Pillar Accelerator - Day 1

I recently participated in a two-day accelerator put on by the Pillar Nonprofit Network social enterprise team at Innovation Works. It was an amazing couple of days. It was a unique opportunity to connect with several businesses — some new, some with history, and some not quite yet launched — and to explore what it meant to have social purpose as a core to your journey.

I’ve broken the recap into two parts: Day 1 and Day 2. The following is Day 1 recap:

Since starting rTraction, we’ve always had a community lens and a strong corporate social responsibility program - but we have only recently looked inwards to see how we can use our assets, skills and people to focus on making a positive impact in our community versus a separate program or values set. The businesses at the accelerator will start with their social purpose firmly entrenched.

The day was split into two parts: One focusing on your personal vision and the second applying that to the Flourishing Business Canvas.

The personal vision exercise was interesting and resulted in one of my strongest ‘aha!’ moments from the exercise. Here’s my personal vision from the day:

The lack of access and equity equality in our world drives the suffering of millions, if not billions. Humanity is in a unique place in history where the rapid adoption of technology could reduce inequity by disrupting of traditional value structures. I am committed to ensuring that the world is better off for having me in it by improving the lives of those around me. As an entrepreneur, I am in a unique position to use my energy and resources to help organizations adopt technology to improve the way our communities function, and that is what I will do. As a husband and father, I will also commit time and energy into my family relationships to provide my children both roots and wings to succeed in the world. I accept my need to have recognition and influence, and will seek to gain that by doing the activities that make a difference in these ways.

The participants in the accelerator were then asked to use their personal vision and apply it to their business on the Flourishing Business Canvas. As an established business, rTraction has created a corporate mission and vision as a team vs. the personal vision of one of its founders. I realized that my personal vision will likely stay fairly consistent through my life but that my corporation’s will change and be different than mine. I think, as CEO, it’s important that my personal vision and corporate vision are aligned, but I also acknowledge that an established company has multiple stakeholders that pull it into new territories. Shareholders, yes, but also employees, vendors, the community and customers start to craft a new shared narrative that creates a new storyline that may be different from the initial one you envisioned. In particular, service agencies, which tend to be driven by repeat business and referrals, become strongly influenced by the customers they serve as they develop expertise in particular industries or solutions.

And this is a good thing.

The CEO or visionary of the corporation is accountable for holding the vision of the corporation, but if that person holds too tightly to that vision without collecting input from customers, front line staff, and their community, they may find themselves on an island without a relevant product or service to sell. Having a strong vision to solve a problem in the world doesn’t matter if nobody is willing to buy it, or if there’s not a team that’s willing to breathe life into it to see it become successful.

One mistaken assumption that is often made around the B Corporation movement, or other social purpose business models like Conscious Capitalism, is that there is altruism or a sacrifice of profit or achievement in exchange for the organization’s impact. The misconception is one that I think that we will start to see reduced as more social purpose businesses start to make their impact on society while filling the expectations of ‘traditional’ business success.

The Flourishing Business Canvas forces a new or existing business to think through all the aspects of their business, good and bad. Our facilitators at Pillar also made sure that these organizations were reflecting on what it would take for them, personally, to earn while running the corporation and to focus on having a healthy bottom line in addition to their social impact.

If you’d like to learn more about the Canvas, this video does a good job summarizing it:

One of my fellow accelerator participants also did this video to explain the practical day-to-day use of the canvas. It’s instructional and entertaining as you watch Greg from Fr8 Living use the Canvas to test his assumptions (which is actually a critical part of using the Canvas).

Our first day ended with creating the assumptions for our business’ models. We were then asked to rate our assumptions on a scale of 1 to 10 along two metrics: how confident we were in those assumptions, and how risky those assumptions were to the business looking ahead. Logically the higher the risk and the least certain the assumptions, the more important it was to prioritize testing them in our model. One of the nice things about having an operating business and using this model is that I was fairly confident in the risks associated with making quite a few of the assumptions. The exercise still brought up some assumptions I didn’t realize I was making; more importantly, none of the assumptions were a 10 out of 10 in confidence, meaning that we’re still at risk and have work to do.

To close the day, accelerator participants were instructed to test their assumptions, and were given tools to be able to do that. Here are some assumptions that I came up with in day one (with my relevant confidence score in brackets):

  1. Focusing on meaningful work increases staff engagement (8/10)
  2. Companies/Organizations are feeling stressed by the pace of technology change (8/10)
  3. Technology can improve the ability to increase an organization's community impact (8/10)
  4. rTraction can keep up with the pace of technological change (6/10)
  5. "Technology" is broad enough term to capture the whole value of the work that we do (4/10)
  6. Finding more socially innovative clients is "doable" (7/10)
  7. Potential customers will be attracted to and resonate our clearly stated mission, vision and values (7/10)
  8. Our target market engages on social media (related to an activity to increase social media engagement) (7/10)

One of the lowest assumption on the list “Our team can keep on top of technology trends” is an acknowledgement that technology is advancing faster than ever and we’re a small team with limited resources. It was particularly eye opening, as I realized if I am worried about that as a technology company, there are likely substantial concerns about technology among leaders in other (less technical) businesses, nonprofits or charities.

If you’re interested in learning more about either this model or the journey into social purpose business you can check out Pillar’s social enterprise programming or reach out to me at david.billson@rtraction.com, musings on twitter at @dbillson, or my personal blog that I’m re-igniting… I love talking about this stuff.

David Billson