On the Right Track
Lessons from our final FTL Sprint — and beyond!
Since we began our FTL pilot, the world has changed: the BLM moment in the aid industry has raised serious questions about the dynamics of aid; the merger of DFID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office means that our donor landscape is very different; and of course the Covid-19 pandemic has had the most direct impact on both our pilot and our company.
The pandemic disrupted our pilot by making it difficult to carry out our Sprint activities as planned, particularly those based on bringing together stakeholders. But it disrupted our company even more when a key investor pulled out of our seed investment round at the last minute, as the impact of the pandemic changed the investment climate.
This was particularly tough for us because the FTL Pilot had been so well-received by both DFID and OCHA. The technology had been shown to work, the platform was close to launch, and we had built a great team to take it forward. We learned the hard lesson that, no matter how much momentum you have, external events can bring all of it to a halt.
As a result of this, we will sadly be closing Disberse after four years, following completion of the FTL Pilot. We’ve learned a lot along the way, and our final Sprint aims to capture those lessons — not just from the pilot itself, but from the wider experience of setting up and running a company specifically to service the aid industry.
What did we learn?
The final lessons report runs to around 40 pages, and looks at how to build a start-up in the aid industry, how to develop services based on new technology, and how to build partnerships based on mutual benefit. You can read the full document here, but here we’ve identified a few key lessons that you might find useful if you’re on the same path.
- Knowing your market is essential for any company, but experience of working in the aid industry is particularly important, both in terms of credibility and capability. Ensure that you have staff with experience of working in your target market, who understand the political economy of aid and can speak the same language as your clients.
- The importance of political support for technology innovation cannot be overstated. A single country pilot is good evidence, but senior management will need to make a decision about whether to adopt your service. Cross-department participation is the best way to get useful feedback and to build collective ownership.
- Remember that technology is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Focus on the added value that your service can deliver, rather than the technology behind that service. Use evidence rather than hype to provide clients with a balanced assessment of strengths and weaknesses of that service in meeting their needs.
- Keep a clear focus on your core service, but be ready to explore other avenues which could add value for clients. Pivoting is almost inevitable, but a value-driven company must ensure that those values survive the pivot. Ensure that you have a revenue model in place, but make sure it fits both your strategy and your values.
- You may need to provide additional support to help potential clients to engage successfully with innovation, particularly if their organisation lacks policy guidance or other resources to support them. In particular you should identify which units within the organisation are your target market, and reach them as early as possible.
- Identify both champions and critics within client organisations — both are important in building a successful collaboration. Champions are vital for keeping internal discussions moving and building internal consensus, but critics are important for ensuring those discussions are grounded in organisational and technical reality.
- Identify points in the aid system where incentives are misaligned, and use effective design approaches to build a service that can re-align those incentives. Your aim should be to deliver a successful outcome for all stakeholders — including the final recipients of aid — and bring them with you on the journey towards real change.
We’ll be maintaining the Disberse website as a hub for learning resources, including the full Sprint Report and the other learning documents and external resources that we have published over the years. The site includes a chronology of Disberse from beginning to end, so that others can see how the business developed — and how it ended.
Why share this experience?
One of our core principles was a commitment to transparency, which in practice translated into publishing the unvarnished results of our pilots, with sign-off from our pilot partners. We did this partly so that potential clients could judge for themselves whether we could deliver on our pitch, but also as a learning exercise, for ourselves and for others.
Even though we must now close Disberse, we still believe that such transparency is greatly needed. We can’t stop other companies from making the same mistakes that we have — and making mistakes is a vital part of learning — but we can still point to those mistakes, explain what we learned from them, and hopefully make life a little easier for any successors.
The issues that Disberse sought to address are still out there, and aid organisations are still looking for solutions. There are tremendous opportunities to improve efficiencies in the funding chain, especially in terms of the international transfer of funds, and of course the linked questions of transparency and accountability have still not been solved.
We saw the future of aid as decentralised, in which local actors are properly resourced, and transparent, in which public money can be tracked more accurately. Our ambition was to be an agent of that change, to help aid organisations to update their entire business model, and to provide the infrastructure necessary to support that model.
We didn’t make it in the end. In fact we barely left the starting blocks before a global pandemic overtook us all. But there are still tremendous opportunities for value-driven companies to bring innovative approaches to bear on the challenges facing the aid industry — and also on the challenges facing communities affected by conflict and disaster.
People working in the aid industry are increasingly realising that the traditional way of doing things is not the only option; in some cases, starting a company can make more sense than starting an NGO. We hope that the lessons we’ve shared during this Pilot will give you some inspiration — and if you set out on a similar path to us, perhaps help you to go further.