How to measure impact for online incubation

We are Bridge for Billions, an online incubator on a mission to democratize access to the entrepreneurship ecosystem. Over the past 5 years we have been perfecting our learn-by-doing methodology and creating an infrastructure to measure the impact of our online platform. Today, we share with you our insights on why impact should be measured both online and offline, and how to build your own impact measurement infrastructure.

Why is measuring Impact Key?

Measuring impact is key to any organization or business’s success, yet it often does not receive the attention it deserves. Firstly, it’s a clear way of demonstrating ROI to investors. Increasingly high on an investors agenda, highlighting the impact of your business opens doors to funding opportunities. In addition to this, impact data can also be used to improve communication with stakeholders. Although stakeholders may be less concerned with ROI and more interested in how the business is progressing, impact measurement can also support in creating a clear picture of this progress. 

As well as this, a great impact measurement infrastructure is a sign of a smooth functioning, well organised business. Impact data shows that you have a clear insight of what is happening during every stage of a learner’s journey and the result of that journey. Without this data, it is incredibly hard to work out business performance and the effect of your business on the external ecosystem. 

Finally, impact allows you to understand if you are achieving your purpose. There are a few aspects of an incubation program or any business that are incredibly hard to measure. Whether you’re achieving your purpose (or not) is one of them. However, impact data can generate a clear connection between your company’s purpose and the results you are seeing. For example, in the case of online incubation, how many startups are still going 2 years post incubation.

Online as a channel

Online is just a channel, so when looking at digitisation of your program and impact measurement, you need to identify methods that work equally well online and offline. This is not only the case for impact measurement but also program content. Assuming that what works offline will just work online and vice versa is dangerous. For example, unidirectional teaching/lectures/masterclasses might be engaging and useful offline, but virtually we know it dramatically decreases its effectiveness. So, instead of thinking about how to make your virtual masterclasses potentially engaging, maybe you need to think about how to change the pedagogical model of your program to make them engaging online from the root. Learning-by-doing and gamification models where the entrepreneurs work and interact with your content (Duolingo style) and real-time feedback tools that allow you to know what your audience is thinking about what you present, are just some of the opportunities that the online unlocks for both learning and the impact measurement of that learning. 

Impact measurement for online programs

The virtualization of any program should not affect the theory of change (TOC) if the TOC is well-defined. The theory of change is essentially mapping out what your company or organization hopes to do (it’s purpose) and how activities result in that goal being achieved. It does this by creating a framework of activities, outputs and outcomes that lead to that goal and the purpose being met. This is something a program should do regardless of whether it is online or offline. 

It requires setting up a mechanism which allows you to know how the startups in your program are doing after they have finished incubating. This requires a lot of work, but what digitizing your program prepares you for is better monitoring, measurement and evaluation of those outputs and outcomes. For example, how do you currently measure the teaching/learning hours of your entrepreneurs? The hours your mentors dedicate to each entrepreneur? Surveys? Timesheets? If their learning or mentoring process is digital, you can measure everything in a much better way, even if the program is blended (online + offline). In relation to this, you measure jobs, revenue or investment raised with surveys, but what’s your participants’ incentive to complete those? If being part of your online community requires them to update those metrics you will get a much better dataset easily. 

So, virtualization doesn’t create new outputs or outcomes, it just allows you to measure them better. Technology is a tool that makes things easier but what matters is the design. The design of the learning has to be ‘learn by doing’ and the design of the impact must have a theory of change behind it. 

An Infrastructure for Impact measurement Online

At Bridge we’ve worked on the impact measurement infrastructure of our online incubation program for over five years now and we recommend using the theory of change model.  Most programs are set up in two phases (pre program and program) but there is an additional phase of ‘post program’ and sometimes this phase can take more time and resources than the first two phases combined. For the pre-phase we create a digital profile of the entrepreneur on sign-up including basic data such as gender and nationality. During the program, we map activity by maintaining communication with the entrepreneurs through regular checkpoints during the program and our online community. This avoids a black tunnel scenario where participants are greeted at the start of the program and congratulated at the end but their activity between those two markers is unknown.

For the post-program, as part of the TOC model we suggest you measure two indicators: output and outcome. Output can be measured straight away  after entrepreneurs finish the program with indicators such as what percentage of entrepreneurs feel that the program has been critical to their business development, or how many hours of training they have received. It measures the learning of the entrepreneurs during the incubation process. Outcome, however, is the result of that learning, what do the entrepreneurs do after this process? For example, how many entrepreneurs launch their business post-program or job creation as a result of this. 

To focus on this ‘post’ stage, we set up surveys that get automatically sent to entrepreneurs who have completed any of our programs every 6 months over the 2 years following the program. That’s the period of time we feel we can say we have been influential for those entrepreneurs.

A Summary 

To summarise we’d like to stress the importance of impact both online and offline. At Bridge for Billions we strive to lead and be part of a systematic change by increasing access to entrepreneurship. For us, impact is crucial since it allows us to understand if we are reaching that goal and to what extent. And this can be applied to any purpose-driven company or organization. Yes, online is a channel that provides an easier and more effective means of measuring impact, but far more important is the understanding of how key it is to measure that data in the first place.

If you’d like to know more about Bridge for Billions, including how you can develop your business or become a Bridge mentor, click here.

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