Why We’re Launching Catalyst

August 7, 2015

When we designed our fellowship back in the spring of 2014, we knew that it would only be the first step in a much longer journey for the teams who wanted to turn their ideas into sustainable, scalable ventures.

Over the last few months, we’ve asked ourselves what we could do to better support promising teams – whether fellowship alumni or otherwise – in the later stages of their development. And because of our belief that great products (including programs) start from an understanding of what users need, we went out and asked a lot of other people too.

After a couple dozen conversations with entrepreneurs, accelerators, foundations, and investors, here are three things we learned:

1) While timelines, staffing models, and funding sources varied widely, most successful ventures pass through the same four stages

Discovery – The founders identify user needs and pain points, collect feedback on their ideas, and use prototypes to validate their product.

Beta testing – Next, they build a fully functional version of the product and put it in the hands of actual users. They starting to refine and prove out their impact and business models and lay the groundwork for building an organization.

Build out – The core team continues to refine the product, starts to set up distribution channels, and brings on key staff. Many teams kick this stage off by participating in some sort of acceleration program and raising a seed round.

Scale – Teams have a proven intervention and sustainable business model and are now focused on expanding their impact through growth, replication, or partnership.

2) Some of these stages are better resourced that others today.

When we mapped existing programs and resources against these four stages, we observed two major gaps (see graphic). 

Social venture funding ecosystem

The first is around beta testing. While there are a number of programs focused on discovery (our fellowship among them), the next large concentration of support doesn’t kick in until the build out stage. As a result, many teams lose momentum during this period, working on their ideas only part-time or spending a significant portion of their bandwidth chasing down small checks.

The second (sometimes described the “mezzanine” gap) is late in the build out stage where organizations that are too far along for seed funding but not yet ready for scale can end up stuck with limited financing options. We heard this is particularly problematic for non-profits, though not exclusively so.

3) The things teams need help with during the beta testing stage are things we’re well positioned to provide

Outside of financial pressure, the major challenges during the second stage include connecting to folks who’d be willing to beta test the product, recruiting great talent – particularly for technical roles – and figuring out how to set up a new venture.

It’s also the stage where teams make choices about their culture, legal structure, and funding model that meaningfully shape their social impact for years to come.

We suspect that teams’ trajectories might change if they could tap into the Labs’ community ties and technical networks and leverage Robin Hood’s broad experience in pilot design, organization building, and outcomes-measurement.

And so we’re giving Catalyst a try. Like everything we do, it’s an experiment – but we’re really looking forward to seeing what the teams can accomplish and sharing what we learn back with you.

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