Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship accelerates the success of high-potential social enterprises all over the world. We have worked with more than 900 social enterprises through our suite of accelerator programs. These enterprises have raised more than $940 million, and impacted 320 million lives. While each of the enterprises that make up the Global Social Benefit Institute (GSBI®) alumni are unique, many operate using similar business models, face common challenges, and employ common strategies for distribution, customer education, sales management and more.
With this in mind, Miller Center’s Replication Initiative works to understand the best practices of our most successful alumni and other pioneering enterprises in order to help early-stage enterprises grow more quickly. We created the Last Mile Distribution (LMD) Playbook, a comprehensive guide for distribution-focused enterprises, and designed a four-month program for the entrepreneurs. To create the LMD Playbook, the Replication team took Miller Center’s proven business model-centric curriculum and tailored the material to meet the needs and specific challenges faced by LMD enterprises. The LMD Playbook not only includes examples and advice from “Originators”— successful distribution-focused enterprises—it also incorporates several distribution-specific modules designed to help LMD enterprises recruit and train sales agents, manage inventory, and more. See Figure 1 for a full list of the LMD Playbook Modules.
Miller Center’s Replication Initiative has now successfully run two cohorts of the Last Mile Distribution Playbook program for a total of 20 early-stage distribution enterprises that sell a range of products from solar lanterns to water filters and agricultural inputs. After working with these entrepreneurs and testing the playbook concept for the first time, here are the five most important lessons we’ve learned:
1. Replication works
After the completion of the two cohorts, we sought to answer two core questions in our evaluation of the LMD Playbook and the program itself:
● Is the LMD Playbook program valuable for early-stage entrepreneurs?
● Are we achieving our goal of helping LMD enterprises launch and grow faster?
Through a series of phone and online surveys as well as analysis of the lives impacted, investment, and revenue data from the Originators, we found that the answer to both of these questions is a resounding yes. On a 10-point scale (10 being highly valuable and relevant) participants rated the program, on average, an 8.7. When giving feedback, participants frequently noted that they appreciated having the opportunity to learn from both the successes and failures of the Originators, followed by feedback and expert advice from their mentors.
Additionally, data collected from the participants and the Originators suggests that the LMD Playbook participants are, in fact, growing their social impact more quickly than the Originators did in their early years. Figure 2 compares the average “Total Lives Impacted” metrics of nine Originators to the Playbook participants, and shows the significant and enhanced growth of LMD participants. We also compared the Originator’s revenue and investment data to that of the LMD Playbook participants and discovered similar, positive results. However, this is data collected 1-8 months after program completion and we plan to keep monitoring the progress of the enterprises so that we can better understand how these early-stage enterprises continue to grow and develop, and what continued support they need to be successful.
2. There is no “one-size-fits-all” or “business-in-a-box” solution
The LMD Playbook program was designed to help entrepreneurs replicate the best practices of the Originators, but it has limitations. Even if LMD enterprises share several common traits with another, each will still face unique challenges that cannot be aided through replication guides. In fact, several of the entrepreneurs reported that some of the distribution-focused module content was too specific and could not be applied to their region and/or growth stage. For example, Module 7: Technology and Tech Requirements advises entrepreneurs to manage their business operations using software like Salesforce and QuickBooks. While these complex software packages may work very well for enterprises that have been operating for several years, three of the LMD Playbook participants reported that this module was not as valuable as others because the specific technology requirements suggested in the module are too sophisticated for their enterprises.
Feedback collected from the participants’ mentors also emphasized the importance of learning by doing, rather than learning by studying the LMD Playbook. For example, a new solar distribution enterprise in Kenya should understand the Originators’ business models and how successful enterprises segment determine their target markets, but the new entrepreneur should also be prepared to spend time in the field working with customers and defining their own unique target market. The LMD Playbook was designed to help entrepreneurs avoid some of the most common challenges associated with operating a distribution enterprise, but participants should still expect to make mistakes and learn from them.
3. The Playbook material was valuable for all enterprises, regardless of their growth stage
When recruiting participants for the first and second cohort, we tried to identify enterprises that we felt could derive the most value from the program. Based on the content of the playbook, we decided that enterprises in their pre-pilot, pilot, and immediately post-pilot growth stage were the best candidates. We analyzed the survey responses to determine how the experiences of the entrepreneurs varied depending on their growth stage.
We learned that all participants found the program to be valuable because it is focused on the specific needs and challenges of growing an LMD enterprise, but the enterprise’s growth stage dictated which modules the entrepreneur found most valuable. For example, entrepreneurs who have yet to launch their pilot found the first module, “Mission and Impact” to be especially helpful because it encouraged them to first clearly outline the problem they are trying to solve and how they are solving it. But, entrepreneurs who have already successfully completed a pilot found the modules on fundraising and modes of financing to be more helpful as they are looking to raise money to expand their operations.
Regardless of their growth stage, all of the entrepreneurs found the Financial Modeling module to be particularly useful. Several of the entrepreneurs reported that the financial modeling spreadsheet, also known as the “What-If Analysis” tool, was the most valuable aspect of the entire program, and several more plan to keep using this tool regularly. Participants also gave high marks to Module 4: Sales and Sales Agents as the module offered entrepreneurs advice on building and managing a network of sales agents, which is key to the success to any LMD enterprise.
4. Early-stage entrepreneurs working in the same sector value peer interaction and support
There was one key difference between the Cohort 1 program and that of Cohort 2: Webinars. After collecting feedback from Cohort 1, nearly all of the entrepreneurs suggested that future participants have the opportunity to communicate with each other during the program. In response to this feedback, we added a group collaboration component to the second cohort program. This collaboration occurred during scheduled webinars, a time when the entrepreneurs would all join on one call and review the most recent modules with each other and with the webinar facilitators (Miller Center staff).
The Cohort 2 entrepreneurs unanimously agreed that these webinars were one of the most valuable aspects of the LMD program. Several of the participants enjoyed the webinars because these meetings allowed the entrepreneurs to share vendor lists, grant opportunities, business advice and more with people working in the same sector. Participants also found intrinsic value in them, valuing the camaraderie of talking to like-minded entrepreneurs and knowing that they are not alone in the difficult challenge of growing an early-stage LMD enterprise. In this way, the webinars provided additional value to the participants by providing a space the entrepreneurs to support each other.
5. Focusing on a specific sector allows us to leverage the knowledge and expertise of partners
The LMD Playbook program would not have been possible without the assistance of expert partners. While Miller Center has worked closely with social entrepreneurs for more than 20 years, the creation of new sector-specific content required additional knowledge and resources. Therefore, Miller Center looked for partners with experience working in distribution who could add value to the content of the LMD Playbook, support recruitment efforts, and provide additional resources to the participants during the program.
The Replication initiative was fortunate to find and work with several organizations such as D-Prize and Global Distributors Collective (at Practical Action UK) , that share a similar mission and dedication to working in this sector; D-Prize provides grant funding to distribution enterprises and the GDC offers “support, information, and expertise” to last mile distributors. To create the LMD Playbook and run two successful cohorts, Miller Center worked closely with both D-Prize and GDC before and during the program. By focusing on distribution, the formation of the LMD Playbook created this opportunity to bring together like-minded partners who could offer their expertise. This collaboration with both organizations also created additional value to the participating entrepreneurs as D-Prize and the GDC provided distribution-specific support and resources to the participants.
With the success of the first playbook behind us, Miller Center’s Replication Initiative looks forward to creating more sector-specific playbooks for early-stage entrepreneurs. In a few months, we plan to launch both a new playbook and an accompanying program designed for Microgrid enterprises. Like the LMD Program, this new program offers participants the opportunity to learn more about operating a microgrid enterprise through a series of modules and the support of a trusted Miller Center mentor.
As we create new playbooks, we will keep helping LMD enterprises by incorporating the LMD Playbook content into Miller Center’s GSBI Accelerator program as an affinity group. For more information about applying to GSBI and the new affinity groups, click here. Applications are due November 2.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lauren Oliver started working with Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship as a Global Social Benefit Fellow in 2017. For her fellowship, she worked with the Teach a Man to Fish Organization in Uganda researching social value products. Lauren is a Santa Clara University graduate who completed her Bachelor's Degree in Civil Engineering with a focus in Water Resources in June 2018 and plans to continue working in the social impact sector, ideally for an organization focused on improving access to clean water.
Banner photo courtesy of Empower Generation.