The MCN is happy to open-source our process in the hopes that our 20+ years of experience may be of help to someone who is starting or growing a social enterprise-focused incubator or accelerator. If you are running such a program and wish to compare notes and best practices with our executive director, please schedule a time to talk with Mr. Fisk at calendly.com/ian-fisk. Each cohort may be slightly different based on which partners are involved.
Identify Potential Applicants
- Engage existing network of mentors and alumni
- Collect stories about our alumni. Send them to the reviewers as examples of the impact we are having together.
- Engage existing newsletter list
- Engage existing partnerships
- For active reviewers (past three years) – send email approx. 6-8 weeks out with general request to read.
- Reach out through LinkedIn to people not in database.
- If working with a partner who has specific requirements around geography or industry, identify new outreach sources as appropriate.
- If seeking to expand outreach methods, identify entrepreneurs and funders who are likely to recommend appropriate peers.
Acceptance Process: Moving from “Applied” to “Considering” or “No”)
- “Intent to Participate” Form captures general interest. Email folks who filled out this form 6-8 weeks out from application deadline. Non-current example of this form: https://wjf.wufoo.com/forms/zhgk88z0w0d8f1/
- Decide to interview based on these factors:
- Is there an inherent social / environmental factor in business model?
- Are there members of the MCN community that can support this business?
- Does the business model seem feasible?
- (if appropriate) is the applicant relevant to funding partners?
- Reasons to reject a company at this stage:
- Non Profit (For-Profits owned by non-profits OK, but there must be a for-profit component in the mix.)
- No social/environmental mission or social / environmental mission is purely charitable donations, and not integrated into how the business is run.
- Business model likely uninteresting to MCN volunteers
Scheduling Interviews: Moving from “Applied” to “Considering”
- Schedule interviews with MCN team. Allow for open scheduling if we have capacity. Interviews are 30-45 minutes. Interview questions include:
- Company – Biz. Model: What do you make or provide? Who pays you for this? How do you find your customers?
- Company – Social Value: How will your company make the world a better place to live, and how will you know when you have succeeded?
- Entrepreneur: What areas of the company are you engaged in? How have you worked with mentors in the past?
- MCN Process: Do you understand our process as described?
- Once we have a sense of companies we are considering (companies that will / have been interviewed, larger list than acceptances) use reviewer preference form to just community interest. Non-current example of preference form: https://wjf.wufoo.com/forms/m1jley781og1l7s/
- Instruct applicants to send a business plan to email@example.com. Create folder in that account with options for “Application” and “Application/Yes” “Application/Maybe” “Application/No” – In this case “Yes” means we considered them, and they should be tracked in the “Past Applicants” database.
Moving from “Considering” to “Yes” or “No, but Track”
The above process should have narrowed down the applicant list to companies worth considering. All of these companies are to be tracked, although only some of them will be accepted into the current cohort. A company that we accept should have:
- Sufficient documentation for us to give feedback on.
- Entrepreneurs who appear open to such feedback (based on interview or recommendation from someone the MCN trusts)
- Companies that are at an inflection point where mentorship will have appreciable value.
- Integrated mission – that is, their social/environmental mission is part of their business process. We’re looking for companies that will inspire other companies to follow their lead. Charity doesn’t do that as effectively.
- Diversity of industry in cohort (e.g. too many companies of the same type won’t let us engage enough reviewers)
- Diversity of region in cohort (unless a financial sponsor gives us a specific focus, look for individuals who operate in regions where they do not have easy access to the mentors we can provide.)
- Diversity of entrepreneurial leadership in cohort. Our only specific commitment is that 50% of acceptance invitations go to companies that are led or co-led by women. Because the MCN is global, race/ethnic diversity goals are usually easily met.
- Do we have reviewers who can assist this company? (e.g. some countries we aren’t as good with, some industries don’t work as well for us)
- Other considerations include if a sponsor or trusted senior advisor has asked us to consider the company.
Some companies are such a clear fit that they are offered early acceptance. Other companies are told of acceptance on the publicized acceptance date, usually because we are waiting to see if we have enough diversity of region or industry.
Review of Submitted Business Plans
Accepted companies are asked to submit business plans or similar documents. We very specifically do not provide a template, as providing feedback on a document written for us is not as useful as feedback on a document written for the internal audience. We prefer business plans to pitch decks for the same reason – a pitch deck is written to an outside audience, and feedback would be specific to that audience. Whereas an operational document like a business plan, and the assumptions it makes, are where a mentor can get the best sense of a company.
We review the business plan to make sure it covers the areas which are covered in our review form. These are Product/Service, Customers/Market, Financials, Risk, & Team. A non-current example is here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSet2UFF2IrrJ_OsFl0BbJRwq_Sz85fhHGZbq3mwqKEtrrCp2g/viewform?pli=1
If the submitted documents do not address one of our areas at all, an attempt is made to get the entrepreneur to update their documents.
The MCN community consists of a set of volunteers that serve two overlapping roles. Many of our volunteers serve as “reviewers” on a regular basis. “Mentors” are reviewers who have offered to become mentors, and whom the entrepreneurs have accepted that offer.
For each cohort, we recruit approximately 80 reviewers per 10 companies in the cohort. Each reviewer returns an average of 2 reviews per company per cohort. To reach our goal of 12 returned reviews per company, we try to recruit 8 reviewers per company, to allow for individuals who are unable to complete their reviews. (Volunteers who apologize or explain missing reviews are invited back. Those who don’t, unless they have a long history with us, are not.)
Reviewers are matched with specific companies in the following ways
- Reviewer to Company (finding the people with the right skills and relevant experience)
- Company to reviewer (building the right team of people who will notice different things)
Reviewer-to-company looks at:
- Expressed preference (via the reviewer preference form, listed above) – no reviewer will receive a company they have asked not to review. Most reviewers receive companies that they marked “Love to review” (5 of 5) or “Happy to Review” (4 of 5). Several frequent reviews just let us assign, since we know them well via how they marked the “Mentor Fit” tag in the review form for previous reviews.
- The basic checkboxes that everyone does – industry experience, regional expertise, in-country experience, etc.
- Parallel challenges – these are challenges that an entrepreneur and a reviewer/mentor (who is also often an entrepreneur themselves) have faced. We do our best to identify individuals who are addressing similar challenges but not competing for the same customers.
Company-to-reviewer looks at:
- Diversity of perspective and business focus. Business focus are the traditional categories of marketing, financial, risk assessment, etc. Perspective is how an individual is used to addressing challenges – for example, if someone has an MD, it matters if they are a field medic, a researcher, a GP, or a public health administrator because they are all using the same training in different ways.
- Diversity of questions and interests. We track both things noticed on previous reviews and questions asked in the clarification calls to see if individuals are focused on market, product, finances, etc. That way we can (hopefully) prevent having six people on a call who will all ask the same questions.
Accepted entrepreneurs are asked to schedule 2 (or more) clarification calls within a five-week window, starting one week after the business plans are distributed to the reviewers. It is recommended that the calls differ in time or week and time of day, since the calls are essentially the same, and only duplicated to allow more individuals to attend a call. Reviewers are only expected to attend one of the calls, and transcripts are provided for those who cannot attend either.
The clarification calls are scheduled for 60 minutes, have the following structure:
- Introductions of reviewers on the call, as well as observers. Depending on the number of people on the call, they are either told to take 30-60 seconds, or if the number of people on the call is small, they can take longer. They are asked to focus on experiences in their background that make them relevant to the company being discussed.
- Introduction of entrepreneur(s). They are asked to talk about themselves “as a human” for 60 seconds, about the basics of the business for 2 minutes (this is more strongly emphasized for earlier calls), and then about a challenge their company is facing. That challenge serves as a jumping off point for the conversation but does not need to be the focus of the entire call.
- Entrepreneurs are strongly advised not to list their challenge as “how do I raise funds” but to keep it focused on a business model issue. Before questions start, reviewers are strongly advised to ask clarifying questions that will help them give better feedback, and to keep any direct advice or suggestions to the end of the call. The moderator also emphasizes that many folks can not make the calls, and that everyone is also speaking to individuals who are reading the transcript.
- The moderator says “Any questions?” and the reviewers ask questions.
- About 45-50 minutes in, the moderator gives the entrepreneur a chance to ask a question to the reviewers.
- After about 50 minutes, the moderator asks if anyone has any burning questions they need to ask. (If appropriate.)
- At 60 minutes, unless many people on the call indicate a preference to continue with the call, the moderator stops the recording, and asks if anyone wants to ask a question that will not appear on the transcript. (Usually no, but when yes, often interesting.)
Review Forms are provided in two formats – as a Microsoft Word document and as an online form. The forms are identical, and do not vary much cohort to cohort. We have been asking the same questions since 2009. Every three years we check to see if a question doesn’t affect research or mentor-matching outcomes, in which case it is removed. (Unless it has basic logistical value, like name / email / etc.)
Reviewers are asked to return their forms six weeks after receiving the business plans. The actual “close” of a cohort-round comes when 75% of the reviews are in, which is usually 7-8 weeks after the initial deadline. Past experimentation has set six weeks as the time window that best accommodates two calls per company and allows reviewers to fill out their forms. Since start-ups are constantly changing, a longer window runs the risk of the feedback no longer being relevant, and a shorter window makes it difficult to schedule clarification calls for all companies.
The first page of the review form includes the following explanatory commentary:
The Mentor Capital Network (MCN) identifies and supports for-profit entrepreneurs who are using business to solve the world’s biggest social, economic, and environmental problems in a way that others will be inspired to follow their lead.
What you write here will be valuable both as feedback on a business plan and as a tool to assist both you and the entrepreneur in identifying and building mentoring relationships that will be useful, interesting, and engaging for the
both of you. Please complete this form by [Relevant date]
Our program has three primary goals:
- To provide entrepreneurs with constructive feedback on their business plan to help them accomplish their goals.
- To identify entrepreneurs that you, personally, might want to engage with as a mentor. And to give those entrepreneurs a chance to see how you would add value as a mentor.
- To collect data to make both the MCN and the field of social entrepreneurship better able to serve future entrepreneurs
In that regard, we offer the following guidance:
- If you are at all worried about losing your internet connection, we recommend completing this offline form first, and then pasting your comments into the online form at [Relevant Link]. But if it is easier for you, you can just send us this form as a word document.
- Write your feedback to the entrepreneur(s), not to the MCN. Everything between and including “Product / Service” and “Reviewer Context” will be sent directly to them.
- Your only commitment is to provide written feedback on the business plan. Should you wish to engage further with the entrepreneur (and we hope that you do), that is entirely your choice. The last question on the review form gives you the chance to express your preference on that.
- Write from your perspective and expertise. You are part of a team of reviewers who were specifically chosen to provide different points of feedback.
- Keep in mind that the plan may not be written in the reviewer’s native language. Don’t be too worried about grammar.
- Keep in mind that you are reading a business plan written for the entrepreneurs themselves, not for the MCN reviewers. There is little point in our providing feedback on a document written for the MCN. Many of the questions on this form will not apply to certain kinds of businesses. If you feel that they should have mentioned something in their plan, note that in the comments.
The comments are more important than the scores. They are what add value to the entrepreneur’s endeavors. The scores are for our research. You can learn more about that here: https://mentorcapitalnet.org/research/. To that end, we ask you to rate various aspects of the plan. If you don’t have an opinion about an area of the plan, just check “no score provided.”
For the scoring, please use these criteria:
- Poor: If this area is not addressed, the business will not succeed.
- Adequate: While this area is a weakness, it won’t disrupt the entire business.
- Fair: This area will neither hurt the business nor provide a competitive advantage.
- Good: This is the level you would want to see in a business before working there yourself.
- Outstanding: They got this perfect. Or it’s very good, and they have a new approach to the challenge.
- No Score Provided: If you do not feel qualified, or otherwise don’t have a strong opinion on a particular section, check this box.
Once the review forms are returned, they are input into our database, and returned to the entrepreneurs (and reviewers for that company). If a reviewer selects the “Anonymous” option, they are anonymous to both the entrepreneurs and their fellow reviewers.
The reviews are returned in two formats:
- By Reviewer
- By Category (Product, CuTstomer, Risk, Team, Financials, Overall)
The “By Reviewer” forms indicate if a particular reviewer is willing to be a mentor, and/or willing to have an ongoing conversation.
The Entrepreneur, upon receipt of the feedback packet, is given these tasks:
- (Optional but recommended) — Schedule a time with MCN Staff to discuss which reviewers you are interested in engaging with, since I know many of those folks very well. You do not need to wait for this call to reach out to your reviewers.
- (Optional, but not doing so defeats the point of being part of our program) — Reach out to the folks you would like to have further conversations with/ mentorship from. It is your responsibility to track them down, as they are volunteers.
- (Not optional. Our programs’ only requirement) — Please send a thank you note to everyone who took the time to review your business and think about your challenges. Even if you don’t plan to engage with them further. This can be very short. But it is critical to our business model that our reviewers know their thoughts were considered.
The Mentor Capital Network, as our name implies, is focused on creating mentor relationships. The second half of this presentation —https://vimeo.com/441497549 — is about our best practices in mentoring.
Decades of detailed study have led us to focus on four principles:
- Time – respect everyone’s time.
- Choice – allow the mentors and mentees to choose each other.
- Role – set clear expectations of the roles each person will play
- Tasks – have specific and achievable tasks and goals.
We’ve learned that if we ask people to mentor, they generally have two responses: “I’d love to.” Quickly followed by “But I’m really busy. How much time is involved? And, what, exactly, do you mean by mentoring?” So instead, we ask people to start with a specific task – reviewing a business plan or two over a fixed time period — that is large enough for them to feel fully engaged, but small enough for them to be able to commit to.
Reviewing business plans not only allows them to get to know something about the entrepreneur they might work with, but it allows the entrepreneur, through the reviewer’s feedback, to get to know them. Our goal is to create the opportunity for the reviewer and the entrepreneur to choose each other.
Next Steps (for the entrepreneur)
First, read the feedback. Let us know which feedback you found most helpful. A useful guideline is — does the comment stand on its own? Do you feel you learned something, without any context or further communication with the reviewer?
Secondly, send a quick thank-you note to the reviewers. We say “quick” because we know that many entrepreneurs want to send a detailed note, mentioning a particular comment they found helpful. But sometimes it takes a while for busy entrepreneurs to get around to that. And we want to make sure that our (volunteer!) reviewers get thanked.
We recognize that you probably don’t have the time to build new relationships with 10-12 people at the exact moment that you get the feedback packet from us.
We recommend that you identify one or two individuals who are the best fit for what you are addressing at that moment in time. Then, as you begin to address issues that other reviewers provided constructive and useful comments on, you can reach out to them over time. If “over time” is longer than six months, please check with the MCN staff first.
But let’s be clear here — it is the entrepreneurs’ to reach out to the prospective mentor to engage with them.
Next Steps (for both the mentor and the entrepreneur)
Figure out what kind of role you are going to play. Often, you won’t know this until you have your first connection – so make that the goal of your first conversation. It is important to figure out your role up-front, as well as understanding that roles change over time.
- Will this be a one-time call, where you might ask follow-up questions about their comments? Or ask them very specific questions based on their background?
- Will this be an ongoing mentoring relationship?
- Who is being mentored — an individual or a company? Sometimes it might be helpful to have your full leadership team be part of the process – and sometimes it might be best if there is a one-to-one relationship.
- Is this a peer-to-peer relationship? The Mentor Capital Network reviewer/mentor pool is full of people who are solving the same kinds of problems that you are, but not competing for the same customer dollar / peso / euro / baht / etc. – these are often our most successful mentorships.
- Keep the challenges medium-sized. Specific enough that the mentor can move you forward over the course of a conversation, and general enough that their background can give them big-picture pattern recognition. But make sure the tasks are big enough that you’ll be doing them yourself—the mentor is your guide, not your intern.
- If you can send your mentor an agenda / questions / topics of conversation in advance, do so. Keep the questions focused and specific. You’ll probably get 30 minutes of content out of a 45-60 minute meeting/call. Keep these things simple – neither the mentee or mentor should have too much “homework.” If both sides see a beneficial relationship where the mentor is doing significant work beyond the conversations, it is legitimate to transition into the role of (paid) adviser. Just be very clear and up-front about it.
- Be clear if it’s going to be a present-first or interactive-the-whole way conversation. It can be valuable for the mentee to describe a particular challenge you’re having, and how you’re addressing it, and then just ask “what might I be missing?” (This is a great time to acknowledge small victories by the mentee.)
- Ask the mentor what they want to get out of this. Maybe it’s a peer-to-peer setup, and you are sharing best practices.
- Clarifying questions are a great way to start. After the mentee has presented their challenge, don’t necessarily launch straight into your suggestions. Ask any questions you have (including things like “why is that valuable?”) that might help direct your feedback.
- As a mentor, one of the most valuable things you can share is knowing what the next problem might be. Often, when we solve one problem we create another. Most of our mentors have taken an idea to scale and seen how the challenges change over time.
- Start meetings with a check-in on goals set at the last meeting. But don’t get stuck on them. If the mentee hasn’t been able to move forward on the issue due to an external issue, recognize that, and focus on another project.
- End each meeting with goals for the next time you connect.
- Ask the mentor about their goals. Even if you’re not peer-to-peer, keep the conversation two-way.
- Have a schedule but be flexible. Set calls at once or twice a month, but be ready to move them if something comes up.
- For the mentors – if you can’t give actionable advice on a particular challenge, say so. If the mentee is going down a path where you don’t think you can add specific value, let them know.
- Have a friendly exit path. If you get to a point where you’re not both getting value out of the connection, find a way to either move on or put it on hold. One great way to re-engage is around the business plan. Once a year, you should review your business plan to see what’s happened and what changed. Engaging a mentor as an outside perspective, even if you’re no longer in regular communication with them, can be very valuable.