This piece is part of a two-part series featuring Upsolve. To read part one, click here.
For mission-based organizations, success is often defined by a lofty vision statement. But, in the “real world,” translating an ambitious mission into daily activities can feel so intimidating that it often goes no further than large words written on the wall or a website. Still, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a few first steps. OKRs are those steps.
Google’s use of OKRs is the most famous example of a high-profile organization whose lofty mission was propelled by OKRS, but there are countless others. Examples include: TED (ideas worth spreading), ONE (end extreme poverty and preventable disease by 2030), Netflix (entertain the world), Wegmans (every day you get our best) and Kleiner Perkins (make history).
Scaling mission: from bankruptcy assistance to fighting poverty
Upsolve is a bold, new organization that is taking flight with OKRs as a co-pilot. Founded in 2018 as a brick and mortar nonprofit, this social justice startup assigned itself a seemingly impossible task: reduce poverty. They set out to do this by helping low income Americans file for bankruptcy for free — a direct move toward accomplishing another audacious goal: solving inequality within our legal system.
Insurmountable problems, right? Not according to to Rohan Pavuluri, Upsolve’s CEO and co-founder who says: “OKRs are the best system to achieve ambitious goals, because it’s a way to set the goalposts far and think of awesome ways to get there and then break them down for individuals on the team.” After developing their product, they set their objective to be the largest nonprofit in bankruptcy legal aid.
Upsolve helped 3,000 people in 2019, relieving $130 million in debt and capturing the market for 30% of all free nonprofit bankruptcies. But tackling bankruptcy is just the beginning. The vision is much bigger. Next, Upsolve is looking to become advocates — shaping policy to relieve the underlying causes of bankruptcy.
As Rohan puts it, “the most effective social change organizations are not pure direct services, but they are mid points between pure direct services and advocacy. One example is Planned Parenthood. They started out giving birth control. And they’ve become leaders in female reproductive health in America in terms of advocating for the rights of women."
Eyes high, Upsolve is growing in size and scale, evolving into an influential advocate in the fight to end poverty. Using OKRs to put a metric to their mission, Upsolve set their next growth goal: being on a run rate to relieving one billion dollars in debt within 12 months. “By setting ambitious OKRs,” says Rohan, “you realize that you can’t just optimize. You need to come up with new ideas to drive growth.“
According to Rohan, “we are already at a scale that parallels with other traditional legal aid nonprofits. But the importance of the one billion scale is that it gives you a platform in order to speak out on injustices that you think need to be changed. And so that’s the hope. And that’s how we communicate our why."
Harnessing metrics: from mission to execution
Rohan and his small team acknowledge that one billion dollars in debt relief is the scale of some federal government programs. Pretty intimidating stuff for most ten person companies. But not Upsolve. Undeterred, Rohan says that setting the specific goal was “a really inspiring thing that our team can get behind.” And reframing the billion dollar figure as ‘the size of a government agency’ made it feel more tangible. It was easier to imagine a real initiative of the same size, such as the amount the NIH spends to research breast cancer annually.
That still felt like a very steep curve, so the next step was to break it down into milestones along the way. They already had a working product and business model, now what was the next milestone to one billion dollars? How much more would they need to do to achieve ‘meaningful scale’?
When the team did the math, it turned out that 1500 new cases filed per month would equal one billion in debt relief. Rohan observed, “so we need to have four times more people coming to our website. And for a startup to say ‘we just need to grow by four times’, that seems pretty doable. It doesn’t seem impossible…Especially when you have hypotheses for each part of the organization.”
Using the 1500 cases/month as a guideline, each team took a turn cascading the top-level goal to measurable progress within their own operations, with each asking what steps could they take to move the organization across the finish line. To use a famous John Doerr football analogy, Upsolve needed to determine what “plays” would advance the ball down the field to the goal line so they could score enough points to win the game.
Recounting Upsolve’s process for setting their game plan, Rohan recounted some of the conversations that emerged from setting the top-level objective, “The SEO department needs to focus on topic development: Can you get to X ? Hell yeah. The product team: Can we get to 2x better conversions? Oh— maybe you set it to 50% better because like 2x is a lot. You design a first mile. Do you think you can increase? And if you do that enough, it’s like oh yeah, of course we’re going to get there. It’s just a matter of execution. and all of a sudden that goal becomes not only unreasonable but inevitable.”
Here are their OKRs:
Each step (Key Result) is “like a lever” that every team member needs to work toward as they move toward the goal post.
Executing mission: metrics illuminate and empower
Rohan explains, “Nobody at Upsolve has any confusion about what they need to do, which direction we’re headed. It’s crystal clear because of OKRs. But there is still this empowerment around what they need in order to achieve those goals.”
Like ONE, Netflix and Wegmans, Upsolve believes that setting ambitious OKRs is crucial for the execution and illumination of a lofty mission. As memorialized in that famous quote by Noman Vincent Peale, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”
They won’t get there all at once, of course. To help his team stay both motivated and grounded along the way, Rohan invites guests who have use Upsolve’s services to share their real life stories with the company — on the phone, via zoom or in-person when possible. That way, Upsolve staff can see their impact directly: the power of facilitating a fresh start. He says, “you can really preserve the humanity of your company but be intensely metrics-driven at the same time.”
As Upsolve expands its offerings from product to platform, the excitement grows. “The sort of advocacy we hope to do is to not just to tell people about these [bankruptcy] problems” says Rohan, “but also (that) we’ve reimagined the legal system through our direct service work. That’s the long term vision of Upsolve.”
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