Strategies to sustain your entrepreneurial ecosystem

We are experiencing unprecedented opportunities for communities to evaluate how best to respond to short-term needs while building resilient solutions for long-term success. While it might be tempting to jump right in, it’s important to take the time to evaluate successful outcomes and develop a strategy to achieve your goals. Entrepreneurs are key contributors to job creation and economic stability, so your long-term strategy should include ways to support their success by building effective entrepreneurship ecosystems. Having worked in over 100 communities for over 18 years, SourceLink understands that with ecosystem-building there will never be a check box to mark “done”. Responding to external events and changes that impact your community requires ongoing adjustments to effect lasting and meaningful economic change.

There are significant government dollars available for economic recovery right now. Before you  apply for money to fund your entrepreneurship-led economic development work – whether you’re just starting out, or are expanding your programming – dedicate time to strategically consider your long-term goals and craft your vision.

Ask yourself: How can these dollars make the greatest impact in your community? How can your programming be sustainable and live beyond this grant cycle? How can you get others on board to help support your vision? Here are some things to consider:

Staff for success

Ecosystem building is real work, and initiatives can fail when the necessary time and resource commitments aren’t taken into consideration. Dedicating staffing is critical to long-term success.

When you apply for a grant or seek funding, think about how staffing needs can be written into your application. A few positions we recommend you consider are:

  • Network Builder: Serves as the program director, managing relationships and overseeing operations.
  • Network Communicator: It’s critical to share information about your work and celebrate successes with the community.
  • Network Navigator: Often, entrepreneurs need a knowledgeable person to help them connect to resources. The Navigator provides a direct link between services within the network and the entrepreneurs, and monitors satisfaction as well as economic impact.

We see a variety of staffing models, including collaboration between more than one organization. This approach has resulted in sustainable success for IASourceLink. They take a collaborative approach to staffing and funding these positions with responsibilities divided between the Iowa Economic Development Authority and the Center for Business Growth and Innovation at the University of Northern Iowa.

Collaborate with community stakeholders

Building collaborations can spark, spur, and sustain economic growth. Communities with clearly defined needs that demonstrate a gap and have organizations working in partnership to create successful interventions are better positioned to seek and win funding support.

These large-scale collaborations may involve non-profit resource partners, corporations, higher education, and local funders, and can help drive significant federal dollars into a community. Success in securing grants is often a combination of data that demonstrates a need and collaboration among organizations working towards a shared outcome.

As our founder Maria Meyers shares in her whitepaper Making (and Measuring) an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem, most funders look for “partners that indicate a shared commitment to solve the problem.”

Measure your progress, show your impact

When communities track and measure progress, that data can tell a compelling story. We often find the communities that are most successful in getting additional grant dollars to support or expand existing programs are the ones who carefully monitor outcomes.

When you can make a strong case for a need in your community and use data to show where the gaps exist, it can help with securing additional funding to support your work. Additionally, this information may help you gain buy-in from people in your community who might not understand the scope and impact of your work.

Colmena66 is a great example of a SourceLink affiliate who continues to be successful in securing EDA grants year after year. They rely on SourceLink Pro CRM to capture meaningful data that is used to develop annual impact reports. These reports effectively celebrate entrepreneur successes and communicate the story of their entrepreneurial support work in Puerto Rico, showcasing economic impact and reinforcing the value of their ecosystem.

Evolve with your ecosystem

If you are doing long-term ecosystem-building you will need to adjust your goals and strategies as your ecosystem evolves and new gaps or opportunities surface. Kate Hodel, a former SourceLink colleague who worked in entrepreneurship for over 25 years, likes to refer to it as a “rinse and repeat” process.

Identify and fill gaps as your ecosystem evolves; consider how the needs differ for new entrepreneurs and those who have been in business for a while, as well. External factors such as public policy and natural disasters like the recent pandemic impact the needs of small businesses, so it’s vital to have current information about relevant issues affecting the entrepreneurs in your community.

To stay on top of these factors and entrepreneurs’ needs, do regular pulse checks with your network and stakeholders. Send out surveys to your entrepreneurs so that you can share real-time feedback with your network and make sure entrepreneurs have access to what they need most urgently. We also recommend convening your resource partners on a regular basis to discuss longer-term trends, gaps and consider who else should be invited into the conversation.

Don’t give up

If you didn’t get the specific grant you applied for, don’t give up. With persistence and creativity, you can look for other funding opportunities to execute your well-developed plan.

We are seeing several examples of communities that applied for but did not have success receiving SBA and EDA grants pivot to secure alternative funding that allows them to implement their original vision. It’s also worth noting that many communities are utilizing other funding sources such as county and city public sector dollars, as well as private and community foundation grants.

Always be thinking ahead

Because this work is ever-evolving, it’s crucial to have one eye on the future. Plan for ongoing strategic conversations and data monitoring. Subscribe to communications from organizations that can help you keep up to date on trends and funding opportunities..

Here are some organizations we’d recommend you follow:

SourceLink has demonstrated success helping communities build and grow sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystems. If you have questions about how to move your community forward, we’d love to hear from you. Email us at [email protected] to start a conversation.