In October 2021, I received an initial grant of $9,640 from the EA Infrastructure Fund to launch Effective Self-Help, a project researching more effective wellbeing and productivity advice.
This was, well, a little unexpected. The subsequent 7 months have been an exciting learning curve, if at times also daunting and a little overwhelming. What follows is my attempt to convince you why you should start a pilot project in EA and then offer my advice on how to do this based on my experience launching Effective Self-Help (ESH).
I hope this post can inspire a few people to follow through on ideas they have for projects. Starting any kind of project on your own is scary but incredibly rewarding, and I think is the most impactful thing many students and early-career EAs could be doing.
As it’s based on my experience, it’s probably a little unrepresentative in some aspects. I think the central points are pretty universal though, whether you’re wanting to launch an organisation, start a blog, or set up a new community group.
I plan to publish a follow-up post in the next week or so highlighting the many lessons I’ve learnt while building ESH, attempting to shine a light on the pitfalls I’ve encountered so you can avoid making the same mistakes.
Hopefully, there are a few useful lessons here for people early in their journey as an effective (altruist) entrepreneur. At the very least, writing and posting this is a valuable reflection exercise for me.
A case for impact
I’ll state this briefly as this has been discussed in-depth elsewhere. EA has an increasingly large amount of total funding available relative to the number of cost-effective projects it can spend this money on. High availability of funding isn’t universal but is probably particularly true if you’re passionate about longtermism or community-building, this is probably particularly true.
Starting a pilot project that could scale to absorb some of this funding has huge potential value. Some of the world’s largest companies started in a small niche before progressively expanding. Similarly, EA itself started as a small, niche movement focused on charity evaluation before expanding to what it is today.
While your chances of large-scale success may be low, I think there are few alternative career paths that can produce as large a best-case impact as effective entrepreneurship.
A case for personal value
That all sounds great, but what about if you fail? Isn’t that the most likely outcome?
I would argue that as a student or early professional with any interest in entrepreneurship, starting a pilot project is the most valuable thing that you can do irrespective of the project’s success or failure. In other words, I think the personal value of trying to create, run, and scale your own project is large enough to justify the choice of doing this by itself.
A few reasons to justify this strong claim:
1. Demonstrate soft skills in a particularly robust way
As a project lead, you have to manage your time, build relationships, and stay on track with goals on your own. If you can do these things the hard way, any future employer can be confident that you can do them with the benefits of a manager and organisation structure.
2. Stress-test your approach to work.
Lack an accountability system? Tend to form imprecise goals? Struggle to plan and organise your time?
Running your own project will test your approach to the foundational skills of working effectively and productively. You’ll learn very quickly where you need to improve how you work. Out of this, you’ll build more robust systems that will bring you benefits for years to come.
3. Make many more, and better, contacts
People tend to get excited about great ideas, regardless of the credentials of who developed them.
Over the past six months, I’ve built countless valuable connections with people many years more senior than me on a pretty level playing field. I think this is because they’re sufficiently interested in my ideas that it’s largely unimportant how experienced I am.
I believe that I’ve spoken to a lot more people, and probably more high-value people, about my career than I would have done taking any other path. While I’m very sold on my personal fit for non-profit entrepreneurship, I think these contacts will be useful to me regardless of what I do in the future.
Of course, take this all with a pinch or two of salt. I’m arguing here predominantly from my own experience and I think that you’re likely to run into diminishing returns at some point.
Perhaps I’ve convinced you that you really should start a pilot project. How on earth are you supposed to go about doing that?
Choose an idea
A good pilot project begins with an idea… and then another… and then plenty more on top of that.
Try to brainstorm as many ideas for projects as possible. Be creative. Write down every idea you have, whether bad, silly or just plain weird. Then pick a few criteria (the ITN framework is a good place to start) and spend a few minutes per category scoring each idea.
Struggling for a place to start? Take a look at this great old post, the articles listed under the ‘Take Action’ Forum tag, FTX’s project idea list, and Charity Entrepreneurship’s research reports for some inspiration. Still struggling? Message me for a few ideas for projects I’d like to see happen but don’t have the time to start.
Once you’ve scored a bunch of preliminary ideas, take the better-ranking options and run with them. What makes this useful? How could you go about working on it? What skills might you need and do these align with some of your strengths? How could test this in a short, specific, measurable way? Are there any notable risks that could make running a pilot version of this idea actively harmful?
In my case, I applied to EA Funds with one idea only to realise at the last minute that I was more excited about the potential impact of another idea (which became ESH). Save yourself the trouble and start with a long list of ideas before developing a specific idea further.
Streamline and iterate
Once you’ve got the basis of an idea, you need to make it as simple, specific, and clearly-defined as possible.
Map out a theory of change. Decide on a central, measurable goal and then figure out the simplest, most direct path to achieving it. Narrower is almost always better since projects tend to seem far simpler on paper than they are in practice.
Following this advice for narrowness is perhaps what I have struggled with most. ESH researches both wellbeing and productivity. In hindsight, I think a better pilot project would have picked one or other to work on exclusively to begin with.
The simplest way to streamline your project is to put it in front of others. In particular, try explaining your idea to non-EA friends in a single sentence. Explaining to my old colleagues what my new job was going to be helped me zone in pretty quickly on the core pitch of Effective Self-Help. If you can’t do this, you probably aren’t clear enough on your central goal and method for reaching it.
Beyond this, make use of your EA network. Send your project pitch to anyone you know and ask them to add comments and feedback, highlighting specific uncertainties you may have.
Apply for pilot funding
Now you’ve got a robust idea, it’s time to apply for funding. EA is a special community for its willingness to offer startup funding to relatively untested but high-value project ideas. From my own experience, EA Funds are responsive, helpful, and particularly open to new ideas.
While I had some useful experience from prior positions, I was also working as a waiter at the time I sent my application for ESH to the EA Infrastructure Fund. Don’t let what may feel like an unusual career path or relatively meagre track record put you off applying.
You may also be surprised by the relatively high odds of a successful funding application compared to applying for many EA jobs or training programmes.
With that said, I would like to emphasise a few, key guidelines for writing applications that I think improved my odds of success:
1. Be honest and transparent
It’s okay to lack skills or experience in important areas relevant to your project. Many of these skills can be learnt on the go. Actually building something can produce a remarkable amount of experience pretty quickly.
It’s not okay to pretend you have skills or experience that you don’t, or to try and oversell the experience you have to a gross extent. Chances are, someone will notice and your otherwise promising application will be rejected.
2. Start small, but be ambitious
What would your project look like if you tested it for just three months?
You may be convinced of the need for 12 months’ funding to develop your idea but the more money you ask for, the higher a bar of experience and demonstrable impact you will need to clear. Short timelines reduce the risk of wasted resources. A 3-month timeline saves funders’ money for other initiatives and saves you committing more time than is worthwhile on an unproven idea.
All the same, make sure to highlight how your project could be effective at a larger scale in future. Be clear on your endline goal, even if seems daunting to write that your idea might be most effective operating on a budget of millions, not thousands down the line.
3. Put some numbers on it
In line with the general spirit of EA, putting numbers on your estimates of impact and value provides a clear point for debate and comparison. Again, focus on your central goal and the steps you need to take to achieve it.
I want to help
In my experience, starting a pilot project can feel overwhelming but is incredibly rewarding and valuable. I’ve encouraged many people over the past several months to try following a similar path to the one I’ve taken.
I think one thing that might be putting some of these people off is a lack of support and guidance for people with limited prior experience. I want to contribute to solving this by offering to advise anyone who wants to launch a pilot project in EA.
With the caveat that my experience is limited in comparison to many entrepreneurs and project leaders in EA, I think I may be able to help in the following ways:
- Reviewing an initial pitch for funding as someone who has no say on whether your grant application will or won’t be accepted
- Discussing the lessons I’ve learnt from applying for funding and building ESH, perhaps offering advice on specific issues you’re worried about
- Helping you choose an idea by working with you to turn a rough concept into a more concrete basis for a project proposal. I can also offer specific suggestions of projects I’d like to see happen.
subject to personal fit.
e.g. Facebook; Amazon; Paypal - see ‘Zero to One’ by Peter Thiel.
I think there are several other strong arguments that could be made here too - e.g. building project and people management skills that might fast-track your ability to manage a team or project within an existing EA organisation.
Though as a baseline, this seems unlikely to be within the first six months from what I’ve seen.