Last month, we described what an ecosystem is and how they can help build the pipeline of talent for entrepreneurship and support new businesses in a region or community. This article is about some of the best practices for building an effective Entrepreneur (ESHIP) Ecosystem.
My experience started in East Kentucky at breakfast with my peers who also worked in mission lending organizations. We got together to share some of the struggles we faced supporting new and existing entrepreneurs and were curious if we could implement some ideas that were coming out of the work from e2 Entrepreneurial Ecosystems and the Kauffman Foundation.
As we gathered more people around the table over time, including listening sessions with real entrepreneurs, we heard much more about their unique challenges, needs and barriers to accessing all types of resources to start and grow a business. Our core team decided to organize ourselves into the East Kentucky Technical Assistance Providers (EKYTAP), a network of service providers to support local entrepreneurs.
Here are some of the key lessons and best practices I’ve learned as one of the founders of this network:
Entrepreneurs at the center
When you get a lot of service providers together, it is too easy to focus on our own problems, needs and experiences. This is natural among peer support groups. However, we must take our own medicine and use a customer-centric approach to solving the real problems. So, in our EKTAP organizing, we first created a shared values statement that put the entrepreneur at the center of our purpose and guided our work together.
Having the entrepreneur (demand for services) at the center (rather than a supply-side perspective) is the most telling indicator of a support group’s success. We should help entrepreneurs navigate the complexity of resources and programs among our alphabet soup of acronyms!
The customer-centric design for services is important too. Beware of the “one-stop-shop” approach. This is where there are only a handful of “supermart” places for entrepreneurs to go and shop for their needs. The sheer number of choices and level of understanding of what each resource offers can overwhelm the entrepreneur and they are often more likely to pass on by. Some entrepreneurs are not able or feel comfortable with that supermarket approach, they need to see more accessible options..
I prefer the “no-wrong-door” approach. This design requires that each resource provider in the network ask key questions of those entrepreneurs that find their way to their agency and if they don’t provide the right resource, are able to effectively refer them to a provider to get exactly what they need. The best case is when the referring person follows up to see what the outcome was for the entrepreneur and asks if they still need further assistance.
What is the difference between these two approaches? One is more of a hub and spoke model that may work in large communities or well-resourced organizations. The other is more an interconnected model, where a smaller organization is connected to multiple other organizations that have specialties of support or resources; perhaps even targeted to certain populations. At the systems level a “no-wrong-door” approach is more resilient and healthy. The strength and capacity of the ecosystems is based on the connections and not based upon a few “supermarkets.”
Relationships are required
If we believe that entrepreneurs are our common customers and we are committed to provide access points to help them find the right resources, then the service providers must be well acquainted and equipped to provide effective referrals. This is where the human element becomes most important.
In our EKTAP network, we held quarterly in-person meetings (pre-pandemic) – we had lunch and held special orientation sessions to mentor new members so that they could make professional connections and be better prepared to give referrals. These meetings were a combination of announcements of new resources, new staff persons, updates on a collaborative project and highlights of successful practices and stories of entrepreneurs that utilized our systems. This created a positive group culture all centered on the entrepreneur, cultivated relationships and allowed for accountability.
These relationships required that each person was familiar with other members’ resources, capabilities, and awareness of special programs for certain populations or locations. However, we all realized that what we could do together (in addition to professional connectedness for referrals), was build an awareness campaign under our collective brand or identity as a network to let entrepreneurs know we are here to help. This often becomes the first collective “project” that an ecosystem group will pursue, and it makes sense because our primary goal is to build better access to stronger networked systems for entrepreneurs to find their way to the right resources.
Awareness starts with “You Are Here”
We all need awareness of where we are and where we want to be; that’s what marketing can help. Marketing, publicity and outreach creates awareness and our ESHIP can benefit from using those tactics too.
However, most entrepreneur support organizations (ESOs) don’t have a large budget for marketing their services. This is why ESHIP ecosystem members can collaborate to support marketing efforts together. So, collaborating on awareness and building wayfinding tools is a worthy project for an ESHIP Ecosystem. It often involves some website or portal that can be a starting point or provide a “You Are Here” awareness for entrepreneurs to find their way to resources.
In my experience, the state Small Business Development Center was willing to utilize their website to create a directory and search engine for East Kentucky persons to learn about our EKTAP members. The thing to keep in mind with an online portal (aka directory) is that it must be maintained and the information can become outdated quickly. While resource listings are readily accessible online, it does not take the place of a more skilled individual consultation and assessment that may result in a referral to the right resource. This reinforces my prior best practices mentioned.
I’d love to hear from you about your experience navigating your local resources or helping entrepreneurs in your Ecosystem. Comment any other insights or questions you may have.