This is the final installment of the Path of the Entrepreneur Series. This series is the result of the SOCAP15 Accelerating the Accelerators session. Insights from the other articles in this series can be found here.
Building Lasting Community
The Building Lasting Community activity was designed to dive into the practices accelerator program managers use to cultivate valuable communities of Mentors, Investors, and Alumni. Programs know it is resource intensive to maintain these relationships and enhance the value of these communities to participants. A significant challenge raised by program managers was the human capital required, as a strong and lasting community inherently requires significant investments of time.
During the Accelerating the Accelerators @SOCAP15 session, 42 participants from 37 organizations and 17 countries discussed the Path of the Entrepreneur from program identification, the application process, through to program evaluation, and building lasting communities. This session provides a unique opportunity for program managers to connect with their peers and share what works, and sometimes more importantly, what isn’t working in running an Impact Accelerator Program. While what works for one program will not necessarily work for others, this session brought to light opportunities for testing new processes, incentives, and communication structures, that may help your organization build a strong and lasting community.
Accelerators work hard to increase the impact of their entrepreneurs, and to do that, they bring together many stakeholders including investors, mentors, and alumni. Each of these stakeholder groups play a different role for the entrepreneur and also require different strategies to promote continued engagement.
Building relationships and understanding one another is the foundation to real investments.
Like all participants in an accelerator, investors want to receive value from interacting with programs. Often requires relationships that recognize the full value an investor can bring to a program beyond financial capital. Seeing investors only through the financial capital lens limits their identity and can restrict the full range of value that the individual could and would bring to the table. Program managers all shared that the secret to engaging their investors for the long term all went beyond invitations to demo days. The ideas centered around building time to “go deep” into shared knowledge among investors and providing opportunities to work one-on-one with entrepreneurs beyond the two-page venture profile. These suggestions all stem from the belief that understanding one another is the foundation for real investments.
Building Investor Community through Learning
Unreasonable Institute does a remarkable job with their “Investor Days” by creating a peer-learning environment that encourages investors to share their candid questions about common topics with which investors struggle, for example, investing in Africa or more cost effective due diligence practices. This kind of peer-learning or peer-training is a way of providing value to the investors and encourage interaction within the network.
In the same vein of encouraging learning and connection, others recommended focusing on helping investors understand how to identify entrepreneurs, programs, and other investors working in their sector, region, or problem area. There are quite a few efforts from Toniic, ImpactSpace with support from The Case Foundation, and The Miller Center of Social Entrepreneurship to map the impact investing ecosystem to make this identification process significantly easier. Conveners.org also hosts a quarterly Mapping the Mappers call to help mappers of the impact ecosystem coordinate more easily.
Another recommendation from the community was an Impact Investor Advisory Board for the Accelerating the Accelerators Program so that they can share their perspective and advice across the network of Impact Accelerators. Connection with an impact investor network like Toniic may also help to create a community for follow on and co-investment in ventures coming out of Impact Accelerators.
Beyond Demo Days
Singularity University representatives recommended going beyond matchmaking and placing so much pressure on the Demo Day (aka Pitch Day). Although these presentations are often the capstone of an accelerator, “So many demo days fail”. Investors are looking to de-risk their portfolio, and Demo Days do not provide the right platform for the conversation about risk. One-on-one conversations between investors and entrepreneurs (ideally in advance of the Demo Day) can provide the right platform for deeper conversations about risk mitigation.
Another option for providing greater context about entrepreneurs beyond the demo day is a video. Many program managers recommended investing in a videographer to tell the story of the entrepreneurs. Unreasonable Institute launched “Unreasonable TV” as a platform for sharing the stories of their entrepreneurs, mentors, and the program as a whole. Investors want to see the story that goes beyond the two-pager and a good video can achieve this and provide another layer of connection between investor and entrepreneur.
Mentors are looking for opportunities build stronger long-term relationships with both the program and the entrepreneurs. Consistent communication and offering mentors the opportunity to use the full diversity of their expertise are both essential to building and maintaining these relationship.
Let them out of the Pigeonhole
Mentors are often selected for a particular area of expertise or skill. While many people have a particular skill for which they are well known, most mentors want to be recognized for the diverse expertise they bring to the table and not be“pigeonholed” in one specific skill set.
To increase the value mentors receive from participating in a program, give them the opportunity to do what comes easy, by matching their major expertise to entrepreneurs, while also giving them space to learn and teach each other so that they can expand their skill set. Set aside time for mentors to directly connect with one another so they have the opportunity to advance their careers and improve their skills.
Connecting mentors and entrepreneurs can be a powerful method for keeping them engaged. Many agree to be mentors because they have an intrinsic motivation to help develop enterprises. Mentors are more committed when they contribute for personal motivations rather than money or other external incentives. One method for keeping the lines of communication open is sharing update stories from entrepreneurs so that mentors see the results of their work over time.
To create additional connections between mentors and entrepreneurs, give entrepreneurs the contact information for the mentor who would be willing to meet with them and leave it up to the entrepreneur to follow through. This works to filter out those who are not fully committed and avoid wasting the time of a mentor.
Maintaining strong relationships with program alumni has clear advantages for accelerator programs. At the same time, providing meaningful engagement for alumni comes with a number of challenges. Alumni want to engage in ways that require a lot of resources which can place stress on the program staff capacity. Offering alumni ways of telling their stories, connecting with peers, and getting involved with the next generation are all strong methods of building community.
Telling their Stories
Entrepreneurs are often looking for ways to spread the word about their work. Offering alumni a platform to illustrate their gains can serve as a major incentive to keep them connected to the community. For example, interviewing an alumni for a spotlight profile in the monthly newsletter can be effective.
Access to broader media opportunities can be another attractive hook for engaging alumni. Recommending alumni with interesting stories to media outlets can provide increased visibility for both the entrepreneur and the program. For example, Hero Rats, a company that went through the Miller Center of Social Entrepreneurship, was featured on CNN and a number of other publications.
Connecting with Peers
Connecting alumni with each other is another mechanism for building community. Informal discussion groups, hosted as a private Facebook Group or Slack channel is one way to foster these connections without a significant investment of resources by the program. The program can have a channel (or facebook group, or google group) dedicated to the current cohort and as a graduation process they can be invited into the alumni channel.
An alumni council is another way to establish stronger relationships between alumni and the program. An alumni council can help to distribute the work needed to establish activities to keep alumni engaged like regional happy hour events, skill building events, or offering webinars. The Executive Director of the program can host dinners with the council to establish channels for feedback and suggestions for improvement.
Engaging with the Next Generation
One of the most powerful methods of engaging alumni is involving them in the future of the program. From program referrals to stakeholder interviews for strategic planning, it is important to switch the context of the relationship – moving from “us helping them” to “them helping build a strong community.”
Sourcing venture referrals from alumni is a common methodology among programs and has the potential to improve applicant pools and engage alumni. Going beyond referrals to the selection process can deepen this engagement and deeply benefit the program. Provide alumni with an opportunity to participate in the interview process. Their experience in the program provides insights into potential culture fit and coachability of the entrepreneur. In addition, they can market the program to potential entrepreneurs helping to set expectations with the “on the ground perspective.”
For all these reasons, alumni can be a valuable feeder to your mentor pool. It gives them an opportunity to work with current cohorts and takes advantage of their experience both as program alumni and as entrepreneurs.
Creating a peer-led investment fund can further deepen this involvement, crowdsourcing funds from graduates within or across accelerator programs and connecting across generations.
For accelerator programs, there are many different levels of community. Alumni, Mentors, and Investors all require consistent communication and opportunities to both give and receive value from their participation. Satisfying engagement can greatly improve a program’s ability to build and maintain a strong community.
This was the final installment of the Path of the Entrepreneur Series. We look forward to seeing all of our Program Managers on Sept. 12th 2016 at Accelerating the Accelerators @SOCAP16.