Ushahidi was selected as one of ten organizations welcomed into USAID’s Million Lives Club during the Global Innovation Week. Along with other game changing organizations that have reached scale, such as One Acre Fund, Fundacion Capital, Burn, and others. The closing keynote panel of the week included leadership from each of the organizations on stage talking about the process of growing from a startup to an organization at scale.  It was an honor to be on that stage with these other organizations. It was also a powerful moment to sit back and reflect on how much we have accomplished at Ushahidi over the past 10 years. We have launched multiple products, our tools have been used in over 160 countries, we have impacted millions of lives.

Sitting on that stage, speaking to other innovative startups looking to grow to positive impact millions of lives, I realized a number of important lessons that we learned over our past ten years. 

We were asked the question, “what do you wish you knew then that you know now?” As a startup you learn how to solve problems and raise money by being innovative. At Ushahidi we probably have hundreds of ideas for new products or solutions each year. When we raised money, we would pitch these new ideas, because that was how we learned how to raise money, by being innovative. But over time this will stretch you thin. At one point we had six products and programs with thiry staff. Unfortunately an innovation grant of $150-$500,000 is rarely enough funding to take a product to market and make it sustainable. In the private sector, products tend to invest roughly $25M in funding before they are acquired or IPO, and that is served a market that is much easier to serve than the marginalized communtites we focus on. On the stage we were then asked, “what was the worst day you had?” Which followed on the previous question. One of the worst days I had at Ushahidi was when we had about a month of runway left and six products we were trying to make successful at the same time. We realized we were doing too many things, and as a result were doing them poorly, instead of a few things great.  We had to cut products, and team members. We regrouped, set our priorities, raised some crucial funding, and have continued to grow, expand, and put out great products ever since.

Lastly, one of the questions we were asked was “What is one thing you would tell a budding social entrepreneur?” Reflecting on that I had numerous thoughts: focus on your users, always be listening, build structure without

bureaucracy, but the one that I felt most important to share was to build evolution into your organization, to set up your structures with evolution by design. Your organization will change. As a startup, everyone will work crazy hours, sleep in the office, be driven entirely by the mission, and just do the work without needing accountability or structures. As an open source product and remote company this defined our organization in it’s early years. But at some point the organization will morph into an employer, you will need to figure out healthcare, HR, vacation policies. New staff will be hired from other organizaions and they will come in with new ideas. You will have deliverables for funders and other external pressures. People will burn out, and people will begin to need structure and accountability as the organization evolves from a startup to a long standing business. Embrace that change, plan for it, bake impermanence into your organizational culture, management style, and products because it always happens.

Thank you to USAID’s Global Innovation Lab for honoring us as part of the million lives club. Thanks to our funders and partners who have supported us over the past ten years. Thanks to our staff and team members  over the years who have built this organization. And thanks to the hundreds of thousands of users who have used our tools to help marganilized people raise their voice and help listen and respond better to them.