FIP 112: Tips for Social Entrepreneurs Wanting to Apply to an Accelerator

Many social entrepreneurs will consider applying to an accelerator to help grow their business, so we reached out to a range of accelerators to hear what tips they have for people putting an application together. These tips come in three buckets – one on selecting the right accelerator, next on what will need to go into your application, and third on how to deliver a great application.

On this episode, you’ll hear from the following:

  • Allie Burns – CEO of Village Capital: get clarity on the key milestones to grow your business i.e. building your team, validating your value prop, refining your product or sales process. Then ask how an accelerator will help. And then do your research to find out which accelerator will help you reach those milestones.
  • David Bartram – Director of Ventures at UnLtd: Three key things. 1- be really clear what you want to get out of the programme; 2- think about what you can give back i.e. to other cohort entrepreneurs or the accelerator organisation; 3- don’t change your idea to fit the needs of the accelerator.
  • Siobhain Dullea – CEO of MassChallenge: Be clear about what problem you’re trying to solve and why your product is the solution. Share your numbers (churn, revenue, profit), traction (interest and demand), go-to-market strategy or product development process. And your team – why they’re the winners.
  • Ben Powell – Founder and CEO of Agora Partnerships: Articulate three things. Your market opportunity or idea (sustainability), quality of your team, quality of your impact. Be sure to highlight your core values and the kind of culture you hope to build. Talk with maturity, and openness and some vulnerability on how to build culture and attract the best people.
  • Paul Miller – CEO of Bethnal Green Ventures: Tell us something about the problem we don’t know. Explain why you’re the people that understands this problem, in a way that people haven’t understood it before.
  • Luni Libes – Founder & Managing Director, Fledge: Applying to an accelerator is like an elevator pitch. Balance giving enough information in a clear and concise format. in just a few paragraphs. also convey how far along you are. where you are. how fast you want to grow. where to get to.
  • Ryan Kushner – The Accelerator Guy: put yourself in their shows. How you’ll be evaluated. Are you in scope for that program. Do you tick the boxes. If so, lay out the team, technology, promise and your social impact. Put it in their language.
  • Tom Rippin – CEO and Founder of OnPurpose: demonstrate your interest, tailor your application, and don’t just write a “me, me, me” cover letter. Say why you’re interested in doing this and why YOU.

FIP 111: Hardware entrepreneurs 3/3 – Creating a device to solve last-mile connectivity issues in Africa, with Erik Hersman

The Lemelson Foundation LogoThis is part three of a 3-part series on invention-based entrepreneurs, supported by The Lemelson Foundation. The series aims to provide unique insights into some of the challenges and workarounds faced by entrepreneurs creating hardware products in emerging markets. This third part episode is with Erik Hersman, co-founder of BRCK, which creates a modem-cum-router device aimed at solving last-mile connectivity issues in Africa. We’re going to talk about the early prototypes, how they funded manufacturing and validated the market, some of the challenges they had along the way, and how the product evolved into what it is today.

On this episode you’ll learn:

  • Erik’s mantra about why “experience is knowing what not to do.”
  • “Managing expectations:” for BRCK version 1 it took 15-16 months to get a prototype working, then another 12-18 months to build it for the market. In hindsight, how could it be done quicker?
    1. if you really know what you’re doing (ie. what materials should be used, etc.
    2. if you’re well capitalized (ie. have the money), and
    3. if you’re not based in Africa (which has increased costs and time).
  • How did he validate the market to make sure people will buy it? By using Kickstarter, the crowdfunding platform, which is a great way to find out. They raised $170,000 then decided to create the for-profit company to raise additional capital.
  • Early stage companies (particularly in hardware) have to find a balance of when to pull the trigger on shipping.
    • The internal messaging was that it is not acceptable to miss deadlines.
    • The external messaging to stakeholders was that you try to deliver when you say you’re going to.
  • Some of the initial problems (that went wrong) and why initial timelines were pushed back: “end of life” manufacturer (ie. they don’t make it anymore), testing at scale, user experience, etc.
  • The decision to move from selling a product to moving to a service: the internal conversation within the company on whether they are solving the real problem of how do you get people online? It resulted in business model innovation (more so than technology innovation) which led to Moja wifi in Kenya and Rwanda which serves up free internet to half a million people.
  • Linear versus non-linear growth: when you’re getting venture-backed finance or choose to take venture funding, they are looking for non-linear growth.
  • Why BRCK became a vertically integrated company—they discovered value in building everything in house—helps with risk mitigation, agility, and the ability to respond to customer needs.
  • How Moja wifi is funded.
  • What Erik knows now that he wished he knew back then?
    1. Realize earlier that they needed to build a platform on top of the hardware since the hardware is just a means to an end.
    2. Focus more capital on the SupaBRCK earlier (their next generation device) since it was delayed 6 months.
    3. Hiring the right people: maybe hired too fast in some positions and didn’t get the right people.

Links to Resources:

Connect with Erik:

FIP 110: Hardware entrepreneurs 2/3 – Creating electronic hardware products for businesses in East Africa, with Mary Mwangi

This is part two of a 3-part series on invention-based entrepreneurs, supported by The Lemelson Foundation. The series aims to provide unique insights into some of the challenges and workarounds faced by entrepreneurs creating hardware products in emerging markets. This part two episode is with Mary Mwangi of Data Integrated Ltd., and we are going to hear about her electronic hardware development journey on manufacturing products to improve security in public transport, and to reduce financial leakage. Data Integrated Ltd. is creating electronic hardware products for businesses in East Africa to help business owners keep track of money, whether that is transport companies keeping track of passengers, or point of sale (PoS) devices for retail businesses taking cash and mobile money payments.

On this episode you will learn:

  • The biggest problem that most small businesses in Africa face is a lack of data. There is not enough information around their payments, about their resources, and services they are being paid for–there is no digitized or automated way of keeping this and it has been very manual and not very productive.
    • Cash leakage and loss of revenue for owners
    • Insecurity
  • Her easy and affordable point of sale (PoS) device for retail businesses taking cash and mobile money payments, particularly small restaurant owners, and making sure it would work for the local African market.
    • Integrates with mobile money providers, card payments from the bank, and cash payments all captured in one place.
    • Keeps track of inventory that has been paid and gives data back to the owners in an easy to read dashboard so they can make better decisions.
    • Raspberry pi – premade hardware kit for simple programming.
  • One of the biggest challenges she faced was the long development cycle, having to send electronic boards to China, create a prototype, test, iterate, and send back again for testing. Each iteration can take over two months to get the next version back.
    • No printed circuit board (PCB) manufacturer exists in East Africa that can create such small PCB units.
    • Mary recently bought a 3D printer to shorten casing time.
  • Her struggles with sourcing good local talent so people can help create these PCBs. Since there is no industry in East Africa, there is not as much local talent nor expertise, and people are finding the tools online to teach themselves, so there is a lot of trial and error going on. Her advice is:
    • Get referrals from local universities
    • Recruit young people keen to learn
    • Accessing experts on LinkedIn, YouTube videos
  • How she is financing her business with this long development cycle. It is really difficult to get funding for hardware development, so they label themselves as a software company, since they create connected devices for software solutions.
  • How she creates partnerships in order to find hardware solutions and to iterate the product with them, then sell it onto other customers. Once you are able to do it with one company, then you find similar ones that also want the same solution.
  • Finally, you will learn about the new actionable playbook for invention-based entrepreneurs based on interviews and discussions with leaders in the field, delving into the challenges of bringing physical products into the market. The playbook prepared by Finding Impact will provide actionable content around issues such as workarounds, hiring teams, raising funds, creating minimum viable products and launch strategies, to help entrepreneurs on their invention journey. Click here to sign-up for the playbook.

Links to resources:

Connect with Mary:

FIP 109: Hardware entrepreneurs 1/3 – Creating tools for manufacturing in Africa, with William Maluki

This week on the Finding Impact Podcast, we are kicking off a new series on hardware entrepreneurs, this one with William Maluki of Gearbox about creating tools for manufacturing in Africa. This is the first episode in a 3-part series on invention-based entrepreneurs, supported by The Lemelson Foundation. The series aims to provide unique insights into some of the challenges and workarounds faced by entrepreneurs creating hardware products in emerging markets.

On this podcast, you will learn:

  • Why and how William invented a marvellous machine called KunjaBot that is an automatic pipe bender specifically designed for people in the Juakali (informal manufacturing) sector in Kenya. The KunjaBot provides the Juakali sector with access to mass manufacturing capabilities at affordable costs while improving quality and profit margins and allowing them to compete against imported products.
  • About the pay-as-you-bend (akin to a pay-as-you-go) business model of the KunjaBot that enables the Juakali to avoid expensive purchasing costs of manufacturing equipment and absolves them of the costs for operating and maintaining the equipment.
  • How William has dealt with barriers while building the KunjaBot such as customer demand, lack of awareness among the Juakali, business model changes, manufacturing challenges, commitment and lead times from suppliers and contractors, as well engineering and accounting skills to get his project off the ground, etc.
  • About the Gearbox initiative in Kenya and how it enables and provides incredible support to hardware entrepreneurs and inventors to design and build their products through capacity building, maker spaces and engineering and technology support.
  • Finally, you will learn about the new the actionable playbook for invention-based entrepreneurs based on interviews and discussions with leaders in the field, delving into the challenges of bringing physical products into the market. The playbook prepared by Finding Impact will provide actionable content around issues such as workarounds, hiring teams, raising funds, creating minimum viable products and launch strategies, to help entrepreneurs on their invention journey. Click here to sign-up for the playbook.

Links to Resources:

Connect with William:

Washikala on Finding Impact

FIP 108: Last mile distribution 3/3 – How to pivot from a cash-based to a PAYGO model, with Washikala of Altech

This is part three of a 3-part mini-series on last mile distribution. This series is a collaboration between the Finding Impact Podcast and the Global Distributors Collective (GDC). The GDC is a collective of last mile distributors around the world, with over 140 members in over 40 countries, who cumulatively have sold more than 8 million life-changing products to last mile households.

The GDC is dedicated to supporting and representing last mile distribution companies to help them reach underserved customers with life-changing products like solar lights, clean cookstoves, water filters and nutrition products. The purpose of the GDC is to make last mile distribution the first priority so that life-changing products can be made affordable and available to all.

This episode is with Washikala, Founder and CEO of Altech, who operate in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Altech is a distributor of solar lamps, working to enable off-grid households and institutions to have access to modern energy.

On this episode you’ll learn:

  • Washikala got started by focusing on cash sales in his own village, but found the upfront cost of the product too high for the target market;
  • They focused first on selling to schools and their teachers, and to health centres and their health workers, giving credit for two months, and the school administrator would be responsible for collecting cash. Insight here is to start with the most trustworthy groups in the community to build traction.
  • Next they opened it up to all households through a solar ambassador model, recruiting young people from the communities, to recruit households on credit, and collect money on a daily basis. This was essentially an early PAYG model without the technology. They encountered significant ‘leakage’ (cash disappearing), and it was a cumbersome process.
  • They heard about PAYG in early 2017, and an enabler called Angaza. Altech were selling d.light lanterns but back then, they had no PAYG solar lamp option. So they selected suppliers for a pilot and ordered a small batch of PAYG lanterns.
  • They started the pilot in Jan 2017 in two areas in the DRC, with 50 products, 10 sales agents/solar ambassadors, 5 products each. The Angaza app was managed in the office, and solar ambassadors had the app on smartphones.The payment collection process was end-to-end. i.e. No “leakage”.
  • Some initial problems included having to buy smart phones for solar ambassadors, but it later became part of the recruitment criteria; data is expensive; needed to connect the lamp to the smartphone using bluetooth, but initial equipment was faulty and didn’t connect so had to replace; there were regular internet shut downs, so when customers called they couldn’t go and activate lamps; sending money using mobile money was a challenge, as some agents had no liquidity so they couldn’t deposit money.
  • Previously, their office would send daily sales reports to sales manager, who checked collected money agrees with report and collects money from solar ambassador; then sales manager sent money to the Altech office via a local bank branch. It was a very cumbersome process but now they’re using mobile money.
  • There was a close collaboration between the tech guys and people in the field, so they could change inputting errors to eliminate differences in the app and cash collected. They setup Whatsapp groups so they could connect on issues immediately.
  • Angaza were very much involved in the training of their team, which included technical info and how to market the product to households.
  • Altech competes with international companies in the same space by having more local people on their team who know the market very well. Also they focus on distribution, not the design of new products. Solar technology is changing so fast, and it’s not easy for vertically integrated companies to change product tomorrow but Altech can switch suppliers very easily.

Links to resources:

Connect with guest:

FIP 107: Last mile distribution 2/3 – How to manage a merger of like-minded social enterprises, with Sita Adhikari and Alexie Seller of Pollinate Group

This is part two of a 3-part mini-series on last mile distribution. This series is a collaboration between the Finding Impact Podcast and the Global Distributors Collective (or the GDC). The GDC is a collective of last mile distributors around the world, with over 140 members in over 40 countries, who cumulatively have sold more than 8 million life-changing products to last mile households.

The GDC is dedicated to supporting and representing last mile distribution companies to help them reach underserved customers with life-changing products like solar lights, clean cookstoves, water filters and nutrition products. The purpose of the GDC is to make last mile distribution the first priority so that life-changing products can be made affordable and available to all.

This episode with Pollinate Energy in India and Empower Generation in Nepal is on how partnerships between distributors can leverage economies of scale and maximise impact.

On this episode you’ll learn:

  • Before the merger, Pollinate Energy was working primarily in urban areas serving families in slums with no access to electricity or other services. Empower Generation would work with women entrepreneurs in rural areas and train them to sell solar lanterns.
  • Empower could see huge potential for their model to reach all rural areas in Nepal, but needed funding and technology to help them scale, and partnership was a possible option for this. Likewise, Pollinate were looking for funding, but also recognised there were many new entrants to the last mile distribution sector who were competing for the same funding, which felt counter-productive.
  • An added challenge faced by Pollinate was the difficulty in growing their ‘pollinators’- the people who sold the products – due to the stigma of working in slums and engaging effectively with women as potential pollinators.
  • A group of four women-led organisations at the Miller Centre engaged and found out more about each other’s organisations, recognising there was an opportunity for greater collaboration. They all declared an interest in greater impact over preservation of their brand or unique knowledge.
  • They held regular phone calls, and shared a spreadsheet around to collect details on each others’ organisations, such as type of technology systems, extent of fundraising capacity, etc. They also sought board approval to continue with the exploration. An external facilitator was involved at this stage.
  • The process comprised of two parts, each with a decision point to move ahead: one to develop a joint business deck to figure out how the company would look in the future, and second to go deeper into due diligence and take site visits to each organisation. There was also the significance of have a strong gut feeling when visiting each others teams and offices, since many mergers fail because of an incompatible culture.
  • There were man fears faced by both parties, including whether the company cultures would fit, whether internal teams would get behind the merger. This included whether both boards would come together.
  • A sticking point was when the lawyers got involved, who wanted an MoU but which management didn’t, and how the board would merge with a clear path forward to good governance and compliance.
  • The whole merger process was split into 90 day phases. First there were legal and compliance issues to overcome, which were relatively simple and straightforward once a commitment to merge was made.
    Merging systems and finance between India and Nepal was the next issue to overcome, which they set themselves 90 days to do.
  • Then the next 90 days was focused on people and culture, where they took the opportunity to amplify Nepal’s training of women entrepreneurs, which Pollinate saw as valuable to India operations.
  • The final 90 day phase was spent in tying up loose ends.
  • They made the conscious decision to move the question of ‘which brand’ to the end, rather than let it hold things up – since it’s the most emotional aspect of a merger.
  • Pollinate Energy and Empower Generation is now Pollinate Group, and they re-named their Indian local brand. The Nepal arm retained their local brand.
  • Both feel the merger has breathed life into the organisations. For Sita, the merger has meant she can focus more on scaling the model across Nepal, with a stronger proposition for funding. For Alexi, the merger has forced them to open up to changes in their model, rather than focusing solely on the model they grew up with.
  • Alexi’s advice to others is for trust and authenticity to be key for the leaders going through the merger. Also, to run as fast as you can rather than getting paralysed over every decision.
  • Sita’s advice is to say your concerns up front, as it helps you come up with a solution. Also to engage with all of the team, to help you understand the company culture and how to proceed in the future.

Links to further resources:

Connect with guests:

Image of philip wilson for finding impact

FIP 106: Last mile distribution 1/3 – How to pivot a distribution model from door-to-door to retail, with Philip Wilson of EcoFiltro

This is part one of a 3-part mini-series on last mile distribution. This series is a collaboration between the Finding Impact Podcast and the Global Distributors Collective (GDC). The GDC is a collective of last mile distributors around the world, with over 140 members in over 40 countries, who cumulatively have sold more than 8 million life-changing products to last mile households.

The GDC is dedicated to supporting and representing last mile distribution companies to help them reach underserved customers with life-changing products like solar lights, clean cookstoves, water filters and nutrition products. The purpose of the GDC is to make last mile distribution the first priority so that life-changing products can be made affordable and available to all.

This episode with EcoFiltro, a distributor of water filters in Guatemala, focuses on how distributors can improve their sales efficiency by pivoting their distribution model.

On this episode you’ll learn:

  • EcoFiltro started with a micro-consignment model in which they’d give hundreds of community entrepreneurs across Guatemala five filters to sell in their community, and they’d earn 10% on each sale.
  • The model proved unsustainable due to the cost of pre-financing the filters which would often be paid back over two years, the cost of collecting the money from customers, and the low sales volumes achieved by community entrepreneurs.
  • They tried a number of different things to try and improve sales, such as training, offering incentives and encouraging referrals, but all their efforts only yielded a few extra filters sold per month.
  • They spent 18 months designing a new model, which involved speaking to retailers all across the country, and ultimately selected a few to be key distributors of the filter.
  • Retailers were happy to sell it because the filter had a strong brand, since it had been sold for a long time in big shops in urban areas and received good PR from a school donation programme.
  • Retailers were required to invest in 20 filters at a time for a $500 investment, so were motivated to recoup their investment.
  • The school donation programme, where filters were donated to local schools, was channelled through the local retailers, so they received the attention and drove customers to buy from them locally.
  • They now have around 100 local distributors and they’re targeting 270 by June 1st, 2019, which will be about 20-25 distributors per sales agent.
  • They’ve strengthened the brand by investing in their sales and marketing collateral, so all retailers are giving the same message to customers. This enables them to more easily measure sales of each distributor every month

Links to resources from this episode:

Connect with Philip:

Fhiwa Finding Impact

FIP 105: The view from inside an accelerator, with Fhiwa Ndou, formerly with MassChallenge

This week on the Finding Impact Podcast, we will be looking at the insider’s view of accelerators with Fhiwa Ndou, formerly of MassChallenge, well known venture accelerator in Boston, US. Fhiwa previously also helped setup the MassChallenge (MC) accelerator in London and is currently Growth Manager at Lambda School. This is episode #3 in the 4-part series about accelerators for early stage social enterprises. In this episode, we look at various aspects of choosing accelerators such as: the role of accelerator alumni network in attracting social enterprises, and non-profit versus the for-profit (equity-based) models.

On this podcast, you will learn:

  • About the MC accelerator and its ethos and non-profit business model. MC does not take any equity from its start-ups and rather focuses on community as one of the best levers for helping start-ups grow and succeed. MC accepts around 100-120 start-ups in every cohort across various industries that makes it very different from most start-up accelerators.
  • How MC selects and operates start-ups as franchise model in different regions and leverages the local business community while starting and operating a start-up accelerator at scale, through funding and other resources.
  • Examples of successful MC alum such as Flywire in Boston and Handy in UK, that went on to raise lots of funding for scaling and built successful businesses.
  • How the no-equity, non-profit model and wide alumni network of MC presents a very powerful proposition and is a big consideration for very early stage start-ups while choosing accelerators. MC also helps entrepreneurs unlock opportunities by helping them “ask for stuff” they need and providing support to access resources such credits for Amazon Web Services, other free tools, office space, introductions to experts such as patent lawyers, investors, etc.
  • Finally, Fhiwa shares his views on future models of accelerators, such as corporate style accelerators and other accelerator models that support entrepreneurs through their journey – from teaching entrepreneurs to code early on (coding schools) to teaching entrepreneurship and what it’s like to be an entrepreneur, through summer internships.

Links to Resources:

Connect with Fhiwa:

 

FIP 104: What I learnt from attending my first accelerator, with Nava Osembo of Enda

This week on the Finding Impact Podcast, we have part 2 of a new 3-part series about accelerators for early stage social enterprises. We are talking with Navalayo (Nava) Osembo-Ombati who is Co-founder and CEO of Enda Athletics, a Nairobi based running shoes manufacturer designing footwear to inspire customers to run like a Kenyan. Enda Athletics recently attended the SHONA accelerator program based in Kampala and just recently finished their second and final residential bootcamp. So we’re looking forward to digging into that with Nava.

On this podcast you will learn:

  • How Nava used her management consulting background in putting this business together even though her and the co-founder had no prior experience in making shoes.
  • Her initial impression of accelerators (she initially got a lot of feedback from entrepreneurs), and the guiding factor as to why she joined one, (primarily to get the skills).
  • Her selection process for selecting an accelerator: looking at the skill sets that they needed, which accelerator had the most positive feedback from entrepreneurs, and the cost (monetary and time).
    • Cost considerations: finders fees, and equity.
  • How she shortlisted accelerators: quality of mentors/expertise, and the cost (whether they were asking for equity and if so, how much).
  • Her experience participating in SHONA, which has a residential component: taking three weeks off / away from her company in order to participate was worth it and she came out having a birds eye view.
  • Nava’s top key things in order to get to an accelerator that is right for you: know yourself (as in what you want), really understand the costs, and read the contract! (especially if you can’t hire a lawyer).

Links to resources:

Connect with guest:

FIP 103: Do accelerators actually work? A look into the evidence, with Emily Eastman of GALI

This week on the Finding Impact Podcast, we are kicking off a new 3-part series about accelerators for early stage social enterprises. We are talking with Emily Eastman, Global Partnerships Manager at Global Accelerator Learning Initiative (GALI), who has been working on the leading edge of accelerators for social impact. In this episode, we look at the overall evidence on the effectiveness of accelerators in helping entrepreneurs grow early stage companies – what makes for a great accelerator, how entrepreneurs can choose the right accelerator and the pros and cons of accelerators.

On this podcast, you will learn:

  • How GALI was formed as a collaboration between the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE) and Emory University, to do research on the effectiveness or true impact of accelerators across the globe. GALI works with individual accelerators to track their specific programmatic impact as well as study the larger research questions on how accelerators are working and how can they be made better.
  • How accelerators help in the growth of start-up businesses by running programs for early stage ventures through a selection process and providing support in areas such as finance, marketing, raising investments, business model, etc.
  • GALI collects standardized baseline data on accelerator applicants and performs analysis on accelerator cohorts versus the un-selected applicants to figure out the progress of the each of these groups – do cohort ventures grow faster and quicker than their un-selected counterparts. GALI publishes insights and reports from such research periodically as well as the full anonymized data set from over 19000 applicants to accelerator programs across the world.
  • Why it’s important for social enterprises to choose accelerator programs aligned to their needs and goals, such as: business growth focus, or social impact focus such as creating jobs, or environmental impact, etc. Online tools such Conveners.org provide an accelerator selection tool for social enterprises to filter accelerator programs based on sector, geography, and focus areas.
  • GALI’s research points out that accelerators grow ventures much faster than their un-selected counterparts. The best accelerator programs have a perfect combination of 3 things – knowledge, networks, and capital and the greatest benefit that accelerators bring to ventures is their ability to challenge business models and help ventures fail or pivot faster.
  • A study conducted by GALI with Village Capital found out that high performing accelerator programs emphasized quality over quantity and had the following similar characteristics: smaller applicant pools, more targeted in recruitment, more practical and hands-on guidance than mere lectures, thus leading to stronger cohorts compared with the lower performing accelerator programs.
  • How accelerators such as Echoing Green have been able to recruit and build stronger cohorts because of a blind selection process, that removes biases in selection, such as gender, ethnicity, etc. Similarly, YGAP, a development accelerator based in Australia considers various aspects of gender biases across their applicant pools, mentor pools and actively looks out to recruit women across all program areas. Another example is that of SheEO that builds women-only cohorts as part of their accelerator programs.
  • Finally, accelerators themselves are constantly pivoting and changing their programs just like startups to address different focus areas or emerging markets, while providing pre- and post-acceleration services tailored to their markets. A healthy dose of competitiveness and collaboration is thus extremely important within accelerator programs to improve their overall effectiveness.

Links to Resources:

Connect with Emily: