The COVID-19 pandemic plunged the world into a whole “new normal” regarding our interactions, confining many activities d to the digital realm as social distancing became critical to slowing the spread. For those in the small and growing business (SGB) support sector, this primarily involved converting programming, such as acceleration and incubation programs to spur entrepreneurial development, to virtual delivery.
Now that it’s been three years since the onset of the pandemic, the world has generally reopened. Entrepreneur support organizations are now faced with how to move forward – continue operating digitally, reintroduce in-person services, or some combination. Program designers have to consider key variables such as cost, feasibility, and overall effectiveness of the delivery method. Along with challenges, crises can also allow for creativity and the discovery of new approaches to the status quo – so the question is, did the sudden conversion to digital entrepreneur support delivery have an up-side? What, if any, of the adjustments and lessons learned should be applied now that social distancing restrictions are lifted?
ANDE aimed to answer this question by collecting data from entrepreneurs and accelerator program managers to assess their perspectives on what worked and what didn’t in their shift to virtual program delivery. The findings – explored in a new report titled Going Digital: Exploring the Value of Digital Entrepreneur Support in Africa – reveal important insights in the context of Africa – though applicable worldwide – regarding how many support organizations converted into virtual programming, how accelerators shifted their approach, satisfaction levels among participating entrepreneurs, and how the sector can take these lessons forward to improve the accelerator experience for SGBs post-pandemic.
The general consensus among entrepreneurs is that virtual programs are preferable to in-person activities. About 70% of studied entrepreneurs informed us that they are “very likely” to attend another virtual program and recommend a virtual program to other entrepreneurs. When asked about the benefits and challenges of virtual programs, entrepreneur respondents, on average, reported more benefits than challenges.
However, there are some nuances to these conclusions when looking at various components of the acceleration process. While some services are better delivered digitally, others lose value when not done in person. Below we highlight key areas for consideration when building future programs:
Mentoring and technical assistance are better delivered virtually, according to entrepreneurs. A majority of entrepreneurs surveyed expressed that these services are better delivered virtually, as it allows for greater flexibility and accessibility to experts and peers. Removing the geographical barrier allows the pool of participants to expand and enables programs to source mentors from different locations with more diverse experiences. Surveyed entrepreneurs identified the ability to join programs in different time zones and locations (51%) and easier access to experts in other cities, regions, or countries (46%) as the other primary benefits of virtual programs.
Delivering technical assistance virtually has also been found to be less time-consuming for participants and requires more independent work on behalf of the entrepreneur. This is consistent with research from the Global Accelerator Learning Initiative (GALI) findings that programs with better results typically allow the entrepreneurs more time to work on their own rather than mandating a classroom setting.
From the accelerator program manager perspective, curriculum had to be adjusted for a virtual setting, often shortened in order to avoid “zoom fatigue” or converting the sessions to one-on-one engagements rather than group settings. The success of these virtual sessions was determined largely by participating entrepreneurs’ digital setup at home, and indeed having dependable wifi became a factor in selection of program participants once the virtual shift took place.
Peer networking is difficult to replicate in a virtual setting to entrepreneurs’ satisfaction.
Entrepreneurs surveyed experienced either fully in-person, fully virtual, or a hybrid peer networking experience. The consensus among entrepreneurs was mixed. Those who experienced virtual networking offered positive feedback but those who experienced in-person or hybrid networking indicated a lower preference for virtual connections. This finding was consistent with group learning instances where the participants were encouraged to work together. This is likely due to spotty internet connections and poor power supply abruptly interrupting real-time conversations.
Virtual pitch sessions may reduce power imbalances and relieve unnecessary pressure.
Across the board, surveyed entrepreneurs preferred virtual pitch competitions and investor connections were preferable to those held in-person. Multiple accelerator program managers shared that during the pandemic they switched from live pitch sessions to using recorded videos to avoid internet stability issues, and the shift was popular amongst entrepreneurs who felt less limited to a five-minute performance and could pre-record their pitch. How to reduce power imbalances within investor pitch sessions is a topic of debate, with accelerators like Village Capital experimenting with new approaches to “flip the power dynamic.”
Notably, accelerator programs did not report a significant cost difference between delivering services in-person or digitally, meaning the decision for future programming will have to be made based on other criteria. While there are some clear challenges, particularly around entrepreneurs’ access to digital infrastructure at home and challenges with managing work-life balance, there are some potential major wins as well. Not only do entrepreneurs show increased satisfaction levels with virtual support, but programs also reported a higher number of women applicants and graduates. While there is more to uncover, these are signs that entrepreneur support should not necessarily revert back to “business as usual” as pandemic restrictions are lifted.
Our findings suggest that there is real merit to virtual programming, particularly to the extent that it increases accessibility for entrepreneurs based outside major entrepreneurial hubs and reduces travel burdens for those with home care responsibilities. However, programs may consider incorporating some in-person convenings to encourage quality peer networking, an element of acceleration that GALI has found to be a determining factor in program performance. Hybrid programs may be the best path forward for many programs – allowing them to reap the benefits of both settings.
To learn more about ANDE’s research and guidance regarding digitalization, visit https://andeglobal.org/digitalization.