Samasource 2012 Mistakes and What We Learned


Samasource VP of Business Operations and Strategy Jill Isenstadt poses by an inspirational message at an offsite activity

In the last four and a half years, we’ve tried a lot of strategies to generate income for as many poor people as possible. Along the way, we’ve learned some things that we think would be helpful to share for the benefit of others in the fields of poverty alleviation, impact sourcing, and international development.

Inspired by the groundbreaking transparency displayed on Givewell’s “Our Shortcomings” page, each team at Samasource put together a list at the end of 2012 of mistakes and key things we learned. Below is our compiled list. Please send questions or comments to

Major Issues

• We waited too long to begin our annual strategic planning process (starting in October 2012). This meant our leadership team spent too much time on day-to-day issues during the year versus focusing our organization on driving higher impact numbers in the long term.

• We had turnover in the COO role after only nine months. We believe we did not spend enough time clarifying expectations of this role or investing in our new COO’s success.

• We did not clearly communicate donor impact per dollar. We underinvested in measurement and evaluation and did not have a dedicated Impact Team until mid-2012, which meant that we had to rely on self-reported data from our workers and delivery center partners.

• We underinvested in facilities management and teleconferencing infrastructure. This led to lost productivity across the organization (meetings were 20% less effective than they could have been). Specifically, we waited too long to hire a dedicated Office Manager and this created unnecessary stress for our Operations team.

Minor Issues

• As a young organization, we have struggled to find our market niche. As a result, we have taken on projects that are outside the sweet spot of what our product (the SamaHub) does well, and what our workers can do well with minimal training. On any projects that fall outside the sweet spot, we should work to set client expectations up-front to ensure we have proper ramp time for worker training and onboarding.

• We should have supplemented our Delivery Team headcount with offshore team members earlier in the year to prevent burnout and turnover (we lost two Delivery Team members in Q2 2012). Offshore support is important for the delivery team to ensure timezone and cultural alignment with delivery centers. Offshore support also ensures that the Delivery Team can respond to issues faster.

• We are still trying to predict and plan for spikes in client work volumes. Poor planning and an increase in projects caused tremendous strain on our Delivery Team this past December and led to a rough transition in January.

• It was not the best idea to use the SamaLab (a demonstration site in Nairobi with 6-12 workers that we hire, train, and manage directly) as a financial model for our in-country delivery center partners, given that we chose to co-locate the SamaLab with our East Africa regional office. Though this saved on overhead costs, it made it difficult to pinpoint certain costs related to starting a delivery center.

• Our Field/HQ communications were poor. We didn’t train staff in best practices for working in multiple time zones, resulting in lost productivity and delays in execution on projects due to miscommunication. We created a “Best Practices for Communicating with the Field” document, but it came too late in the year and evening call fatigue/burnout had already challenged some members of the Nairobi-based team.

• Our Field Team should have requested more details and clarification from our Finance Team on annual audit requirements early on in the year. Instead, the Field Team found that the system they put in place was of no use to our Finance Team. This required our Field Team to spend a lot of time reconciling financial data for the 2013 audit.

• Our Field Team should play an active role in business development for both fundraising and sales, handing off screened leads to heads of each department on a regular basis. This fell by the wayside in 2012 due to other initiatives.

• Our Impact Team should have been more proactive in driving organizational goals (including fundraising and setting our target number of beneficiaries), even with limited information, instead of serving the organization more reactively as a data analysis function. Data isn’t useful unless it’s translated into a digestible format and communicated frequently and with a purpose.

• The Business Operations function was not staffed with any full-time employees until mid-Q3. While continuity of ongoing activities (closing the books, legal processing, etc.) were maintained, the upleveling needed to support a growing organization targeting enterprise customers was not started until late in the year.  We have had to scramble to keep up with the insurance, invoicing, the legal needs of enterprise customers, communications systems needs for an increasingly remote workforce, financial controls necessary to manage accounting for multiple Samasource entities, and grants tracking to support new levels of restricted funding.

• We did not focus on market research early enough in the year to inform our product, sales and marketing strategies. During our planning discussions, it quickly became apparent that without gaining a better understanding of our market we could not decide on any initiative with confidence.

• In our communications materials to potential funders, we should do a better job of orienting our value around the impact we have on our beneficiaries instead of focusing on our technology and business model.

• We have under-invested in important tools that will allow us to be more effective in both sales and development. We are particularly late to invest in a robust CRM system for development leads. As a result, our existing CRM implementation is not performing for our sales or development teams.

• We inaccurately forecasted our individual development pipeline for 2012 and as a result, we did not hit our development goals. We have learned over the last year the difference between a cultivated vs. non-cultivated lead, which was instrumental in re-forecasting for 2013.

• Our Marketing efforts were spread across Development and Sales. Marketing was not rolled into one function until October. As a result, donor communications were not as frequent as we wished, we did not have enough communications materials to support our Development Team, and the 2011 Annual Report was not released until early 2013.

• We recognize that we need to be clear with new potential partners and donors that SamaUSA is a different model than Samasource. From the website, people assume that SamaUSA is providing guaranteed jobs and using the same model, which creates confusion when we are trying to explain what SamaUSA is aiming to do. The SamaUSA microsite will help, in addition to having the business plan, executive summary and flyer as collateral.

• In the SamaUSA program, it’s hard for students to win projects without a reputation online (work experience with positive ratings/work samples, etc.). Therefore a very short term training model will not ensure that students will win online work projects on their own, or be motivated to try (they won’t win projects fast enough, or be able to get paid enough).  To respond to this challenge, we will pilot a model where students do supervised work in class before embarking on the online platforms by themselves so they can build up a reputation but with the support to ensure work quality. So SamaUSA becomes a work-based training model: a) training—> b) supervised work on during class—> c) program graduation—-> d) continued support from staff, mentors.

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Filed under Nonprofits, social enterprise

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