Melissa Roberts, marketing director of the Enterprise Center of Johnson County, shares how those interested in helping the startup community can effectively engage entrepreneurs.
In my work at an entrepreneurial service non-profit in Kansas City, I get to meet many passionate, community-minded people each day.
Often, those people have no connection to our startup community, other than a desire to help and support those “grinding it out “ as entrepreneurs. In that situation, many people find their way to organizations like mine to seek advice on how to best support entrepreneurs. Others, while equally well intentioned, strike out to provide resources to startups on their own.
It is been said by Robert Burns, John Steinbeck and many others that, “the best-laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.” The best-laid schemes of those engaged in the entrepreneurial world often go awry, too. That is why entrepreneurs spend hours reading The Lean Startup and Steve Blank’s blog, testing their assumptions, interviewing customers and sometimes “pivoting” at the last possible minute. Understanding your customer is paramount to success in the minds of many entrepreneurs.
However, those most vested in helping entrepreneurs succeed sometimes have the poorest understanding of their customers — entrepreneurs themselves. This lack of understanding of their customers’ needs and motivations can prompt the richest and most powerful of people to misallocate resources intended to support startups. Think about it — I know I have seen failed co-working spaces, events attended by sparse crowds and under-utilized mentoring programs, all created in the name of helping entrepreneurs.
How can we better ensure that the resources intended to help an early-stage business community succeed are used effectively? Before starting your next initiative intended to help entrepreneurs, follow these six steps to ensure your resources help companies succeed.
1) Listen first
If you want to help entrepreneurs, start by doing a little research, the way any entrepreneur would. Interview your “customers” and see the issues with which they truly struggle. Your initial hypotheses may be confirmed, or you may end up with a new idea. Try not to ask leading questions, or trap those you are interviewing into saying what you wish they would. Ask open-ended questions and listen with an open mind.
2) Do not overlap, find a gap
If this is your first foray into dealing with the world of entrepreneurs, do your research to ensure that you are not trying to solve a problem that others are already working on. If you are not the first on the scene, join existing efforts, rather than trying to create a new entity or event series. In a world where scarce resources are a way of life, there is nothing more frustrating than watching those resources go to waste by duplicating efforts.
3) Mitigate risk
There is a misconception that being an entrepreneur is an exercise in taking risks. While that is certainly an important part of the entrepreneurial ethos, most entrepreneurs spend their time and resources doing everything they can to mitigate risks — of failure, of running out of money, of building something that no one wants to buy — by building better partnerships, gaining publicity and getting advice. If you can contribute to an entrepreneur’s venture by helping them mitigate risk, you can help them have a greater chance at success.
4) Cash is king
If there is a way to provide small amounts of grant funding for entrepreneurs, consider contributing. Often, finding the initial funding to build the first iteration of an app, platform or service takes lots of time and energy. Not every idea should be funded. For example, in Kansas City or similar areas outside of the major entrepreneurial hubs, this proof-of-concept funding is an essential resource to entrepreneurs with an idea, but without wealthy family and friends to turn to.
5) Do it for free (or for equity)
If the greatest asset you can offer to entrepreneurs comes in the form of time and expertise, rather than money, you can still have a significant impact on a startup’s success. If you’re an industry expert, consider mentoring or acting as an informal advisor to a company. If you need to get something in exchange for your time, working for equity instead of cash can be a way for startups to access your expertise without raising their “burn rate” — the amount of money they have to spend each month to keep the doors open.
6) Share what you’ve learned (and keep learning)
Above all, sharing lessons learned about your successes (and failures) can help both entrepreneurs and other interested in engaging with them learn by example. This can be as simple as talking with an entrepreneur over coffee, or as far-reaching as an ongoing blog. As you become recognized as a startup community hero, you might find that others start to get in touch with questions about how and where to engage. In this circumstance, it is your responsibility to keep learning about the programs and resources available in your community. The more you know, the more knowledge you can share with others.
Of course, following these six steps will only get you started as a contributor to your local entrepreneurial community. As you take the time to get more deeply engaged and add value to startup support efforts, I hope you’ll chime in with comments on your lessons learned and other strategies that might be helpful to those looking to take the first step in helping entrepreneurs succeed.