Cheryl Heller

NextThought Monday: Wisdom From on High

Our PopTech Social Innovation Fellows Boot Camp takes place on top a mountain, and the symbolism is not lost on any of us. It’s an intense five days of shared ascent for fellows and faculty alike. Just before we left for Camden – the conference and the world outside our by now close group – our senior fellows hold an informal Q&A session, offering practical wisdom to our incoming class of fellows.

In total, it’s an elite group of the most exciting social innovators in the world – those who have already made global impact offering their wisdom and expertise to those who very likely will.

Erik Hersman co-founder of Ushihidi and iHub, and Ken Banks, founder of and FrontlineSMS, come each year, joining the the new class to mentor them, help them make the most of us, stay up into the night rehearsing presentations and drinking a little pumpkin ale. Volumes could be written about what these innovators have engendered, so do your homework if you don’t already know. Gustav Praekelt was there as well, partner with PopTech on Project M and founder of one of the most dynamic mobile technology companies in Africa.

The goal of this conversation is to give the new entrepreneurs the benefit of what Ken, Gustav and Erik have learned on the way to impact. This on their minds that day:

Your board is part of your strategy. This can play out many ways, from holding off establishing one until you absolutely have to, to choosing a board that will bring (and be willing to contribute) the breadth and quality of skills that you can’t afford to hire. Don’t assume that the right board in the beginning will be the right board five years later. And whatever you do, make sure you establish term limits so that your board can evolve with you.

When you fall on your face, make the most of it. Erik talked about a time when Ushihidi launched what they thought would be a winner but turned out to be a dud. Instead of hiding from it, they blogged about it, garnered more supporters and grew from it in the process. Deal with contention. Deal with failure.

Open source is open source. When you make your platform available to anyone, people are going to do weird, stupid and possibly dangerous things with it, in addition to all the amazing things you hope they will. As for what responsibility you should or can assume, the advice was to “Work according to your values but don’t impose them on others.” You can’t control what other people do, and the benefits far outweigh the dangers.

Adoration has its price. At a certain point in your journey, there are so many opportunities for speaking, writing and fellowships that it becomes distracting. It can take precious time away from your mission. If you can, choose a person within your organization to handle external communication. And learn to say no. According to Ken Banks, “Don’t let anyone – no matter how big an “expert” they are – throw you off your game. Grow at your own pace.”

When bad things get said about good people. There will inevitably be snipers who want to bring you down, criticize your model, cast doubt on the things you care about deeply. The more you succeed, the more likely it will twist up someone else’s underwear. Most of the time the best response is silence. Usually it will blow over and you can take the high road. Give yourself time to develop a considered response, which might be to ignore the attack completely and publish a white paper that reinforces your position.

Hiring is not a science. Hiring the wrong person is extremely costly, diversionary and potentially disastrous. Advice on this front ranged from hiring on pure instinct to looking for the people who aren’t stars yet but will be, look for intelligence and people who can “get shit done”, or look for people who have hobbies that “they’re awesome at.” One new fellow only hires interns who show up at the door, since interviewing people via Skype or email isn’t satisfactory. Challenge your assumptions about who you think you need – don’t necessarily look for people who do what you do. It’s possible that an accountant or phenomenal office manager or someone who isn’t a techie in the mold of you will be the catalyst to growth.

Money matters just like mission. Don’t try to get volunteers to debug software. Volunteers may be excited enough about creating the next new thing to work for free, but the same doesn’t apply to the drudgework of making the already invented things perfect. You have to pay for that.

When pay scales are different from country to country, people understand that income goes up or down depending on where they are working. Transparency is key and the only sustainable policy.

For loyal, valuable team members, the lack of stock options or some kind of ownership becomes a real detriment to long-term relationships. There is a new model non-profit in the UK (and now US) where you can offer stock options, called CIC (Community Interest Companies).

That’s what great minds were thinking about at the top of the mountain around 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 18, on the coast of Maine just north of Camden.

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innovation, social enterprise