Applications Open for Innovation Accelerator's 5th Cohort

We are now accepting applications for nonprofits interested in Innovation Accelerator’s 5th cohort. There will be rolling admissions until the cohort is filled.

Classes begin in April. If you know a nonprofit making developing new sources of revenue a top priority, please feel free to invite them to apply. A limited number of grants to defray some or all of the tuition are available.

For those that don’t know us:

Innovation Accelerator helps nonprofits build a culture of innovation to increase their financial sustainability and impact. So far this year our alumni raised over $500,000 in funding for the pilot projects they put through the Accelerator. We accomplish all of this by teaching organizations to apply the scientific method to innovation so they can rapidly: come up with new ideas, break them into testable hypothesis, and then go out to gather conclusive evidence. Along the way veteran business & nonprofit leaders from a diverse range of sectors mentor the students.

Learn more at

Announcing Innovation Accelerator's 4th Cohort

We are delighted to announce that these fantastic social-mission ventures are a part of Innovation Accelerator’s 4th cohort:

The Dilemma Facing Local Nonprofit Leaders

Talk to leaders of nonprofits up and down the Valley, and you hear common themes. Every year the cost to run their organizations go up but the total amount of funding available is stagnant or shrinking. Their top talent is burning out from years of long hours, low pay, few advancement opportunities, and a work environment that is often stagnant and unchanging. It is easy to understand why so many great people leave the sector for jobs at for-profits.

Doing the same things they've done for years (or decades) isn't working anymore.

Organizations that innovate will create the largest impact in the world, attract the best people (who will love their jobs), and secure the most funding. Innovation is not strictly the domain of for-profits. Our own region has given birth to nonprofits that have national and international impact, the PJ Library, Valley Venture Mentors, and Viability to name just a few!

These orgs, at first glance, look similar to many other organizations in our region. The difference is in no small part to their commitment to blast past the status quo, to expect unreasonable things, and to work their tails off to figure out how to completely do things differently. Innovation is not rocket science. Nonprofit leaders already know how to work hard, they just need to work hard on the right things.

About Innovation Accelerator

We help nonprofits build a culture of innovation to increase their impact and financial sustainability. The Accelerator teaches organizations to apply the scientific method to innovation so they can rapidly and cheaply: come up with new ideas, break them into testable hypothesis, and then go out to gather conclusive evidence. Along the way veteran business & nonprofit leaders from a diverse range of sectors mentor the students.  

14 Funders Praise, and Critique, Newest Innovation Accelerator Graduates

We talk to thousands of nonprofits every year and very, very few are able innovate the way you have over the past six months.
— Graduation judge

Last week 14 executives from foundations, granting organizations, angel investor groups, venture funds, and loan funds judged the final presentations of Innovation Accelerator’s third cohort. They were joined by dozens of local business people who came to cheer on the graduates. The event was the capstone to a six-month intensive training for five teams of innovators from local nonprofits. Their objective: devise, assess, and pitch new programs that leverage their organizations’ assets to create substantial new sources of mission-aligned (and unrestricted!) revenue.

The results:

  • Every team had credible evidence supporting their ideas, each one capable of generating from $1 million to $10 million a year in unrestricted revenue.

  • Students’ confidence in their ability to come up with new ideas and assess them nearly doubled.

  • Students’ ability to identify all of the stakeholders for a project, their incentives, how they can help (or hurt) a project, distinguish between symptoms and root causes, etc… nearly tripled.

What you have described has the potential to be an exciting business. But getting it funded from foundations will be tricky. If, however, you continue to gather evidence as you have, several of my fellow angel investor friends and I would be very interested in funding it. We could earn a return and feel good doing it. Win win!
— Judge
When we started this class, one of our teammates was so shy she turned red in the face if you so much as called on her to answer a question during class. At the end she was rocking the room with her presentations.
— A graduates' manager
The pace of improvement you have shown in this class is like nothing I see in the nonprofit world. Incredible!
— Judge
This class has already impacted our culture for the better. Now when someone proposes an idea, instead of arguing, the team lays out how to test the idea by talking to potential customers / stakeholders. And then they go make the calls! I’ve wanted this for years, and now it is happening.
— A graduate's manager

Our Judges came from a wide range of experiences:

From foundations:

From for-profit investment funds, groups:

Individual investors & domain experts:

I wasn’t even a presenter and I took six pages of notes based on what I learned from the judges!
— Attendee

The five graduating teams:

  1. Connector (from Human Services Forum) - connecting the best local training providers to the region’s human service organizations.

  2. YesAbility (from Riverside Industries) - importing cutting edge pedagogy from mainstream education to help the intellectually disabled prepare for & stay in the workforce.

  3. Digital Skills Workforce Solutions (from TechFoundry) - helping medium-sized employers upskill their workforce’s digital skills.

  4. Corporate Inclusion Solutions (from Viability) - training disabled men and women to become superior team members for national employers.

  5. Move to Work (from Viability) - helping nonprofits that serve the developmentally disabled to place more of their disabled clients into meaningful careers.

Our team cannot fully express our appreciation for the feedback and support from the mentors. Each mentor I’ve met has his or her own unique approach to business and has given us so much to consider as we learn and grow.
— Graduate

Record attendance at last night's IdeaJam


A record number of people attended last night’s IdeaJam, our event that helps nonprofit leaders come up with, and prioritize, new ways to create sources of unrestricted revenue. Attendees came from Viability, CEP Holyoke, and the FCCDC. Attendees generated dozens of new ideas, were provided introductions to people that can help them, and some teams were told “If you can do that, WE would hire you tomorrow.” How is that for immediate feedback and impact? :)

Some of these teams will enroll in our Customer Discovery training, where they will put their top idea to the test and discover if there is potential to create something that can increase their revenue by at least 10%… and all of it in the form of unrestricted funds :).

A special thanks to TechSpring for hosting us last night!


Invitation to Graduation Shark Tank for Innovation Accelerator

On 9/26, from 4-7pm, foundation executives, philanthropists, and angel investors will hear pitches from the graduating Innovation Accelerator teams and provide feedback. Alumni of the first two cohorts received $500k in pledged funding for their projects! 

If you would enjoy attending as an observer we would be delighted to have you there as our guest. See for yourself the impact of our training on nonprofits :). 

Free Refreshments! Free parking 2 blocks away at the Casino's garage! Convenient, but not-free parking is available in the Tower Square garage.

Your role: view graduation presentations, experience what the Innovation Accelerator is really like :). 

A special thanks to our event partners: Bulkley Richardson & Human Service Forum!

Foundation Executives Praising Newest Graduates of Innovation Accelerator

"How did you go this far in such a short time?"

"I see a lot of presentations. Few are as engaging and informative as these. I want to know more. I want to be involved."

"This pedagogy forces you to share your mistakes with outsiders. Few have the courage to do so. But precisely because you chose to be vulnerable in that way, I have learned so much and want to help."

These are just a few of the comments made by executives from national foundations to the students at the graduation of Innovation Accelerator's Winter cohort.

The Innovation Accelerator is designed to help nonprofits make the most of their limited resources, turning minimal funding into maximum impact (which in turn secures more funding). By applying tried and true principles of entrepreneurship, even the meagerest budget can make big waves in the local or even national community.

This graduation was a special one - all the graduating teams came from Solidago, a national foundation located in Northampton, that works to build movements that promote justice, equity, and sustainability. Elizabeth Barajas-Román, Solidago’s CEO, engaged with Innovation Accelerator to bring entrepreneurial systems and best-practices to the program team, and ensure the delivery of effective, impactful, and needed program delivery to the field of philanthropy.  The Innovation Accelerator teaches communication skills, tests assumptions, and builds a a base of outside validation and support, allowing the foundation to attract greater partnership with other funders to invest alongside Solidago, lending much greater weight to the name and the awesome organization behind it.

If this sounds like a good time to you, you will be happy to know that we are recruiting our Fall 2018 cohort now!

learn more | contact us

Watching Nonprofit Innovators Adapt at Speed

In the nearly six months this cohort has been together, I have watched the classroom evolve. Students are becoming teachers, they give feedback to each other that is much deeper than, “the images you chose for your presentation are great!” They are diving into each business identifying pain points. They listen intently, provide encouragement, and in some cases, help fellow students pivot their ideas completely.

A recent example of a pivot comes from one student group that arrived with an idea they believed to be in line with their goal of creating sustainability for their organization. However, after presenting to the class several times, gathering customer data (to verify and confirm their idea), and truly taking to heart feedback from other students and guest mentors, they realized the idea was not going to work.

This was a critical point. Most people do the wrong thing. But… Instead of continuing with the bad idea in the hopes a miracle would come, instead of hiding the bad news from their executive director, they had the courage to burn the whole idea to the ground and start fresh! And we literally applauded them for it!

They involved leadership, mixed up their team, and brought a completely new business idea to the course. Within 2 sessions they had evidence that this idea has promise and potential for growth.

The class tells you if your idea is bad faster and cheaper than any other way people have tried. Then you need the courage to redirect your resources to the ideas that can make a difference.

Our hats off to these great innovators. We can’t wait to see how they do graduation :).

If this sounds like it could help your organization, learn more about our next accelerator class here.

A Touching Testimonial

One of our alumni kindly sent in this testimonial...

Ideas are the currency of progress and good ideas have the potential to change the world. Coming from government and being new to philanthropy, at first, I was deeply skeptical of applying startup methodologies for social change. However, innovation is built on ideas, feedback, moments of failure and breakthroughs. Through lean, Paul turned a skeptic into a believer. Halfway through the course, I discovered my project needed to pivot quickly. Paul helped me identify the gaps in my analysis, refine my pitch, and create a project that inspires and improves communities.
— Pierre Joseph, Program Director, Solidago Foundation

My thanks to Pierre for his kind words. 

You can read more testimonials here.

Spring Cohort's Second Shark Tank!

Few things sharpen an innovator's mind as much as the prospect of standing in front of funders and having to pitch & answer questions.

Of course, it is also terrifying! 

That is why Shark Tanks - events where students present to panels of potential funers - are a central part of my curriculum. By presenting to potential funders who are (almost) always #LovinglyCritical, the innovators gain:

  1. Confidence - If you survive a Shark Tank it does wonders for your morale and ability to present in front of funders (and other audiences) in the future.
  2. Knowledge - Sharks will gladly tell students "This is what you need to do for me to fund you" - it is like cheating, but in a good way :). Along the way Sharks pass on other advice & ideas my students find invaluable.
  3. Connections - Sharks know a lot of people who can help innovators and gladly make introductions that would have taken months or years for the students to secure on their own.

Our July 23rd Shark Tank followed a new format borrowed from Valley Venture Mentor's Screening Parties. This format change allowed each innovation team an hour of direct, intense, supportive feedback from 10 Sharks! My thanks to Ethan Ferris for recommending the format change. And my thanks to the awesome Sharks who donated their time to help our innovators!

The Sharks were...

From foundations:

From for-profit investment funds, groups:

Wicked Smaht People :)

If you are interested in seeing if these kinds of events could help your nonprofit, please contact us to learn more.

KISS Canvas 9. Cost Structure

[This is a part of a series on the KISS Canvas] What are the major cost centers of your business? When do you have to pay? Do you have any options to pay differently? What costs can kill you? All of this is covered in the Cost Structure section of the KISS Canvas.

Here is each sub-lesson:

  1. Intro
  2. Capital costs
  3. Fixed  & Variable costs
  4. Example: a family
  5. Summary

Check out more KISS Canvas Content.

Entrepreneurs give me hope when I need it most

When I talk about politics I am filled with sadness and a sense of near powerlessness to make the world a better place. But when I talk to entrepreneurs, I am filled with hope. Where most of us see problems, they imagine solutions... and solutions that scale.

Here are just some of the companies blowing me away, all local/VVM companies making the world a better place!

  • Immigration
    • - Providing fulfilling careers and a first rung on the economic ladder for refugees here and in war torn nations.
  • Health
    • - Helping diabetics understand and adapt to their condition through superior, painless blood-glucose testing.
    • - Freaking (my words, not theirs) killing tumors with genetically engineered bacteria. No it isn't science fiction!
    • - These traveling nurses make help the elderly stay on their feet and independent.
    • - Smoking cessation
  • Education
  • Inclusion
  • Environment
    • - Trees that grow much faster. Good for tree farmers. Great for the environment because trees are really good at sucking carbon dioxide out of the air!

I could go on for hours.

These people give me hope. That's why I love helping them. They are creating a brighter future.

Sermon over. :)

Calling Bold Nonprofit Leaders

If you...

  • Lead a nonprofit and...
  • See the funding landscape shifting under you and...
  • Know that insanity is defined as doing the same things over and over again but expecting different results...

Then I'd like to invite you to participate in the next Innovation Accelerator. In partnership with local foundations and donors dedicated to increasing nonprofit sustainability, we train nonprofit leaders to develop sources of unrestricted, recurring, and sustainable revenue. Leaders develop new revenue-generating ideas, build business models, gather evidence proving their assumptions, are guided by funders along the way, and at graduation pitch to a panel of funders who want to fund pilot initiatives.

Join us for part 1 of the Accelerator, the IdeaJam. In just a half-day you develop a catalog of your organization's super powers (AKA assets, skills, and connections) and their potential for unrestricted revenue. Sign up soon with the discount code "early77" and save 20%.

You can learn more about the Innovation Accelerator here.

What if you don't have an idea?

All innovation starts with The Idea. But what if you don't have an idea to start with? Or what if you have only an idea or two and are unsure if you have the right idea? Let's help you generate some of the right ideas :).

Step 1: Set the stage

  1. Put your mission on top of a whiteboard or spreadsheet. Please do the one-sentence version :).
  2. List out your assets. Some examples:
    1. Any spaces (classrooms, laboratories, dormitories, etc) that lie unused some of the time.
    2. The time that key employees have on their hands (due to working part-time, summers off, etc).
    3. Know-how your team has developed (excellent systems, processes, curriculum, etc.) to solve your own problems.
    4. Relationships with other people, organizations, government agencies, etc.
  3. List out any loud signals the market has given you lately, for instance:
    1. Long lines of people waiting to purchase/use something you, or someone similar, are currently offering.
    2. People signing up (or asking) for an offering that you haven't even marketed yet!

It should look something like this...

IdeaJam-Part 1-Set the stage-mission assets market

Step 2: Set the criteria

Identify the top five-ish criteria you want to score your ideas on. Jump to a new whiteboard and make some columns. Column 1 is "the idea". The other columns are the criteria. The first few criteria should be the three items we've already discussed: mission alignment, have-the-assets (AKA assets are ready-to-go), and evidence of market demand. Next, you'll need a few additional criteria relevant to your specific needs. Some examples being: easy-to-do, short-term-revenue, long-term-revenue, profitability, meets-strategic-priority-X, etc. Last, add a TOTAL column to the right.

Next, decide if any (1-3) of the criteria should be weighted more heavily. Mark them with a star.

It should look something like this...

IdeaJam-Part 2-Criteria

Step 3: Ideate

Gather some smart mentors with a diverse range of experience, both inside and outside your organization. Walk them through your notes on your mission, assets, proof of market demand, and then your criteria.

Next, have a free-ranging discussion walking through your various assets & market demand evidence to come up with new business ideas. Give each idea its own row.

IdeaJam-Part 3-Ideate

Part 4: Score

Give each person 10 sticky dots (votes) and instruct them to distribute the dots along column 2 (Mission Alignment). You'll notice some ideas score much higher than others.


Repeat for each of the remaining columns.

When you get to the TOTAL column, add up all the dots for an idea. If a column has a star, count those dots double.


Step 5:  Review

Look at the scores. If you have it in a spreadsheet, sort it. You'll most likely find a clear rank-ordering and one or two winners.

And now you have a long list of ideas, a rough sorting, and a clear methodology as to WHY :).


If you would like to go through a process like this with fantastic mentors, an experienced facilitator, and have a blast doing it, sign up for one of the Lean Innovation Institute's upcoming IdeaJams.

Hat tip to the great Stephen Brand, who taught me how to do this much better!


Time to revisit royalty financing?

Royalty financing is a relatively new concept that offers an alternative to regular debt financing (loans and trade credit) and equity financing (venture capital and stock sales). In a royalty financing arrangement, a business receives a specific amount of money from an investor or group of investors. The money might be put toward launching a new product or expanding the company's marketing efforts. In exchange, the investor receives a percentage of the company's future revenues over a certain period of time, up to a specific amount. -Source: Inc Magazine article

Some other interesting aspects of Royalty Financing - It doesn't require the sale of the company. This means:

  • Entrepreneurs retain control
  • Investors start generating returns without needing a sale
  • The company is more likely to stay in the region it was born in (vs being merged & moved to the acquiring entity)

This flavor of capital is less risky than equity, but riskier than debt. As such, it may be an attractive option for angel groups outside of major tech hubs (such as my own) to explore.  In fact, we're now actively looking to try out a few royalty deals. Stay tuned to see what we learn :)

Validating sales, marketing, and customer service hypotheses

When my students are working their way through a Lean Startup/Launchpad-style curriculum, the most important thing is to conduct great interviews. New folks smartly lean on a number of interview script templates (here are the ones my students use) to help them avoid many first-timer mistakes! However, the scripts I ran into tended to focus on customer pain & product validation - which is critical. However, I had a hard time finding scripts to help my students validate hypotheses around sales, marketing, and customer service (AKA Get/Keep/Grow in Lean Launchpad language). So my fellow mentor Rick Plaut and I put this Get/Keep/Grow script together. Please feel free to share, use, and/or suggest improvements.

Introduction to the KISS Canvas

[This is part of a series on the KISS Canvas] The KISS (Keep It Super Simple) Canvas (inspired by Alex Osterwalder's Business Model Canvas) is a 1-page (or 4x3 foot poster) to help you quickly document (and then test) the key hypothesis behind your business model.

If you like to read, keep scrolling. For video lovers, click below!

OK, let's dive in. It looks like this...

KISS Canvas-Easy2Read

The KISS canvas tells a story in the way entrepreneurs should pitch, with the most important elements first (on the left).

  • The Customer - Who do you serve?
    • Segments - Who are all the groups of people you will serve? Buyers, users, referrers, etc.
    • Pains - What problems do they have? Which are most important?
  • Value Proposition - What do you offer?
    • Features - How will you solve your customers problems?
    • Benefits - What promises are you making to your customers?
    • Competitive Advantages - Who are your competitors and how are you better at solving your customers' Pains?
  • Marketing & Sales - What kind of relationships will you have with customers?
    • Get - How will you find and acquire customers?
    • Keep - How will you prove you kept your promises?
    • Grow - What new promises might you make?
  • Financial -
    • Value Model - What value do customers provide you in return for your product?
    • Cost Structure -  What are the costs associated with running your venture?
  • Beard of Learning - When you disprove a hypothesis, move it to the bottom. If you're using sticky notes they will eventually form chains and completely cover the bottom of your canvas. It kind of looks like your canvas grew a beard. Each sticky in that beard represents a hypothesis the student thought was true... and found out it was not! Thus the name my students gave it, the "Beard of Learning" :).

This Canvas is by no means a complete map but I have found it is the foundation of everything else that is to follow. To get a better feel...

Check out more KISS Canvas Content.

Nonprofit Innovation Accelerator 2.0

Innovation concept. Lightbulb in modern polygonal style with light effect After running the Nonprofit Accelerator for just under a year now I've learned a few important things about my customers. They had the pains I thought they did, but they had other pains that were really important also, such as:

  • I don't have any ideas to put into your accelerator OR...
  • I don't know which of my ideas I should pursue OR....
  • Six months is a long time commitment for key team members when I don't even know if the idea can work and yet...
  • At the end of the six months there is still a lot of polishing to do...

Meanwhile, I had greatly underappreciated just how much the nonprofits valued the sharks & mentors.

So, today I am proud to announce version 2.0 of the Nonprofit Accelerator that takes into account what my customers have taught me.  First of all, it splits the accelerator into parts:

Part 1: IdeaJam (1 half-day session)

Feeling light on innovative ideas? IdeaJam provides you a list of your organization's super powers (AKA assets, skills, and connections) and their potential for unrestricted revenue.

Part 2: HitMaker (2 full-day sessions)

Unsure which of your ideas to enroll in the Accelerator? Hitmaker gives you a rank ordering of all your ideas based on their potential and risks.

Part 3: Customer Discovery (Every other week for 4 months)

Before committing the significant resources to turn your idea into a full-fledged program you need to know there plenty of people ready to pay for the thing you wish to sell! The Customer Discovery training provides the tools, mentoring, and introductions you need to secure the evidence.

Part 4: Funder-Ready (Every other week for 4 months)

People want what you have to offer, but how do you cost effectively make your offering and find your customers? Who do you need to add to your team? How will you fund it?

Pilot Design students graduate with a fleshed out business model, a plan for their pilot, and get to pitch to a panel of funders who, if impressed, will provide you seed funding to launch.


The next IdeaJam is coming up in July, so if you know any nonprofits that are making the creation of unrestricted revenue a priority, please feel free to share the updated website: Thanks!

HatTip to Birton Cowdan for the great name for the IdeaJam events!


Why Creating a Business Plan Is a ‘Waste of Time’

When I started exploring entrepreneurship in college, I was exposed to the education paradigm - write a business plan. I was a good student. I wrote 9 business plans in 9 months for my first startup. It turns out, that was not the best way to spend my time. Yes, planning is essential. But it needs to be done in the right proportions. Less at the start. More as you mature.

Professor Carl Schramm recently wrote a carefully researched book called 'Burn the Business Plan.', listen / read to an interview about the book's highlights here.

Hat tip to Jim Geissman.