One of the best ways to transform your downtown is to invest in creative entrepreneurs. But to do that, you’ll need high quality programming to equip those entrepreneurs to run successful businesses.
Mentorship programs, accelerators, incubators, lending programs, pitch nights, technical assistance programs—whatever you discover your community’s entrepreneurs need the most, it’s important to ensure your programs meet their needs and yield results at the community level.
In the 15+ years we’ve been equipping communities to support their entrepreneurs, we’ve discovered some common themes among the most successful entrepreneurship programs.
Invest in whole individuals.
This might seem obvious, but it’s really easy for economy-focused leaders to let traditional metrics dominate their perspective (jobs created, businesses created, business survival rate, etc.)
It may seem counterintuitive, but catering your organization’s activity to achieve impressive-sounding metrics is a great way to shoot yourself in the proverbial foot.
Remember: when you’re in the entrepreneur-support game, you’re dealing with people, their dreams, their livelihoods, and their relationships—not just households and firms.
Because entrepreneurship is an inherently risky endeavor, the people you serve need to feel comfortable with doing whatever is ultimately right for them, even if it means abandoning their idea altogether.
Sometimes an individual may go through your entrepreneurship programs and decide that starting a business isn’t for them; maybe they’ll decide it wouldn’t be beneficial for their mental health or their marriage.
People who participate in your programs will be able to read your expectations of them, and the last thing you want is for people who aren’t actually ready for entrepreneurship to be starting businesses—that will only create a burden for your organization down the road when those business owners become a drain on your resources.
So whichever programs you choose to run, make sure that the individuals you serve feel invested in.
Thriving communities are composed of thriving individuals. If you don’t invest in the latter, you’ll never achieve the former.
Keep it simple, clear, and accessible.
There’s so much hidden potential in your community that lies within the entrepreneurs who don’t think of themselves as entrepreneurs—instead, they think of themselves as tattoo artists, bakers, photographers, chefs, or hair stylists. They don’t have MBAs; to many of them, “entrepreneurship” is associated with techie guys in boardrooms wearing zany socks.
To tap into this pool of talent as an engine for community growth, you need to offer these creatives an onramp to thinking of themselves as businesspeople.
That means making your programs as simple and accessible as possible. This is relevant, not only to how you promote your programs in the community, but also to the content of the programs itself.
Especially for accelerator or incubator programming, you’ll need to break down business and entrepreneurship, two relatively complex concepts, into simple building blocks.
At CO.STARTERS, we do this by keeping our language simple and easy to understand—and avoiding unnecessary business jargon.
Instead of talking about their “value proposition,” for instance, we teach participants to think about how their product or service solves their customer’s problem, and why their product has an advantage over the alternatives.
A tool like our (free!) CO.STARTERS Canvas can be really useful for this, since it forces an entrepreneur to visualize their business model in an intuitive format. Try using it with the entrepreneurs you support!
Entrepreneurship doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The local context of your community is key to supporting the entrepreneurs who live there.
But that also means building connections between the entrepreneurs you serve and the resources throughout the community that they need. The best entrepreneurship programs draw on the capacity and resources of the entire ecosystem—not just the organization hosting the program—to support and connect new entrepreneurs to those resources.
If you currently run entrepreneurial programming, ask yourself: do our programs actively encourage the participants to seek help outside of our organization? Or do they position our organization as the ultimate source of knowledge and authority?
Programs that do the latter will make entrepreneurs more reliant on you, but they won’t help the overall ecosystem develop. Community growth begins with collaboration. Here are some ways you can build bridges for your entrepreneurs:
- Host Advising Hours sessions where you invite outside experts in to hold office hours for entrepreneurs that need their expertise
- When you’re thinking of launching a new entrepreneurship program, ask: is there another organization in our community already offering this? Is there potential for collaboration so that entrepreneurs can benefit from the unique strengths each of your organizations bring to the table?
- Invite political stakeholders to key events. To build good bridges within the community, it helps to get local leadership excited about what your organization is doing. One of the best ways to do this is inviting the mayor, city council, or other officials to your pitch nights, graduation celebrations, or other key events that showcase the impact your programs are making.
Encourage peer-to-peer learning.
As entrepreneur support organizations, it can be easy to assume a “top-down” model of education, where we bring the expertise and the entrepreneurs learn from us. But this ignores a key dimension of learning—the way entrepreneurs need to learn from each other!
Because every individual brings a wealth of personal experience and knowledge to the table, entrepreneurship programs that don’t actively encourage peer-to-peer learning are robbing entrepreneurs of 80% of the education they could be getting.
If you offer accelerator or incubator programming, creating peer connection is low hanging fruit: cultivate frequent moments throughout the program where participants are prompted to discuss their businesses with one another, problem solve together, and listen to each other’s stories.
Even with more individualized programming like mentorship, you can still foster peer-to-peer connection! Schedule a biweekly meetup for all the entrepreneurs in the program to share what they’re learning from their individual mentors with each other.
Ultimately, it’s the relationships between the entrepreneurs in an ecosystem that can make or break it. Having a supportive community of people walking the same road as you can make a world of difference in the entrepreneurial journey and reduce the loneliness that’s so common among entrepreneurs.
That’s why all CO.STARTERS programs use the cohort model. It brings entrepreneurs together to learn with and from each other. When asked about the most beneficial aspect of CO.STARTERS Core, our alumni always mention the relationships and connections forged within the cohort. This is an intentional feature of the program.
While there’s a lot more finer detail that goes into crafting an effective entrepreneurship program, if you follow these general principles, you’ll go further in building an ecosystem where everyone can thrive through entrepreneurship.