I first heard we were supporting the Unreasonable Institute, I’ll admit, it sounded a bit like an incubator on steroids. The website proclaims that they “accelerate the world’s most unreasonable entrepreneurs”, which intrigued me. So, I went to the source – and had a fascinating conversation with The Unreasonable Institute’s founding president, Daniel Epstein, to find out how this unusually named company is launching some of the world’s most promising entrepreneurs.
MZ: So tell me what drove you to create this unusually named organization?
DE: Well first of all, I can’t take all of the credit. I started the Institute with four other incredibly talented people: Tyler Hartung, Teju Ravilochan, Vladimir Dubovskiy and Nikhil Dandavati. We are all obsessed with the idea that entrepreneurship is the answer to most of our issues.
Have you heard of the Highlander Institute? They were active in the 1950’s and 1960’s and their goal was to combat social ills and segregation. That Institute was very solutions oriented and trained people to combat issues. Actually, Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King were trained there. Well, our goal is to be the Highlander Institute of the 21st century, but we are taking it up a notch. Instead of combatting regional issues, we are trying to solve international issues.
MZ: That’s a pretty tall order. Obviously you just don’t wake up one day and start solving global issues. How did you go about getting started?
DE: I started a pilot – “The Global Leadership Institute”- with 17 people from 14 nationalities in 2008. The intention behind the program was to look at issues and solutions that were actionable within a five week period. Some things were good, some not.
After the pilot, I brought together a new team to create the Unreasonable Institute. We looked at the key takeaways from the pilot I ran, and we realized that while speakers are important, mentors are more critical for entrepreneurial growth.
The second big takeaway and something we needed to agree on, was that capital was needed to be scalable and make an impact.
We sat down and decided we wanted to focus on social capital and not monetary capital. We spent the first six months doing tons of research. We talked to hundreds of people around the world and did a market analysis on organizations trying to make an impact. Then we tried to figure out how we could be complimentary to them or accelerate them.
This year we had applicants from over 70 countries. We have a multi-tier application process that carries our applicants through three rounds of vetting and then whittles down applicants down to 50 finalists. We then showcase these entrepreneurs, their teams, and their ventures to hundreds of thousands of people around the world on the Finalist Marketplace. See, the thing is, the cost of attending the Unreasonable Institute is $8,000, but we do not allow our applicants, or their teams, to pay it. We challenge their entrepreneurial mettle and given them 50 days to raise the $8,000 on the Finalist Marketplace. The first 25 Finalists to raise the full amount get into the Institute.
MZ: Isn’t that unfair for people who have great ideas but not a lot of money? Can’t someone just pay the $8,000 and get in?
DE: Actually, that is why we created the Marketplace. You see, we don’t allow people to simply pay the $8,000 and buy their way in. Lots of entrepreneurs from developing countries can’t afford that, and we want to ensure that our final round of vetting is a testament to an entrepreneur’s capabilities, not the wealth of their networks. We cap the amount any one supporter can contribute to a finalist each week: in the first week the most you can give to any one entrepreneur is $10, in the second the maximum is $50, and it increases incrementally from there.
Not only does this level the playing field and remove the issue of people buying their way in, but the result is also that Fellows get to attend for free AND in the process they have gotten hundreds of individuals around the world are invested in their success before they even arrive at Institute. We use Twitter and Facebook to promote the Marketplace, and in the first two weeks of the Marketplace being open we had over 2,600 contributors from over 140 countries fund our finalists
MZ: So, tell me what happens once people get in. What can they expect?
DE: This year we are running the Institute from June 16 and July 27. We take 25 highly motivated entrepreneurs and mix them with 60 top mentors and 30 investment funds from around the world and make them all live under the same roof. During the day they are in workshops, participating in sessions on prototype development, design, marketing, raising money, you name it. It never fails though, you can go downstairs at 3 a.m. and there will be five entrepreneurs next to three mentors hashing things out in front of a white board. Life at the Institute has brewed some incredible things.
MZ: What advice would you give inspiring entrepreneurs who might want to apply next year?
DE: Only action validates theoretical knowledge. Fail often and learn. Don’t shy away or make excuses – just start. We’ve seen people overcome amazing odds.
MZ: One last question. Who is the entrepreneur you most admire?
DE: I am really spoiled; I have met some incredible people. And there are a lot I admire. Probably the one I most aspire to be like is Richard Branson. He created an iconic brand and was so far ahead of where other corporations were at the time. It is my hope that Unreasonable will become the Virgin of the 21st century in terms of a brand strategy. We had 22 Fellows come to the Institute last year. 7 have tattoos of our logo on their body now. It really spoke to the idea that being unreasonable can move you forward. I was shocked when I saw the first tattoo, but it showed me that our brand has the ability to go far. I have yet to say this on record, but our organization vision is to have 20 companies operating in 5 countries under the Unreasonable brand by 2015 and to have 100 companies operating in 40 countries by 2020. I know this sounds a bit too Unreasonable, but I assure you, we have a few things up our sleeves that will lead to this level of global scale. I don’t know if we will get as far as Richard Branson, but for me he is the epitome of an entrepreneur.