For many entrepreneurship hubs and economic development organizations, it can be surprisingly challenging to connect with the people they’re trying to help.
Epicenter Memphis faced this very problem—and their solution might surprise you.
Memphis, like many other American cities, has a bustling downtown. But there is often a disconnect between the commercial, urbanized activity in the heart of the city and the neighborhoods surrounding it.
When Epicenter came onto the scene, the community already had several resource providers for entrepreneurs, and they didn’t want to simply replicate tools and resources that other organizations had already developed. But they saw a disconnect between the resources being offered and the sparse amount of participation in those services. Some people in the community were overlooked.
Start Co, Memphis’s tech accelerator for high growth startups, effectively churns potential into promise. A problem, however, is that many entrepreneurs are simply not ready for an intensive incubation program. To apply to this kind of program, an entrepreneur needs confidence in their idea, skills, and ability to convey their venture’s potential to others.
Not only are many entrepreneurs not prepared for an accelerator, but most of them will never need one. Not all good business ideas are high growth business ideas. Hair salons, coffee shops, and other family-owned businesses are typically not scaled beyond a second or third location in the community, but they are vital to a community’s economy, local pride, and sense of self.
This is why communities with plenty of accelerators but no programming for early stage or small businesses may experience a frustrating lack of interest in entrepreneurial outreach.
“To reach people, you have to meet them where they are, not where you’d like them to be,” shared Taylor Sherbine, Community Manager at Epicenter Memphis. “A community’s most promising future businesses are mostly unexecuted—they live in the heads of uncertain dreamers.”
So when Epicenter Memphis started thinking about which programs to offer the Memphis community, they recognized this gap—there wasn’t much for the entrepreneurship-curious in town.
“That’s what our CO.STARTERS programming is good for,” said Taylor. “CO.STARTERS is great for someone who either doesn’t have a business or who does have one but no concrete plan.”
After attending a Get Started workshop—usually facilitated by a CO.STARTERS alumni—or going through the 10-week Core program, an entrepreneur may be referred to any of Epicenter’s 50 partner organizations in Memphis. StartCo is a natural next-step for many tech-minded businesses, but Memphis also hosts a biotech accelerator called Zeroto510 and an agriculture accelerator called Ag365.
Epicenter continued to find more of these gaps in the idea-to-business pipeline. There wasn’t a coordinated mentorship program in town. And even though Memphis had plenty of organizations offering help to entrepreneurs and businesses, there was no central way to learn about all of them. And what about training for older, less technologically capable entrepreneurs? There weren’t many resources for them.
Epicenter has addressed these needs in the entrepreneurship pipeline since their founding (through their Entrepreneurs in Residence, Resource Navigator, and Work For Yourself 50+ programs, respectively).
This is Epicenter’s organizational strategy and mission—to be a gap-filler, the bridge that carries hopeful entrepreneurs between Epicenter’s own supplied resources and the opportunities that other organizations are better equipped to provide.
It turns out this strategy is wildly effective for reaching local entrepreneurs and business owners.
“To reach people, you have to meet them where they are, not where you’d like them to be. A community’s most promising future businesses are mostly unexecuted—they live in the heads of uncertain dreamers.” – Taylor Sherbine
Epicenter has now helped create and scale over 360 companies in the Memphis area—that’s over 600 individual entrepreneurs served.
Epicenter recently expanded their reach even further by receiving a grant to dedicate some programming and staff to Memphis’ Frayser neighborhood, a community in need of attention from entrepreneurial support organizations. Epicenter will be hiring two full-time staff members to focus solely on building relationships within the neighborhood, so that Epicenter can better understand the community’s needs.
Epicenter’s method of filling the gaps in the entrepreneurial pipeline—rather than trying to provide the entire lineup of resources themselves—produces many returns. They’ve built strong webs of trust between their many partner organizations. Burnout is common among organizations who try to take on it all, but Epicenter’s pin-point approach allows them to focus on the areas where it needs to be most effective.
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