The Big Pivot.

by jennifermshoop

At Moneythink, we are working to develop a technology that will supplement and enhance our face-to-face mentorship program.  But we have a hunch (based on early success with a prototype, the incredible thoughtfulness and intelligence of our partners, and — likely — our own chutzpah) that this technology may fundamentally change the way we operate.  It may flip the curriculum, or lead us to modify its orientation or its delivery.  It may change the mentorship model in a meaningful way, and lead us to want even smaller mentor: mentee ratios (or, conversely, it may mean that the technology makes a larger ratio possible).  It may generate new sources of earned income.  It may unveil new and previously unthought-of partnerships and collaborations.  These are all programmatic and financial changes that we’ve been thinking through and around.  But what does it mean for us as an organization?  How can we remain nimble enough to accommodate this big pivot?

I use that word carefully, as I’ve just been digesting an incredible article that Steve Blank wrote about pivots that the so-called “Unicorn Club” (i.e., U.S.-based tech companies established in the last ten years that are currently valued at $1B or more) have made in their journey to the very top.   So my question is: how do we prepare ourselves for what could represent a huge pivot that will likely impact almost all of the nine different “business model” components he’s identified?  What organizational preparations need to be made?  How do we accommodate when we are a lean, mean, 3-person team?

For context: I used to work for a non-profit focused on increasing access to education through free, open, online courseware.  (We began to build this program well before the year of the MOOC — in fact, three years before — so we didn’t know the hailstorm we were about to fly into.  But that’s a story for another day.)  The main learning I want to focus on here is the role that technology played in the non-profit structure there, because it’s led me to think very critically about how we approach this tech pivot at Moneythink.  At my previous employer, we were using technology to achieve our mission of “driving the cost of education down to zero.”  But the org structure was not set up to accommodate or reflect our tech-heavy approach — we outsourced all development and were frankly impeded substantially because of this arrangement.  It would take weeks to implement modest front-end changes — not to mention larger scale hopes to change platforms and add new features, much-wanted plans that became increasingly pressing and stress-inducing given the rapidity with which our peers out in Silicon Valley were moving.  We also lacked a CTO or the equivalent — meaning that smart, well-intentioned staffers with no experience in technology were making key tech decisions based on the best of their research abilities and their seniority in the organization.  How could we possibly have kept up with our peers at Udacity and Coursera, staffed as they were with dozens of engineers working full-time to improve the UX and overall learning experience?  When pressed as to why we weren’t able to keep up with the Joneses, the best explanation I could muster was: “We are an education non-profit using technology to achieve a goal; these guys are uber-financed tech companies selling an educational experience.”

I say this lovingly and without severity because I believe that this scenario is consistent with that of many non-profits, which tend to be heavy on programmatic depth, knowledge, and rigor, but understandably light on tech and business savvy.  This is largely because non-profits are staffed by incredibly sharp, dedicated, heart-in-the-right-place experts in a given field — not business generalists and certainly not technologists.  In my lit studies, we liberally used and abused the phrase “othering,” especially in post-colonial and feminist analyses of various works.  That’s sort of the framing I’d use here: even the best, sharpest of program folks tend to “other” (FYI: using “other” as a verb here — classic lit nerd move) tech efforts, rendering them appendages to their offerings rather than a core organ.  (Kind of gross analogy there — apologies.)

But I don’t think this needs to be the case, and I think there are ways to thoughtfully pivot into a new type of non-profit org structure with tech at its core rather than its periphery (and from all angles — from a mission standpoint, an organizational structure standpoint, a resource standpoint, etc.)  This is why Ted and I have been talking more recently about how to prepare for success and accommodate a more intensive move into the tech space, thinking critically about our staffing needs and overall org structure, our resource allocations, and our impact measurement framework.  We want to make room for technology to become a core Moneythink offering, and to snugly situate ourselves around that offering however we can.  Looking forward to sharing what we learn along the way…