Bellwether has a strong track record of identifying gaps in the education sector and supporting entrepreneurs and start-up organizations to address them. Co-Founder and Managing Partner Mary Wells shares advice for education entrepreneurs and the one thing every start-up needs. Interview edited for length and clarity.
What do start-ups need most to get their footing?
There are two primary things any entrepreneur needs when starting a new organization:
1) You need a business plan. It’s not just a key document; it’s also an important exercise for any entrepreneur to go through. It makes the case for an organization by articulating why it should exist, identifying the need it will address, how other organizations are not filling the gap — and it 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 entrepreneurs, 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.
2) Entrepreneurs need support. They need trusted partners who can help them think about how to structure their business — especially their back-office functions — so they can focus on launching their programs. At Bellwether, 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. We have really flexible and strong financial systems, and 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.
Our founding team — most of whom are still here — built the operational structure of Bellwether from the ground up, so we also have people who know what it’s like to go from having a nonprofit of zero to 60 employees, and all the financial, legal, operational, and governance decisions that go into that. So we can act as advisers as entrepreneurs are setting up.
How does Bellwether approach this work?
Most incubators offer advice and support, but don’t necessarily go into a rigorous business-planning process with an organization. Bellwether tends to be more hands-on and high-touch in our approach. This fits in with our mission: We’re all about doing what it takes to help organizations be more effective in their work for underserved students. That includes seeing a gap in the field where there is no organization and helping it get off the ground, or lending a hand to an entrepreneur who comes to us with an idea.
Bellwether can be a productive partner to people who bring a strong sense of their mission and programmatic work. We can help them translate their vision into activities, staff, resources, and financial models. It’s a lot of work, and we can take on all the research and analysis, and support the process, so that the entrepreneur in residence can just focus on the key decisions and shape the thinking of the plan in those crucial early stages.
Another asset we bring is the ability to help entrepreneurs build an appreciation for the fact that program and finances are deeply intertwined. For me, they’re two sides of the same coin. 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. The numbers are just a different manifestation of the work that they’re doing. 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 also recognize that every client and every situation is different, so we adapt and are flexible to the circumstances of the work. And, like so many of the entrepreneurs we support, we’re all still learning! Being open to absorbing new information and course correcting is a key part of what makes some start-ups more successful than others.
What are some examples of start-up support work you’ve done?
We offer a range of support to organizations at different stages in the life cycle, from those that are just getting off the ground to organizations we’ve launched with funders to ones that are more well-established.
One organization that’s up-and-coming is Beloved Community. Led by entrepreneur Rhonda Broussard, Beloved Community’s mission is to create sustainable paths to diverse schools and diverse communities to build regional economic growth. The organization works toward this mission through economic development, policy advocacy, and capacity building.
We started working with Rhonda in an informal advisory capacity. This involved monthly phone calls, reviewing business documents, connecting her with a couple of funders and colleagues, and acting as a fiscal agent for early grants. (For those organizations that are filing to become a nonprofit but do not yet have their nonprofit legal status, an existing 501(c)(3) nonprofit such as Bellwether can act as the grant recipient and enable the use of those funds in the way an entrepreneur sees fit.)
Betsy Arons 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 it was driving some innovative HR reforms. Betsy left the district and was consulting with multiple urban districts around how to restructure human resources departments, 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. It could be standardized because there were a lot of shared issues across her client group. They could also receive customized one-on-one support from institute staff. She’d be able to codify a lot of what she’d learned and was passing on from client to client, and scale that support.
We worked with Betsy to build out her founding business plan. We surveyed who else was doing work like this and 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 we did because you don’t want to be in a situation where you’re entirely dependent on funders forever. Now the Urban Schools Human Capital Academy is a thriving organization.
What are some of the biggest lessons Bellwether has learned through this work?
Two of the biggest lessons we’ve learned in working with entrepreneurs are these:
1) 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 the medium term, and then ruthlessly use those medium-term goals to prioritize initiatives you’re going to take on first. It can seem like there are 10 different things entrepreneurs could run after when starting an organization, and the ones who are most successful figure out two to three high-impact things, and they chase those hard.
2) If you have the opportunity to dive in and do the work that you’re planning to do, even if it’s on a small scale or it’s not perfectly organized according to your vision, 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. We did that at Bellwether, where my co-founder Monisha Lozier and I were working on the business plan while we were conducting executive searches and working on strategic plans, and that was so useful in helping us understand what Bellwether was going to be. 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.”
What’s your advice to an entrepreneur who is thinking of launching an education start-up?
The most successful entrepreneurs have this really 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 or other people don’t see that need. 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 listen to the many people with whom they’re speaking, and 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.
"Bellwether has the capacity to support our high-level strategy/thought partnership and granular operations needs. When you’re a team of one, it’s immensely helpful to work with a group that has such comprehensive capacity. If you’re looking for thoughtful listeners who both help and challenge you to advance your work, you’ll appreciate what Bellwether offers."
"Bellwether's estimates for how our work would evolve and grow were spot-on. For launching a brand-new endeavor, they were extremely accurate in predicting costs. They had more understanding of the education world in which we were launching our new nonprofit. Most consulting firms only have expertise in the business world."