One of Education Pioneers’ long-standing partner organizations is Bellwether Education Partners. Bellwether, a nonprofit that helps education organizations become more effective in their work with underserved students, also supports entrepreneurs who see gaps in the field and have ideas on how to address them. Bellwether offers entrepreneurs hands-on, high-touch support to help them translate their vision into activities, staff, resources, and financial models.
In this post, Bellwether Co-Founder and Managing Partner Mary Wells shares must-read advice for education entrepreneurs getting started. Interview edited for clarity and length.
1 | What's your advice to an entrepreneur who is thinking of launching an ed start-up?
The most successful entrepreneurs have a unique combination of attributes. They are entirely dogged about their idea and their vision for what the world needs to be a better place. They're not willing to let that go, even when they get turned down for funding a couple times.
But they have to combine that doggedness with a willingness to listen. And I think that is where the most successful entrepreneurs I know sit: They have both. They allow their idea to be a living thing that evolves as they have conversation after conversation with smart people who are also dedicated to their success and the success of underserved kids.
You have to have the dedication, but if you don't have the flexibility, you're not as likely to come out with a successful organization.
2 | What do entrepreneurs need most to get their footing?
There are two primary things any entrepreneur needs when starting a new organization.
- You need a business plan.
It’s not just a key document, it’s also an important exercise for any entrepreneur to go through. Your plan makes the case for why an organization should exist, identifies the need it will address, and shows how other organizations are not filling the gap. It also lays out the vision, mission, and logic model for how the new organization will address that need.
The business plan goes from the very broad -- unmet need, mission -- to granular pieces around what staffing will be required over what time period, and ultimately how much money should be raised to get things off the ground.
The exercise of building a business plan is clarifying for an entrepreneur, and that clarity helps keep them focused. Funders also often feel better about their investment with evidence that an entrepreneur is focused and has thought through key issues.
- Entrepreneurs need support.
They need trusted partners who can help them think about how to structure their business -- especially their back office functions -- so that they can focus on launching their programs.
At Bellwether, we help entrepreneurs build an appreciation for the fact that program and finances are deeply intertwined. That doesn't mean someone we’re working with will suddenly put on green eyeshades and love accounting, but we can build capacity around budgets and finance. If they can be more efficient with their resources, they'll be able to drive more to the parts of the work that really matter.
We often put entrepreneurs in residence on our payroll so they don't have to worry about a paycheck, and they can rely on our benefits package. We can even help them hire their first team members and put them on our payroll, too. Entrepreneurs in residence can access our bookkeeper and financial systems and get high-quality support so they have a well thought out budget, they know where their money's going and how much they have left.
3 | What are some of the biggest lessons Bellwether has learned in supporting entrepreneurs?
Two of the biggest lessons we’ve learned in working with entrepreneurs are this:
- Getting clear on what you want to accomplish.
There are always more priorities in a brand-new organization than you can possibly achieve. So it's really important to get clear on specifically what you want to accomplish in the long-term, map that back to medium-term, and then ruthlessly use those medium-term goals to prioritize initiatives you're going to take on first.
- Getting experience and feedback.
It's so important to get feedback and experience from the market around what you want to do and what your beneficiaries want you to do. Being open to absorbing new information and course correcting is a key part of what makes some start-ups more successful than others.
There's so much to be learned by early work that I would encourage folks to dive in and get going when given the opportunity, even if it means they're doing that in tandem with developing a business plan and fundraising. You’ll be rudderless if you do the work at the expense of long-term strategic planning, but you really learn so much in “doing” that powerfully informs the “planning.”
4 | What are some examples of start-up support work you’ve done?
Bellwether offers a range of support to organizations at different stages in the lifecycle, from those that are just getting off the ground, to organizations we’ve launched with funders, to ones that are more well-established.
One entrepreneur is Betsy Arons, who had a thriving independent consulting business when we started working together. What she really needed was a partner on the business planning end of the equation. She had come out of New York City School District, and was a very seasoned human capital and human resources executive within the district at a time when they were driving some innovative human resources (HR) reforms. Betsy left the district and was consulting with multiple urban districts around how to restructure human resources depts, how to shift from a very transactional point of view on HR to more of a strategic view of HR and human capital. She was looking for a way that she could essentially scale herself and her expertise.
So she came to Bellwether with the idea of an institute that would allow district HR personnel to come together through a structured multi-year learning approach. We worked with Betsy to build out her founding business plan. We surveyed who else was doing work like this, what the human capital needs of districts were, and we collaborated to get down on paper what the program would look like. We then helped her think about what it would take to build the institute: what staff, consulting support, and resources would be required, and how would that evolve over time.
Bellwether helped her identify high priority potential district partners who could be founding clients, and helped her think about the business model. We worked out what she could expect to charge districts and how that would impact the need for fundraising going forward. That work around the business model helped set her up for financial sustainability three to five years down the road. That was probably the most important thing that we did, since you don't want to be in a situation where you're entirely dependent on funders forever. Now the Urban Schools Human Capital Academy (USHCA) is a thriving organization.
[Note: Education Pioneers partners with USHCA to offer the Emerging Human Capital Leadership Initiative. Learn more here.]