Many organizations approach CauseLabs, a digital innovation agency, because the free or low-cost tech tools they used to achieve initial success are hindering new growth opportunities. A great platform—when demands on it increase—can become expensive, time-consuming, and distracting to operate.
“We just use Google Docs to manage program applicants,” turns into, “Uff, managing all these applications in Google Docs takes forever!” Operational pain ensues, staff members feel burdened rather than empowered, and program participants (or other target groups) start to wonder if it should be this hard to work with your organization.
This was the case at Village Capital when it approached CauseLabs. Village Capital trains early-stage entrepreneurs solving major global problems through in-person workshops. It then invests in some of these entrepreneurs using a “peer-selected investment” model that puts the power of investment in the hands of the entrepreneurs. At the end of each Village Capital program, entrepreneurs rank each other on several criteria. The rankings are indexed and weighted through a proprietary formula, and the top two peer-selected winners in each program get funding.
In the summer of 2015, Village Capital received funding for a major new project. The project goal was to share its curriculum and peer-review model with accelerators and incubators around the world, in what would ultimately become known as VilCap Communities. As we met and enumerated pain points, we realized that Village Capital’s vision was great, but the back-end, technological execution was spotty. It became clear that as Village Capital scaled and shared its model with other organizations, it didn’t just need to leverage readily available platforms; it needed to build its own platform. It needed a brand-new system for managing peer-review, keeping track of companies’ information throughout each program, and generally making the entrepreneurs’ experience as seamless and intuitive as possible. And it needed it soon.
Six months later, Village Capital launched a largely new, custom technology platform with CauseLabs’ help. The team has since shared the platform with 27 entrepreneur support organizations around the world through VilCap Communities, which launched this February.
Here’s how we pulled it off – and some lessons we learned in the process:
1. Start with success.
The great myth of entrepreneurship is that if you have a great idea and work hard, you will succeed. In reality, 78 percent of startup dollars in the United States go to enterprises in three states (and 50 percent of startup dollars worldwide are invested in three metro regions: Silicon Valley, Boston, and New York); women receive only five percent of venture funding; and entrepreneurs of color barely have a chance at these resources.
Seven years ago, Village Capital decided to try and level the investment playing field. Rather than a closed-door group of investors deciding who gets opportunity and who doesn’t, Village Capital offers a platform where entrepreneurs collaborate to improve on their business ideas and decide who gets investment. It succeeded: Today, 38 percent of investments from Village Capital’s accelerator go to companies with women founders or co-founders, and 95 percent of investments go to the rest of the world—cities outside the New York-Boston-Silicon Valley nexus.
When we began thinking about how to work together a year ago, Village Capital’s team had invested in 51 businesses (with 93 percent still in operation) and completed 10 programs in 2015 alone. The challenge was that the more programs Village Capital completed, the harder operations became. The question was: how do we help Village Capital’s model scale?
With a successful model as our guide, we were ready to test our theory: that codifying the entrepreneurs’ curriculum and surrounding it with a suite of online program management tools could help peer-selected investment reach its potential.
2. Partner with a firm that has shared vision and trust.
Village Capital and CauseLabs were aligned in several ways beyond “client need” and “vendor service offering.” CauseLabs knew the broader social impact space, and its founder had actually participated in the Village Capital venture development program. We were aligned culturally, and as the famous saying goes, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” Ensure that your partner buys into your culture, not just the project at hand.
3. Make specific team members directly responsible for outcomes.
Building a custom technology platform is not just a matter of porting content and processes. We needed to reflect on previous decisions and reconsider the way things worked. In the process, we called on staff outside the core project team to provide insights, content, and direction. Without having dedicated project managers on both the Village Capital and CauseLabs teams to organize and ensure follow through on these tasks, the project would have failed.
4. Deciding what not to do is as important than deciding what to do.
Steve Jobs said, “Innovation is saying no to a thousand things.” Village Capital’s new platform would not replace existing operations; for example, early on, we nixed a Khan Academy/MOOC-type format. Instead, it would help enable the great in-person work the organization was already doing. This eliminated a huge rabbit hole of running a learning management system and filming aspects of the curriculum like lessons on legal and financial advice. We were not going to try to reimagine the Village Capital’s critical four-day on-site workshops as online experiences. We would focus on making information flow and processes better in every way, and more turnkey to implement. Tech would enable and improve high-touch work, not replace it.
We ultimately decided that peer-based ranking and capital allocation were the most valuable parts of Village Capital’s process. So instead of inventing new ideas, we spent time making the peer review process delightful—helping entrepreneurs visualize how their score improved between ranks and put all their peers' comments into one space so that it was easier to take action. We set aside more than 50 percent of our design and development time to make the ranking experience awesome, then built out products like Tasklist, which showed entrepreneurs what documentation and actions they needed to take to keep up to date with the program, and Mentor Directory, which provided easy access to all the mentors who provided advice and wisdom throughout the program.
5. “Throw your hat over the wall.”
John F. Kennedy often told an old story of Irish immigrants leaving Ireland during the potato famine: When they reached walls too high to jump, they would throw their hats over the wall, forcing them to figure out a way to scale.
We threw our hat over the wall by setting dates for the launch of VilCap Communities six and seven months in advance, forcing us to focus design efforts, keep scope low, and ship on time. Planning the pilot use of the platform while building it meant talking to community leaders around the world who wanted to bring Village Capital’s peer-driven model to their local community. Spending time with these potential users helped us base important design decisions around their acute needs rather than our assumptions of their needs.
Dramatically scaling your mission through technology will mean embracing your own hat-throwing moment.
Miles to Go Before We Sleep
The VilCap Communities program and its technology platform are bold experiments in pursuit of exponential impact. Our pilots currently underway will inform the direction the program and platform take, and there will be plenty more lessons along the way. So long as we keep applying these lessons to the goal of empowering any entrepreneur or social entrepreneur, anywhere in the world, we see a positive outlook for the use of technology.