America is a nation of contradictions.
We lionize the “self-made man” (or woman). Yet the past few years have shown many of us how fragile we really are—and how much we rely on others.
We fawn over disruptive innovations and gobble up the latest startup-turned-unicorn success stories… and some of the more spectacular stories of failure, too. (WeWork, anyone?) Yet most of us do not think of ourselves as innovators or entrepreneurs.
Think about it. The very thing that every politician declares to be the backbone of America’s economy is something most Americans never attain, much less aspire to.
But there is opportunity in these contradictions: the opportunity to reimagine entrepreneurship. To forge a new path for turning innovative ideas into reality—one that doesn’t rely on the myth of the self-made man but on the idea that we are better when we work together. It’s an opportunity to democratize experimentation and innovation, so the best ideas for shaping society rise to the top, wherever they come from.
It’s an opportunity rooted in a very simple conviction: that every pebble has a ripple effect.
The business startup model, revisited
The traditional model for starting and growing a business looks something like this:
- You have an idea for a new (or improved) product or service.
- You conduct market research to measure the potential audience for your business.
- You form an entity and write your business plan.
- You raise capital to fund your startup—whether you go after venture capital, give crowdfunding a try, or you’re one of the lucky few who can afford to self-fund your idea.
The shortcomings of this model are easy enough to spot. It forces you to raise capital before you truly know if your idea even works. Market research cannot tell you what a real-world test—a dry run—can reveal about your idea. It also causes founders to give up a portion of ownership in a business that still is untested. The earliest seed funding often is the costliest. And for many, the risk and cost of failure are so high, they’re discouraged from even trying.
The problem is not a shortage of ideas; it’s the path we’ve made for bringing ideas to life.
So let’s make another path. Instead of funding untested ideas, we can experiment our way to the best ones. Instead of a high-risk, high-reward model that’s viable for only a small percent of Americans, we can lower the barriers to innovation, so more people can participate.
An accelerator for ideas, not just startups
Builders + Backers is running Idea Accelerators in cities across the United States. These cohorts share a number of features in common with more traditional startup accelerators—but there are important differences as well.
In short, Idea Accelerators are faster and focused on putting ideas to the test, not just a pitch deck. By reducing the barriers to entry, they allow people from a wider, more diverse pool to participate. They focus more on experimentation than how to raise lots of capital, and participants retain full ownership of their ideas.
Idea Accelerators are not limited to participants with previous startup experience. Anyone with an idea and a history of follow-through can apply. During a 45-day Builder Bootcamp, everything from individual coaching sessions to virtual workshops are designed with one end in mind: a customized blueprint, mapping out an experiment that each participant will run to test their idea, before turning it into a venture.
Through the Pebble Fund, a philanthropic account funded by tax-deductible contributions, participants receive up to $5,000 each to cover the cost of their experiment. There are no strings attached to this funding. Your idea does not have to turn into a successful business venture (though many do). You do not give up equity in return for pre-seed funding. Most of the money invested in participants’ experiments goes straight into their local communities—creating value instead of extracting it.
And after the experiment? Well, that depends.
Some ideas turn into scalable business ventures—the most promising ones are eligible for seed investment from Builders + Backers or other early-stage funders. Some ideas become nonprofit ventures; others lead to new community initiatives. Some ideas fail—but the cost of failure is manageable. No one has to quit their job or go without a salary to test their idea, which means this isn’t their one and only shot. Failure isn’t the end of their story.
Idea Accelerators: Real-World Examples
Noting the persistent racial inequality in startup funding, Joseph wanted to try bringing investors and Black entrepreneurs together over a meal. To test his idea, he held the first Equitable Entrepreneurship dinner in Oxford, Mississippi, a “speed dating” style event with dozens of attendees. He used his Pebble Funds to pay for the dinner and venue costs. Just this one event resulted in several entrepreneurs receiving funding, and in Joseph’s work being further funded by a grant from the state of Mississippi.
As a college counselor for more than a decade, Terrie say how much students struggle to get solid advice and pursue post-high school pathways that really worked for them. She had developed a decision-making process that turned into a lucrative consulting business, but Terrie wanted to bring this process to everyone. She had developed some early-stage ideas for an app but hadn’t quite taken the next steps. As a mom to young kids and a working professional, she needed a program that met her where she was. Terrie also didn’t need a huge check - just the right amount of Pebble Funding to help with development and user testing costs. The Idea Accelerator was the fit for her.
Every pebble has a ripple effect.
The result of every experiment is different. But every participant is changed. They begin to see themselves not as entrepreneurs in the narrow sense, but as Builders who are hopeful, empowered, and equipped. They leave with their ideas refined ideas and the path ahead a little clearer.
The future of our economy—of our shared prosperity—depends on our ability to reimagine entrepreneurship, to make innovation and experimentation more accessible. We don’t have time to wait. The future is changing faster than we can keep up. We have to move faster. We have to bring more ideas to the surface.
Through the Idea Accelerator, we can unleash thousands of rapid, low-cost experiments, turning ideas into action, so the most promising ones can rise to the surface—in whatever form they take.
The future of innovation is here, turning ordinary people into Builders.