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Our Collaborative Strategy approach helps social impact organizations develop powerful strategies that everyone can support...for real.  Here's one story of how it worked:

Designing a Social Venture from the Ground Up...Together

[NOTE: STAR Communities is now LEED for Cities and Communities]

STAR Communities, an emerging sustainability standard for cities and towns, needed a business–not just a business strategy, but an entire earned income business model to generate mission-supporting revenues.

The need was urgent. STAR’s funders had already patiently supported a multi-year standards development process involving hundreds of stakeholder experts. They were now threatening to withhold funding until STAR had a viable business design in place.

STAR needed to design a viable social venture, and do it fast. But they needed a plan that would “stick” so that, come Monday morning, they would start to build this social venture with energy and focus.

While the urgency and scope of STAR’s service design need was unusual, the problem is one that’s faced by social ventures and companies alike: How do we meaningfully leverage user insight to rapidly prototype viable services that have high likelihood of success? Most importantly, how do we make it real and practical so that people actually implement the plan on Monday morning?

CoCreative, in partnership with service design expert Laura Weiss, helped STAR rapidly prototype a robust social venture business model. In a 2-day (actually, 1.75 days but who’s counting?) multistakeholder design charrette, we engaged board, funders, prospective customers and STAR staff in a real-time process to rapidly design a prototype of the STAR business.

1. Identify “Shifts” in the Customer Experience


Who were STAR’s customers and what do they really need?


Before the 2-day charrette, the stakeholder participants interviewed potential STAR customers–from city managers and mayors to directors of sustainability. They asked them about their day-to-day experiences in prioritizing and managing sustainability initiatives. How do they spend their time? How did they make decisions? What frustrates them? What inspires them?


We could have written a fascinating novel about what we learned, but we didn’t have time. Instead, we brought this “ethnographic insight” into our event, shared stories about insights we got from these experiential interviews, and quickly identified a number of critical “Experience Shifts.” That is, from our look into the lives of potential STAR customers, what aspects of their experiences needed to shift to make things work better?

2. Create a Roadmap to a Business Design


At the charrette, we created a roadmap to follow in designing STAR’s business, identifying all the key pieces we would need in order to design a viable social venture. Of course, we couldn’t create everything in two days (and we didn’t want to bore prospective customers!), so we agreed to just work on the items in yellow below.

 3. Equip our Designers with Service Concepts


We had a lot of smart people in the business design charrette, but most of them were not experienced social entrepreneurs, so they needed some ideas of what viable business models look like. We equipped them with a set of Service Design Concept Cards, illustrating 16 common service models that successful businesses and other social ventures have used.

4. Generate Service Concept “Stories”


While brainstorming is often conceived as being an “open” process where all ideas are welcome, a more productive approach to ideation involves setting clear design constraints on ideas. Based on that, we asked each group to generate at least 10 service or product ideas according to the following requirements:

  • You must use your 3 experience shifts (each group got 3 of the experience shifts we had mapped that morning)

  • You must use at least 3 service role concepts

  • Every idea must earn income for STAR

  • Every idea must have a specific customer


Each group then developed their concepts by sharing short stories about the potential service, revealing how it could support powerful shifts in the experience of STAR’s prospective customers.

5. Develop the Most Promising Concepts


Arguing amongst themselves (in a friendly, productive way), each team then selected the top 10 services concepts based on the following rigorous and very scientific design criteria:

  • Customers will LOVE the service,

  • Customers will PAY FOR the service, and

  • At least one of the services ideas could be launched WITHIN 6 MONTHS.


After hearing the pitches, we then had the stakeholders work hard in tiny groups of three to develop the top concepts into full-fledged service concepts. We knew these would be the real winners.

6. Criticize Each Other’s Ideas


Well, actually we weren’t convinced that these ideas were workable at all, so we put them to the “crowd test.”  Each small group had three minutes to sell their idea to the rest of the room. Since it was a friendly room, after trying to tear apart each concept, we offered suggestions for making them even better, faster, and stronger.

This was a critical point for the staff of STAR, who pushed for service designs that were both practical and fundable (and, of course, it didn’t hurt that two of STAR’s major funders were in the room).

7. Bring it All Together


The next day, after a continental breakfast that was actually tasty (thank you, US Green Building Council), we looked at our top 8 ideas as a whole. Did they fit together as a meaningful set of service offerings? Would the whole set address the critical experience shifts our prospective customers had shared with us? Could we hit the ground running with them on Monday? The answer? Yes, mostly.

8. Emerge a Pricing Model


Of course, these services had to make money, and we needed a pricing model that made sense to STAR’s customers.

Having customers in the room made all the difference. They knew that STAR needed robust revenues to fulfill its ambitious mission of advancing sustainability among the nearly 90,000 municipalities in the US (not to mention their international ambitions). They also knew their budgets, and how budget decisions get made in their towns.

Together, we evolved a tiered pricing model, with a matching set of services at each level, to meet prospective customers anywhere along the adoption curve. If the community wanted to “wade into the shallow end” of the sustainability pool, STAR had a lite offering that would get them started.  If the community wanted to be a clear sustainability leader, STAR could offer them the full monte.

9. Go to Beta…Fast

Many business plans start to die the following Monday. To ensure that STAR could leap forward into prototyping the service concepts, we returned to our process roadmap and this time used it to create a project roadmap, identifying the key milestones to bring these concepts to life over the following 8 months, also known as STAR’s seed stage.

Here’s the ACTUAL map from the event:

And here’s the map in Prezi, for sharing with STAR’s many other stakeholders:

10. Look to the Future

Finally, we sketched out what STAR’s services might look like in the longer-term, and the phases of growth that we expect this new venture to go through. This provided a larger context in which to make the near-term service development decisions.  After all, as the great Zen master and baseball manager Yogi Berra observed, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might end up someplace else.”

The Results?


STAR’s two major funders are excited about the organization’s plans and prospects as a social venture (and, yes, they did release those payments).


STAR’s staff was energized and executing on a clear roadmap to a compelling set of services.


STAR’s customers signed on–and are paying for–STAR’s services.


Everyone knew what to do on Monday morning.

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