The last year for team UpSkill has been an exciting one, both for reaching that inflexion point of scale where a start-up starts to have the good problem of expanding their team to being applauded for our work in countries across oceans. That this last year has also been the one where UpSkill was a part of Upaya’s 2017 accelerator and eventually was announced an investee isn’t a mere coincidence.
In mid- March of 2017 when I first got in touch with the Upaya team and learnt about their 6 month accelerator I was very apprehensive. My single largest concern was to take time off from work for three days in a row every two months besides all the documentary requirements. At that point we were not actively looking for funding support. In my head, it was an activity that was time consuming, all-exhausting and therefore best procrastinated as much as possible. We were comfortably bootstrapped and were still ruminating on our scaling plans after being 3.5 years into operations and with a successful proof of concept. Multiple conversations with the Upaya team and feedback from their earlier investees helped me see value in the process and the one thing that struck me most was that, everyone that I spoke with was sincerely dedicated to the cause of creating successful enterprises that could generate large scale social impact. As commonplace as that sounds, I learnt later, during one of the mentoring sessions- It is more important for an entrepreneur to choose the right investor than it for the investor to select an investee.
How did the accelerator help me as an entrepreneur?
While I co-founded and run a for-profit venture I don’t have a business background by training (the same case for 90% of the cohort members). I often found myself on the back-foot when discussing business jargon with clients and associates. The accelerator gave me a crash course in business processes, sales & marketing, human resource management, finance, accounting, fund raising and Excel!! The concise yet effective sessions with industry experts in each of those areas have made me a more confident executive.
As entrepreneurs perpetually hustling and fire-fighting, we often get siloed in our day’s work. The time off from work during the residential workshops helped me gain a fresh perspective on our business model. It was also very useful to get critical feedback from industry experts and even more importantly from other cohort members. I got several opportunities to pitch to different audiences and fine tune our positioning and narrative. Due to the broader perspective and finer critical analysis of the business we have better visibility of our scaling -up plan.
This time-away had another benefit- it was a forced stress-test for the Upskill team. It helped us all discover our strengths and tap into our potential better.
One of the obvious benefits of being part of any focused learning program is the expansion of the network. Upaya was able to rope in industry experts and impact investors from diverse backgrounds to not only help us refine our pitches and business models but also in many cases form strategic alliances. Besides the external advisors and dedicated mentors, what I find of life- time value is the cohort itself. I now have a personal “advisory board” of like -minded individuals who understand the business well and can provide unbiased advice on everything from HR issues to vendor feedback.
How did the accelerator help UpSkill as a business?
The team is what makes the company, even more so when you are a small team and each individual’s growth is critical to organizational growth. The mentorship received from the workshops and the final victory was a testament of the hard work and thus a huge motivational factor for our small team.
Upskill was even more fortunate to receive a lot of visibility ahead of Upaya’s 2018 gala in Seattle. While I got an opportunity to share our story with a large esteemed audience as their keynote speaker, the publicity back home brought us a lot of eyeballs and credibility. We can now see this being a direct benefit to the business.
Like most other learning opportunities this one offers a lot but it is also what you can make out of it. It is a time commitment, no doubt, it is a diversion from your core business, no doubt but if it can lead you to your stage of growth and move the needle on your impact it’s all worth it.
Like me, most early stage or even mid stage entrepreneurs need more than capital infusion. They need the community of like -minded individuals and institutions that can provide the mentorship, the hand-holding and can lead to the growth spurt and far reaching impact outcomes which is what we all passionately strive for.