Today, many entrepreneurs are swinging for the metaphorical fences, applying innovation practices and market-based approaches to critical social issues — often at the intersection of the private, public and social sectors. These startups and growth-stage social enterprises are uniquely positioned to make waves in their respective industries, as their impact-driven innovations can signal and support their peers looking to think and act differently in the midst of change.
These ventures often find themselves ready to scale their impact but requiring the support and expertise of mentors who can help navigate the way. This was the case for our team at Real World Scholars.
By our fifth birthday, we found ourselves in a sticky situation. Since launching our core platform, EdCorps — which supports real-world entrepreneurship in everyday classrooms — we’d seen widespread success with classrooms building student-run businesses, with partners around the country and a growing waitlist of teachers who we couldn’t support at our current output.
We knew it was time to grow but didn’t have the time or resources to make it happen. Despite being what some might call “a good problem to have,” a problem is still a problem.
For us, a solution that worked was joining an accelerator that provided tailored support and mission alignment, while prioritizing our value with a strategic emphasis on how we serve students, educators and schools. It was an effective way to ensure our operations, strategy and model were sound and primed for scaling. As a result, we’ve discovered new things about our workflow, allowing us to reorient our approach, messaging and team toward growth.
If your company is focused on impact, here are some important guiding principles to consider when preparing for an impact accelerator.
Have a high-functioning, durable model.
Good ideas need high-functioning models to support them. You will need to take a hard look at the work and determine which vital signs are most important. This will require you to reflect on your core priorities and programming and how attractive your model is to relevant funders. After examining your model and return on investment, be prepared to ax offerings that don’t move you closer to your overall impact goals.
For our team, this meant eliminating elements of our programmatic support that didn’t contribute to our overall goals and steering away from outcomes that were dependent on ad hoc projects that weren’t replicable.
Serve a specific population with a specific objective.
You can’t be everything to everyone — and you shouldn’t try. While an open mind toward customer discovery can be helpful in the early stages, you will need to identify and design for specific stakeholders in order to craft a model and a message that engages them.
When we started, we spent 18 months in research and development, looking for entry points into the world of K-12 education. We spoke with educators, school leaders, district administration and after-school program managers to learn how student entrepreneurship could support their goals. Once we launched, we worked to meet the needs of each and tailored the approach to different environments and use cases. And while adoption was exciting, once we determined that the experience was best tailored to a classroom (versus a community program or school club), we were able to focus our time and energy on recruiting our core user: classroom teachers. Focusing our model on everyday classrooms has allowed us to reorient our approach and support more students with less overhead.
Build an engine that gets you where you want to go.
Scaling your impact usually requires more fuel (i.e., funding) but always requires a well-built engine (i.e., an operational model that allows you to leverage your resources and infrastructure for greater impact). Consider elements such as finance, legal support and production and how those components can be optimized or adjusted to support your scaling efforts. Be willing to ask hard questions, such as how expanding into new communities will affect your ability to deliver the same results.
For us, supporting a new model for student-run business meant handling the financial management, providing support resources for teachers and helping students connect their products or services to customers. Until recently, this support was provided by someone on our team. Through our work with the accelerator, we began reimagining the engine behind the EdCorps program to break ground on new technology that would absorb more support needs and expand our capacity.
Invest in your community.
If you’re looking to join an accelerator, you probably have scaling challenges that require creative solutions. Whatever they are, there is a good chance that insights can be found in the people around you — be it your customers, beneficiaries or partners. Building with and alongside your people doesn’t just improve your chances of creating valuable impact; it provides critical learning that will cost you otherwise.
We’ve relied on the educators we support and social media platforms to cultivate conversations about their needs. Including them in the iterative process has allowed us to start addressing real-time needs and opportunities that our community values most.
As social entrepreneurs, you know it’s important to do your research and connect with the most promising opportunities. For us, that meant finding a partner with a mission-aligned team to help to provide critical connections between traditional systems and new technology, financial models and forward-leaning leaders. Most importantly, we learned that it’s vital to find a partner that aligns with your purpose and vision so that you can go further faster and together.