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Updated: September 20, 2023

How to level up your business with a VIRAL self-assessment

Courtesy photo Carrie Green Yardley

It looks like a board game. The players choose the stakes. For coaches and spectators, it’s serious business.

Why play? Village Capital’s Venture Investment Readiness and Assessment Levels (VIRAL) tool has been adopted by many of the members of Maine’s small business development community, notably the Maine Technology Institute, Maine Center for Entrepreneurs and Maine’s Small Business Development Centers. Its principles have been extended beyond capital investment to grants, business development education and loans.  

The VIRAL tool measures a business’s maturity across eight different areas: team, problem and vision, value proposition, product, market, business model, scale and exit.

Maturity is measured in nine levels, from Level 1 (“Establishing a founding team”) through Level 9 (“Exit in sight”).  The levels are matched to possible types of investors — the spectators — from “Friends, family and bootstrap” through “Acquirers.”  

There is one rule: Until your business meets all of the criteria in every area at given level you don’t advance to the next. Until you’ve leveled up, investors at that level may choose to fund someone else.

Widely used in Maine. MCE’s Top Gun business accelerator program uses the VIRAL tool to evaluate applicants in its competitive selection process.  Laurie Johnson, Top Gun Program Manager, observes that at the beginning of the program many participants “aren’t fully at Level 1. It will be hard for them to find capital to expand. Our goal is to show them where and how they need to grow to become sustainable, and direct them to the resources they need, including resource partners like MTI and SBDC.”

For example, you may have a prototype (Level 2) but if you haven’t considered whether anyone has a reason to buy it, you may have a solution in search of a problem. (Level 1: “Team has identified a specific, important and large problem").  You may need to do some market research before you qualify for a research and development grant.

A common language. VIRAL is a self-assessment tool focusing on the qualities of businesses at different levels of maturity, and not a quantitative deep dive. The chart contains very few numbers, and no accounting ratios. However, “VIRAL gives us a common language,” says MCE Executive Director Tom Rainey. This makes it useful to MCE’s co-participants in Maine’s entrepreneurial economy. Assigning a level is a short-hand way to communicate a substantial amount of information about where a business stands.

Not just for venture investment. The VIRAL tool was created to evaluate readiness for increasing levels of venture investment in a product, but according to the MTI website the tool can be used to assess nearly any type of product, service, process, or organization at every stage of development. 

Businesses can choose their own goals. Many Maine businesses do not want to surrender control to a venture capital investor or cash in with a big buy out. These businesses want to grow to achieve prosperity and sustainability. For these businesses, “investment readiness” might translate to access to credit.

Jennifer Boutin, Maine SBDC’s associate director of operations, says that “VIRAL’s approach parallels the elements of a strong business plan,” making it useful in predicting whether a business will qualify for a loan. Lenders may want to see a well-developed plan, with hard numbers, but VIRAL allows the business to understand quickly what that plan should demonstrate. 

MTI takes the VIRAL assessment seriously when awarding and monitoring grants. It uses VIRAL levels to establish a baseline and to guide follow-on assessments measuring the progress achieved by businesses receiving MTI funding.

Bianca Kowal, an MTI senior investment officer, says, “Our grants are meant to support business and start-up entrepreneurs at the research and development stage (Level 1) through development, commercialization, and scaling efforts. There is certainly a focus on innovation and value proposition, a strong team, and market opportunity. The higher a company VIRAL’s the more funding they can potentially receive.” 

Give it a try. On one page, the VIRAL chart lets you assess what your barriers are, and what you need to do to break them down and have meaningful conversations with the people who want you to get to the next level.

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