mentor whiplash advice from fledge the conscious company accelerator for social entrepreneurs

“What I have seen over and over again is that the power of this model, of having a lot of others around to share their advice, is that you get a lot of opinions,” Michael “Luni” Libes shared. “Entrepreneurs always have some pressing need in front of them, the next hurdle to jump over. It’s not that they don’t know what to do, it’s not that they don’t have two or three ideas. Generally first time entrepreneurs just don’t know what other people have already tried.”

A big proponent of entrepreneurs getting as much advice as possible, Luni comes to Rank & File as an experienced mentor offering guidance on selling your product, adjusting your business plan and not giving up. He is a 20-plus-year serial entrepreneur who has founded or co-founded five successful companies. After several years launching and scaling tech companies in his hometown of Seattle, Luni found himself searching for ways to give back.

He is now an Entrepreneur in Residence and Entrepreneurship Instructor at Pinchot University, the first business school to offer an MBA in Sustainability; the author of “The Next Step” book series, on guiding you from idea to startup; and the Founder and Managing Director of Fledge, the conscious company accelerator.

Fledge is an intense 10-week program that takes place inside Impact Hub Seattle, one of the largest community and co-working spaces in the world. Using an MBA-level curriculum, Fledge covers the full set of skills needed to become a successful entrepreneur. Participants receive training in areas including creating a business plan, marketing, sales, financial planning and communication skills.

Before completion, Fledglings have not one but three on-stage opportunities to showcase themselves and their business in front of the community, fellow Fledge members and impact investors. Beyond the regularly scheduled meetings and goals of the Fledge program, participants are also required to set their own unique goals for what they would like to accomplish. The more you put into Fledge, the more you get out of it.

Beyond the thoroughness of the approach Luni takes with Fledge, what makes his program unique is the Fledge network of mentors. Fledge mentors come in all shapes and sizes, and include anyone who would like to share their experience and advice with the Fledglings. Mentoring comes in many forms including group sessions and one-on-one meetings. Fledglings can be expected to achieve a mental state known as “mentor whiplash,” where the sheer amount of advice becomes almost overwhelming.

We’ve taken Luni’s “the more advice the better” approach to heart with this article. In addition to Luni’s expert advice, you’ll also find tips from a few successful former Fledglings.

Luni, a “wallflower who becomes a roadblock to dumb thinking,” spoke openly with Rank & File about some of the common blind spots he has found in aspiring startups during his accelerator program. We’ll cover the nuts and bolts of early-stage sales, talk about re-planning for plan B, and discuss being persistent and patient.

How does a social enterprise startup balance the need for a well-formulated and sustainable business model that tackles complex social problems, with getting to market as quickly as possible to prove that a customer will pay for their solution?

“Most first time entrepreneurs think it sounds a little crazy when we teach them the real startup model… But there is always some way to approach a customer and ask them to buy something even if you don’t have it.” To gain what he calls “traction” with your startup, you have to first gain one customer: “Any customer paying anything, even nothing.”

One of the most common problems Luni runs across with his Fledglings is a lack of experience in sales. The real way to prove a customer will pay for your product is to ask them, and here is the key: ask them even before you have a fully-developed, hold-it-in-your-hand product. “Just to be clear…you don’t actually have to have the product, you only have to ask for the money,” Luni says.

As intimidating as it might be to reach out and ask a customer to purchase a product, especially a product that might exist purely as an idea, it is the only way to learn if you actually have achieved your minimum viable product.  

Of course it is crucial to have a well-formulated business plan, but without a product that people will buy, your business plan is next to useless. Asking real customers to purchase your product will help you get the information you need to adjust your plan based on real market desires in order to find your product-market fit.

“Luni told me, ‘Burt, don’t let your vision of saving the world get in the way of making a profitable company here at home.’ I love what I do. I have a huge imagination for its potential, but that won’t sell a single thing.”mentor whiplash advice from fledge the conscious company accelerator for social entrepreneurs
Burt Hamner – Founder and President, Hydrobee

What are some practical tips for companies who are in the process of finding their product-market fit early on?

“Few people give you any true critical feedback until you ask them to buy.”

Luni maintains that pre-selling is the primary way to find your product-market fit. Of course, pre-selling isn’t always, or almost ever, going to be smooth sailing. Luni spoke with us about the fact that he dedicates an entire section of his first book in the “The Next Step” series to “re-planning for plan B.”

“There is a great lesson in entrepreneurship which shows that no company that has ever succeeded has done so on plan A.” He continues to give several well-known companies as examples to illustrate his point: “Facebook was not a social media website with a news stream and friends. Plan C… is what we see today.” The PayPal that we all know today “is the seventh version or plan G.”

Luni sees the dreamer in us all, the people who want to change the world, and he offers words of caution: “Too many entrepreneurs think they have the best idea in the world; they’re certain it’s gonna work, and they can’t understand why investors aren’t throwing money at them. Yet when they actually go put it into the market, it fails. It may not completely fail but it will not work as expected.”

The key, according to Luni, is testing with the expectation that your plan or your product is not going to be successful. “Plan for things to fail and you’ll be much happier in the end.”

“The biggest lesson that I learned is failing fast. When I started Fledge, I was really scared at failing at anything. But Luni sort of helped me understand that it was ok to fail. The main thing is making sure that you fail fast and you fail quickly and you are able to pick up yourself once you fail, because failing is part of it.” mentor whiplash advice from fledge the conscious company accelerator for social entrepreneurs
Tom Lee Osborn – Founder and CEO, GreenChar

Finding the perfect product-market fit after several iterations takes time. What should entrepreneurs keep in mind as they head down this path?

“A lot of entrepreneurs want to do something huge, they want to make a big splash in the world. Well, it’s not going to happen in one moment. You are going to do something, and then you have to wait for that action, for the world to move forward with that little tiny push. And then in real life you just have to keep doing little tiny actions like that over and over again, until they snowball.”

We’ve all been there at one point or another in our lives, banging our head against the wall, wondering if we will ever succeed. Luni shares with Rank & File that one of the most crucial skills an entrepreneur can learn is patience. After twenty years of experience both as an entrepreneur and a guiding mentor for other entrepreneurs, Luni certainly knows a thing or two about the value of patience. He shows his Pacific Northwestern roots as he continues:

“We have 400 foot trees around here. People used to cut them down with an ax. If you want to take down a 2,000 year old cedar tree with an ax, it’s not going to come down with one blow or two blows or a hundred blows. It’s going to take repeated action. The tree will come down eventually.”

“We are executing our plan in a very focused and disciplined way to demonstrate that we actually can reach the markets that we want reach.”mentor whiplash advice from fledge the conscious company accelerator for social entrepreneurs
Beth Kolko, Ph.D – Co-founder and CEO, Shift Labs

This lesson of patience must be applied in every aspect of beginning a startup. Crafting your plan, selling your product, and then adjusting your plan to find your perfect product-market fit, all require resilience if you are ever going to be profitable and ultimately impact the world.

While working on chopping down your particular tree, Luni advocates for seeking out as much advice as possible, and shares that it isn’t important if that advice is meant for a social entrepreneur or any other type of entrepreneur. “I have seen almost no difference in starting a company whether it has a social mission or whether it’s a couple techies that want to get rich. Same process.” Once you have gathered enough advice to get “mentor whiplash,” then you know you’re really making progress.

With Luni’s expert advice under our belts, we’re going to pick up our ax and get to work.

About the Contributors

mentor whiplash advice from fledge the conscious company accelerator for social entrepreneurs
Meet Burt Hamner. Burt is the Founder and President of Hydrobee, which strives to be the leading provider of clean, renewable energy to people around the world. “Our goal is to be the Swiss Army Knife of personal energy.” About the size of a soda can, Hydrobee is a rechargeable USB battery pack that harnesses natural energy sources to provide hours of power to its users. With various accessory chargers, Hydrobee users can charge their phones and power LED lights using water, wind, sun, cycling, and just about any other source you can think up.
Meet Beth Kelko. Beth is the co-founder and CEO of Shift Labs, a for-profit company building low-cost medical devices for emerging markets leveraging global innovation networks. She has been the Director of Innovation at the Makerbot Foundation, a Fulbright professor at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, a Visiting Faculty Researcher at Microsoft Research, and a Fellow and Faculty Associate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.
Meet Tom Lee Osborn. Tom started his company GreenChar in high school after experiencing firsthand the devastating effects of using charcoal and firewood to cook on traditional cookstoves. GreenChar is on their way to being the ultimate provider of clean household energy solutions, starting in his home country of Kenya. Although Tom is full of humility, he already is an Echoing Green Fellow, a 30 under 30 Forbes Social Entrepreneur, the winner of numerous other accolades, and a leader wise beyond his years.


© All photos courtesy of respective individuals.
This interview is a copyright of Rank & File Magazine, Inc.