Earlier this year the Remarkable team were thrown the same curveball as the rest of the world — how could we adapt our team, processes and organisation so that we could deliver our disability-tech startup accelerator program remotely, instead of in person?
At the end of 2019, in Australia we were suffocating in bushfire smoke, drought was hitting regional Australia hard, and we watched on as other countries faced their own challenging experiences. Yet we continued to battle on, to walk the path of previous generations, the way things were ‘set out to be’, that those before us had decided were the norm. We didn’t think twice.
Within a few months, the global pandemic was challenging our health care systems, economies, governments, and our ways of life. We were forced, unnaturally, to live a new way of life, a life with boundaries and restrictions, one which would leave many feeling lonely and helpless.
Perhaps a global pandemic was what we needed to shake up our work habits, free us from the hamster wheel of legacy solutions and make us, for once, think about what we are really trying to achieve as individuals, organisations and communities. They say “don’t reinvent the wheel” but sometimes the world gives you no other choice but to reimagine the solutions, re-engineer your processes and rethink your objectives.
If Remarkable’s disability-tech accelerator is our wheel, here’s how we reinvented it.
What is Remarkable?
Remarkable is one of more than 7,000 accelerators worldwide, according to Hackernoon and data from the International Business Innovation Association. Remarkable is also part of the 90 percent of these accelerators that are nonprofit and are focused on programs for community economic development.
Our 16-week accelerator program is aimed to equip early-stage startups with seed funding and the knowledge, skills and tools needed to become commercially viable businesses that have a positive social impact. To bring this to life we split our program up into eight key phases.
- Product Market Fit
- Business Model
- Go To Market Strategy
- Sustainability & Investment
- Transition to an Alumni
To show our commitment to our founders and their vision we offer seed funding, $35,000 cash for a 5% equity stake in each startup. We open up our network to offer support, from our mentors all the way to user testers, stakeholders and investors. Each startup also receives many opportunities to connect with industry-leading experts in both business and the disability sector, and warm introductions to potential customers.
While I think we’d always prefer to deliver an accelerator program face-to-face, such a program is not without its drawbacks. It’s important to look back at the pros and cons of an in-person accelerator before we jump into the decisions we made to take ours online.
Cohort relationships form differently, if at all
In an in-person program, on day one, you have founders flying in, facilitators lined up and the program team itching to get things kicked off. The energy is real and tangible. From the hugs, the handshakes to the emotions, the sense of family and community is felt by all. And this is just the start; from that moment on, each person in the program gradually begins to feel accountable to one another, and to the program. From day one, many things happen spontaneously, from water cooler conversations, impromptu coffee and lunch dates and evenings out. This connects individuals, reinforces team and cohort bonds, and creates channels for cross-pollination and collaboration.
In a remote program, very little happens spontaneously and people don’t get to know each other very quickly – or at all – unless they, or we, plan for activities that will bring people together. In our 2020 program, some of our participants were beginning to use video conferencing for the first time and were not yet fluent, making them quieter, more withdrawn and more reluctant to contribute than perhaps they might have been if the group were together in the same room.
Founders, mentors and facilitators work together, they are in the same room and are present, and during our masterclasses, they have no distractions — laptops are shut, phones off — they are there to learn, to engage and to progress.
But not being together, is not all bad
An in-person program has to be based somewhere, and no matter where that base is, it’s always going to be further, more inconvenient and more expensive for some to get to than others. Dates or times might not fit easily into the rest of someone’s schedule. Venues, accommodation or transportation may not be equally accessible for people living with disability, people with dependents, or people trying to blend startup founder commitments with a side-gig or career job.
The benefits of having everyone attend an accelerator program in person means the accelerator program team inevitably finds itself discouraging people from attending remotely except in exceptional circumstances. This is doubly so because non-attendance (along with late attendance, partial attention or poor engagement) is somewhat unavoidable and contagious and performance begins to suffer.
An in-person program may become so fixated on in-person attendance over time that fewer accommodations are made for people who can’t always attend in person, or who can’t attend in person as a whole.
There’s also no question that in an in-person program, the gregarious, confident, communicative and socially-fluent person has an advantage over someone who isn’t, and that person shouldn’t be penalised for their lack of proficiency in an in-person group setting.
As a program team our job is to find the balance, find out what works for the majority but there will always be some degree of inequality. I think the opportunity to run a program remotely has made us think harder about how we can be more inclusive and how we can make things more fair, for future cohorts in the Remarkable programs.
An in person event comes with many barriers; geographical, economic, environmental and accessible barriers, to name just a few. Should it be that you can’t follow your startup dream because of where you live or your freedom to pay for travel? Should it be that you can’t attend cohort events if you live with a disability? Should it be that you have to make sacrifices in your life when ultimately you are trying to improve the lives of others? These are some of the questions we should be asking ourselves.
How do you design a program that works online?
First, put away your cookie cutter. In all honesty, our advice would be to start from scratch, not to try to adapt an existing in-person program, because it seems to inevitably result in too many assumptions being made: that outcomes will be the same, that learning rates will be the same, and also a hundred other little things: that participants will only need a five minute toilet break, that they’ll be as focused on the material, or that they’ll be as familiar with Slack, Google Docs and Zoom as you are. Think not just how you can increase engagement, but also how you can be accommodating to this new way of life.
In future online programs we will involve our alumni more in the program design, ask for their input on what would make them comfortable in this medium, and offer them some examples of our proposed UX for feedback. So keeping your alumni close and engaged with the program after they graduate is as important as keeping them engaged during the program.
Show (don’t just say) that you care
In an in-person program there are many opportunities to show participants that we care – from recreational fun, catered events and masterclasses, bags of treats, free work spaces, to open and regular one-on-one conversations.
For our first remote program we decided early on that we would send a series of care packages to our founders throughout the program. Over the course of the program we sent them many things – top-quality webcams with lights and wide-angle lenses to help them look and sound great online, books, food and drinks, clothing, and hand-written personalised messages of support. We felt the need to share the love with our founders, and sometimes all it takes is a small package to brighten up someone’s hour, day or week.
We also tried to remember that, although Zoom calls are booked into a calendar and generally have an agenda, not all of every catch-up needs to be about work – it’s also important to ask people how they are, how they feel, how they are coping, and what feels harder than it should be. Prompting them to allow time for exercise, rest, reflection and down-time was really important when most of our founders were experiencing significant disruptions to their usual daily routine during lockdown. Mental and physical fitness is something we should all keep top of mind and asking each other if we are OK is a great place to start.
In this new online medium, try using apps like Donut to foster hallway chats.
Half way through the program, we noticed a dip in our weekly feedback scores from our founders. We jumped to it and began conducting startup and founder health checks – in retrospect, something we should have been doing every 2-3 weeks, not just in the middle of the program.
Not another SAAS sign up – our digital tool box
Over the past six months we have shared our learnings on the systems and tools we used to bring our program to life. We’ll let you dive into them for a deeper understanding of what worked well for us, but it’s worth noting that while shiny new SAAS products to help you be a productive and happy remote team are dropping more frequently than ever, it’s important not to get blindsided by them, and it’s important not to experiment with new tools new frequently without evaluating them with a small test group first to examine whether they will actually help your teams, and whether they will integrate well with what you are already using.
Testing and experimenting with new products is great, but do so in a controlled environment, and don’t (unless it’s absolutely necessary to do so) introduce a totally new way of working half way through a project, program or initiative. These systems and tools may be intuitive to you but can cause huge disruption for others.
Our final tried-and-tested tech stack for our 2020 remote program has been Slack for day-to-day group and individual communication, Zoom for events, meetings, workshops and masterclasses, mmhmm sharing and presenting slide decks and interactive visual content, Hopin for large online events such as Demo Day, and Airtable for reporting, information management and pretty much everything else.
“You’re on mute”, the does and don’ts of online mediums
You would think that with everything that goes on in the world we would be able to start a zoom call without the classic, “How’s the weather with you” or “ How’s your day been?”
Do we do this out of awkwardness? As a conversation starter? Or is this just a filler because it would be weird to start a zoom call by just jumping straight into the meeting agenda?
Try to start each online meeting or call in an intentional way, and think about what could stimulate an interesting conversation with others in the call.
- If someone’s shared some preparatory notes prior to the meeting, do them the courtesy of referring directly to a detail of their notes as your opener to your call. “You know, I was thinking about what you said about how hospitals are sometimes very concerned about risk and it reminded me of a time when…”
You might find the energy and creativity you bring to the first few minutes will have a huge impact on the remainder of the call.
Keeping it dynamic with masterclasses, sprints, workshops and events
It was clear when our mentors delivered their first few masterclasses for the cohort that many things were very different – that we would have to adapt and help our mentors adapt too. We learned that participants find it harder to pay attention online, that they are less likely to ask questions and interact with each other and the masterclass mentors, that they are even less engaged when the masterclass is mostly looking at slides and listening, and that a lecture-style of masterclass is much less engaging than an interactive, hands-on workshop style of learning.
Just because someone’s a skilled TED-style presenter, it doesn’t mean they can teach a hands-on workshop covering the same material. That meant working with some of our regular masterclass mentors to see if we could help them adapt their teaching style if they were used to a lecture-style of delivery, and in some cases helping them create and plan hands-on exercises for our participants to work on individually or alone. Let’s also recognise that our Remarkable team were learning-as-we-went too, and some of our own workshops could have been better.
However don’t take for granted that anyone already knows how to create an engaging online working session, since chances are, it will be new for most of us for some time to come. Share your top tips and feedback from other sessions, and run a short test with each mentor delivering something for your cohort, in advance of the actual event, to familiarize them with the systems and tools you will be using, invite them to practice their material with you, and give them constructive feedback.
Through researching systems that might help bring our online events to life, we found we needed to create events that put the control back in the attendees’ hands, just like at an in-person event. Arriving at a Zoom event, only to find you’ve been dropped in a breakout room, and not by your choice but on someone else’ instructions, takes away so much spontaneity and energy. We found that platforms such as Hopin helped us give freedom back to the attendee. Check out our recent demo day learnings here.
Finally, be open to feedback and foster the open and honest philosophy, you may think the session or event was the best ever but there is always room for improvement. Seek that advice and take action to implement it.
We’re still not perfect, our learnings and improvements for next year’s program
One our 2020 remote accelerator program had concluded, we ran a retro to look back at the main segments of our program and used the ‘Stop, Start and Continue’ method to analyse the quality of our program, what we feel could have been better, and what we could do without in coming years.
Over the 15 stages of our program, from launching our first campaign through to graduation, we noted 100 insights which we then themed together into groups. The top seven themes are:
- Find ways to better understand your founders and their businesses. This has been a lot harder online with the lack of spontaneous conversations or coffee chats.
- Dig deeper into understanding how others are feeling, offer greater support, and foster human-centric conversations and experiences.
- Not being able to get everyone into the same room creates challenges, a lack of cross-pollination being one. Look for better ways to close the network gap.
- With geographical less of a barrier, think about how you can involve a wider audience in your program.
- Find better ways to keep the focus. Think deeper about the UX of your sessions and pick your facilitators with greater knowledge.
- A bespoke program tailored to each startup is not possible but remember that one size does not fit all. Look at ways to support those with greater knowledge gaps.
- Ask your audience what their preferred communication method is, rather than presuming the way you think things should be communicated is the best.
There’s no ‘I’ in team, but there is an ‘Om’ in Zoom
Thinking about your audience and making things right for them starts with fostering an inclusive environment for your own team and leading by example.
As we move into a new age of changing working environments, listening to those around you for what they really want in their working style is key. In the past, introverts have been bound by working from offices alongside their extrovert counterparts, but now, working from home has allowed them the freedom to work as they have almost certainly always wished they could have done. Ask your employees how they do their best work and try to build your ways of working policies around them, make them less static and more fluid with the aim to encourage autonomy.
It’s unclear what more will change in the workplace in the future, but ask yourself if the money you are spending on your space is worth it and think about whether there might be other areas some of that money could make a bigger difference. Maybe ten permanent desks which are <40% filled could be replaced by a team offsite once a month or a two-day team conference? These alternatives go a long way of increasing morale and bringing employees closer to your brand.
Returning to old habits, our thoughts on the future of our programs and community interactions
Whilst the themes in this post have been broad they are aimed not to give you all the answers but to start the conversations, to make you think and hopefully make you consider changing some of the ways you are currently working.
We at Remarkable are far from perfect and like everyone else, we too are still finding our feet in this new way of work. But we hope opening up and sharing our story gives you some confidence to share yours too, which might help us all deliver an even better remote program in future — an experience that is inclusive, accessible and leaves them wanting more.
Note: If our passion for accelerating early-stage startups which have a positive social impact resonates with you then please share our story, subscribe to our channels and spread the world that we are now accepting registrations of interest for our #SYD21 cohort.