Everything I Learned About Scale Was Wrong

I recently read an article written by a CEO of a Silicon Valley tech start-up that used the analogy of unicorns and horses as comparisons for the two types of business models we see most often today. He went on to add that while many start-ups aim to be unicorns- few amongst the stars sort-of-speak- he intended to build his company as a race horse. In short, he highlighted that he didn't want to focus on scaling his business, he intended to grow and strengthen his customer base and product offerings organically, not by "growing wings" overnight. The concept resonated deeply with me and reminded me of a conversation I had not so long ago with one of our donors for IDEX regarding scaling the fellowship.

My early years in philanthropy working for a private foundation (with an angel-investment type funding model) truly shaped my views on business more so than business school ever would. Overseeing our international grant-making efforts required me to find the unicorns of the world. Our team received several grant proposals from entrepreneurs from all corners of the world, despite the "no unsolicited grant requests" that we highlighted on our website. That simple request would never stop a true unicorn, right? And all the while, year after year, I met brilliant entrepreneurs who had business minds that top Ivy Leagues schools would only dream to have amongst their alumni and year after year we turned them away.

The reason? It was simple: they had a great business model and we recognized it delivered value to their stakeholders, but we were not confident the business/product/program was scalable. Conversations would then diverge into how they could reduce "x" component or outsource "y" and focus more on "z" than "p" to scale to reach "xx,xxx" more people per year. In short, we recognized they were a beautiful horse and they tried to convince us they could become the unicorn we were in search of finding. Rarely in these conversations did the entrepreneur want to admit that scaling would completely compromise the very thing they had built.

So this article on unicorns and horses resonated with me deeply. Because today, I don't serve as a Program Officer I stand as an entrepreneur myself and I have the same conversations now but the tables have turned. I, like this entrepreneur from the article, have decided that for now scale is not our primary focus for IDEX. Is it possible? Yes, I'm sure it is. Anything is quite possible when we consider all the advancements that we've made in the world in technology, skills training and education. Scaling IDEX is not rocket science by far, but I ask myself "Is that why we built IDEX?"

This year we strategically decided to cap the number of fellows we admitted into the program to strengthen our focus on quality programming. We've furthermore put a cap on staff hiring so that funding overhead doesn't have to be a nightmare and fundraising, while important, isn't the top priority for leadership. We will instead focus on delivering quality and growing organically. We listen to our customers (fellows and partners) and we aim to grow according to our capacity to serve them without compromising their value extraction. Sure, we've had to make tough decision because of this but quality programming has not been one of those.

The reason we built IDEX was to support the development of Social Intrapreneurs- the brilliant, talented, innovative people that support the social entrepreneurs. We have huge unicorn ambitions such as increasing the number of qualified and experienced practitioners and intrapreneurs in the countries we work and increasing the number of women in key leadership positions across the social impact space. My hope is that we find more partners who also see the value of growing our programming organically and replicating what works. Pushing the limits and testing new models keeps the business fresh, but knowing when and where to test the limits is key.

I only wish I would have knew this firsthand when I was on the other side of the table. I think we may have funded more horses who could learn to grow wings over time rather than searching the world for a single unicorn.