecosystem. I hope to create something that plays on the strengths of other programs already in place. What that can look like only my conversations over the coming weeks will show but I would love for everyone who is interested to be part of that conversation!