A common misbelief is that communities need giant universities, incubators and venture capital to have a successful entrepreneurial ecosystem. It would be fantastic if every community had access to the same resources as Silicon Valley (and the world would look at lot different, and perhaps not necessarily better).
As the Kauffman Foundation’s 2015 research of 355 metro areas reveals, entrepreneurial ecosystems come in a variety of forms—and sometimes the so-called necessary ingredients (ahem, looking at you, venture capital, incubators, accelerators and research universities) are not statistically proven to enhance startup growth.
Yes, vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystems often have different resources and assets—and they can be wielded and activated to create entrepreneurial infrastructures that support their unique brands of entrepreneurship: “Each community must craft its own unique and vibrant startup community; its own entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
Here at SourceLink we believe in the saying, “Win where you stand,” by Clifton Taulbert of Who Owns the Icehouse. We work with communities of all backgrounds to create a supportive foundation of entrepreneurship. From tiny rural towns to sprawling metropolises, nearly every community has access to certain entrepreneurial service organizations.
So where do we start? With what you already have. From small business development centers to public libraries, every community has a wealth of resources to assist its entrepreneurs. The key is organizing those resources into a coherent, relevant, visible and accessible network.
Identifying and mapping your entrepreneur service organizations is the first step in creating a structured entrepreneurial infrastructure that gives visibility to your resources and establishes a strong connected network.
When mapping your entrepreneurial ecosystem, start with the basics. Many cities already have programs and organizations in place to assist entrepreneurs. These are nonprofit, educational or government organizations that offer free or low cost resources to businesses.
Let’s start with the basics of ecosystem building and grow from there.
Identify resource providers
Small Business Administration
The Small Business Administration (SBA) is a key partner in assisting SourceLink communities across the country by offering credibility and support. The SBA can help identify resources that serve small businesses such as SCORE chapters, Women’s Business Centers, U.S. Export Assistance Centers and Procurement Technical Assistance Centers.
Small Business Development Centers
This is a national resource available to your community. Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) is required by law to serve every county in the United States. They provide technical assistance and low-cost training for regional small businesses. Locate your area’s closest SBDC through the Small Business Administration.
Chambers of Commerce
Your region’s chamber of commerce knows and understands your community’s business owners and their needs. Chambers have business programs and resources to help local businesses grow.
Secretary of State
The Secretary of State’s office serves as the filing agency and information clearinghouse for businesses operating in the state. It also assists businesses operating out-of-state to temporarily transact or setup branch offices and do work within the state as a foreign entity. This resource partner also processes trademarks and service marks. The Secretary of State also has a step-by-step registration guide you can share with your business owners.
Contact your Secretary of State to request a presentation for your community on services offered, business entities available, business formation or other tailored content for entrepreneurs. They also operate the Startup for Soldiers program, which waives certain filing fees for new businesses.
Universities or community colleges
Look at the websites of local universities and community colleges to find outreach and extension programs associated with small business development. These are often through the extension office, but may also be offered through the business school or entrepreneurship centers.
Through the years, our libraries have become the not-so-quiet champions of entrepreneurship becoming the essential building blocks of entrepreneurial infrastructure, a critical resource partner for every community supporting their business owners. Many libraries provide programs, free business classes, specialty business reference areas and offer assistance on business literacy. In some cases, libraries act as a co-working space for business owners. The Alexandria Co-Working Network is an Arizona State University initiative that brings people together in collaboration spaces in public libraries across Arizona.
Events optimize collisions. Engage your business community with consistent activities that bring the entrepreneurial community together. Examples include 1 Million Cups, Startup Weekend, pitch competitions, hackathons and happy hours. Place events at times and places convenient to your entrepreneurs like marketing workshops and social kickoffs happening outside of working hours.
Connect the network
Once you’ve identified your community’s assets, bring your entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial service organizations together for resource partner meetings and events to gain a better understanding of what your entrepreneurs need and ensure those needs don’t fall through the cracks.
Ask them about the challenges and opportunities in your community. Ask them who else should be included in these conversations.
In Beyond Collisions, the field guide for building an entrepreneurial infrastructure, we lay out steps to connecting your resources.
1. Connect the resources to each other
2. Connect resources to entrepreneurs
3. Build relationships
4. Identify opportunities for collaboration
Each resource provider will have its own network of entrepreneurs and support resources. A connected, interlocked network makes it easier for entrepreneurs to tap into the assistance they need.
Map your ecosystem
Shine the spotlight on your community’s resources so business owners know where to find help and who can best serve them.
A directory is an easy first step, but to make those resource meaningful and relevant, you’ll need a more robust way to connect entrepreneurs with the resources they need, when they need them.
One way is through a smart database, like The Resource Navigator®, that allows you to classify organizations by industry, business stage and assistance requested; map them by location; and track searches to see what entrepreneurs need and what’s missing. Because communities have unique resources, use a tool that allows you to customize search categories or cluster organizations to reflect the entrepreneurial needs and trends of your community.
For example, Grow North in southern Minnesota used The Resource Navigator to map their food and ag tech resources.
And on the other side, a smart database gives entrepreneurs access to customized resource results based on who they are, where they live and what they need at any point in their business life cycle.
Make a plan to move beyond collisions and build an intentional infrastructure for entrepreneurs.Beyond Collisions: How to Build Your Entrepreneurial Infrastructure is practical field guide that shares what SourceLink and our network of ecosystem builders have learned about how to build entrepreneurial support networks over the past 15 years, including four actions that communities have used to marshal resources and help entrepreneurs start, grow and succeed.
And be sure to sign up for our monthly newsletter, chock full of ecosystem building know-how and best practices.