The following blog post was written by Sara Johnson, Village Capital Program Associate.
Two weeks ago, I was extended a generous offer to experience the Unreasonable Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Unreasonable provides a world-class incubator environment with a twist – the entrepreneurs in each cohort spend their 6 week-long program together living under the same roof. This allows for each budding business to go through re-vamps and game-changing ideas at three o’clock in the morning, or over a meal. Fascinated by the concept, I reveled in the experience. On Saturday, ReWork and Unreasonable co-sponsored the Unreasonable Scrimmage, an annual event where community members self-select into teams around entrepreneurs to whom they thought they could add the most value.
But this concept – value add – was one that I struggled with the entire 72 hours I was at the Unreasonable Institute. The term, although self-explanatory, was one I had never come in to contact with in the liberal arts world. However unfamiliar I was with the concept, I remained overly concerned that I would fail to be a “value add” of any sort. Note that this was not an issue of inadequacy and self-importance, but more a questioning of, “what tangible assets can I offer, when compared with experienced investors and consultants?”
On Friday night, I kept my distance and embodied the shy wallflower. But on Saturday morning, I was thrown head first into the Unreasonable Scrimmage, and placed in a room of 100+ community members and the Unreasonable entrepreneurs. Following my interests, I gravitated toward an entrepreneur who operates out of Cameroon and brings fair market prices of crops directly to the mobile phones of rural farmers each day via SMS.
As a prompt, the entire group at the Scrimmage was able to listen to a short lecture by Tom Chi, Experience Lead at Google X, as he pushed everyone in the room to engage in “rapid prototyping,” even if their team wasn’t focusing on a tangible product. So, naturally, some teams built detailed prototypes, complete with chopsticks, paperclips, and pipe cleaners. I will admit, I was a little jealous of the creative energy that surrounded the colorful and physical models. But our group, focusing on a software for the venture, AMISCameroon, took an entirely different approach – we rapidly prototyped ourselves into an entirely new revenue stream for the venture, steering away from the entrepreneur’s original idea of a subscription fee to the farmers, and transitioned into a model primarily dependent on advertising, while taking into account transitions that would likely occur as the business plan evolved.
By the end of the Scrimmage, I couldn’t have been more thankful that I jumped in. The entrepreneurs had 90 seconds to explain the rapid prototyping that their group had accomplished over the three hours of working sessions. Listening to the venture-changing ideas that evolved throughout the day, whether it was an alteration to an original business plan, a revenue stream, or even to the basic product itself, was incredible. And, at the close of the day, I sought out as many of the Unreasonable entrepreneurs as I could find, and decided to ask what they really got out of the day, and if the inexperienced input they received from people like myself proved even remotely useful. The collective response goes something like this:
“People like you and the community members provided some of the greatest value to these exercises. Having a fresh pair of eyes and ears – those of potential consumers – to contribute to the creative process is more beneficial sometimes than having an experienced investor help you re-work your business model and go through your financial projections.”
So, being a “value add” as a newbie no longer intimidates me. To the other newbies out there, I hope this proves to be heartening news about entering the impact investing space. Jump right in, irrespective of your academic or professional background, learn what you can from those who are far wiser and more experienced, and know that your inexperience can prove invaluable in the most surprising situations.