Best Practices

Network Kansas: Acting Like an Entrepreneur in the Public Sector

Published Jan 13, 2014

Entrepreneurship is a land littered with buzzwords. You can be a Startup, microenterprise, or second-stage company (and if you’re lucky, a "gazelle"). As a Startup, you can be a lean Startup, a solo-preneur, or hobbyist. You might be part of a Brad Feld "Startup Community" (or Entrepreneurship Community if in Kansas). If you are a tech entrepreneur, you might subscribe to "giganomics" and use "gigametrics" to measure your success.

One phrase that has gained popularity in entrepreneurship circles is "fail fast." The idea is highlighted in Eric Ries' book, "The Lean Startup." Ries asserts it is preferable for a Startup business to develop a minimum viable product (or MVP) and then quickly take it to market for validation, as opposed to spending months or years of time trying to create the perfect product, only to find the market doesn't want it. In essence, it’s better to fail fast and adjust with minimal costs and public relations damage than to shoot for perfection only to fail slowly and at great cost. Makes sense, right?

Now think about the public sector. There are thousands of support organizations across the country that support entrepreneurs, including state agencies, small business development centers, community development offices, and other nonprofits. (In Kansas alone, NetWork Kansas has identified more than 500 of these partners, accessible through our referral center free of charge.) The incentive structure in the public sector is different. Failure is a bad word, and there is little external incentive for public servants to avoid risk. For example, a state agency employee that experiments with a concept is unlikely to get a raise or promotion if it makes a positive impact, but if that experiment fails big, the employee could lose their job or at minimum be facing a public relations nightmare of their own making.

I strongly believe that support organizations for entrepreneurs need to act like entrepreneurs. That means trying some things that might not work out as originally planned. At NetWork Kansas, we have attempted many pilot programs, too many for me to count while typing this. Many have become full-blown programs, like our Kansas Economic Gardening Network, which started as a rural pilot program for 30 businesses and is now a statewide effort that engages communities to support growth businesses with marketing expertise. The Entrepreneurship (E-) Community program is another example, a spin-off experiment from our statewide loan program, StartUp Kansas. There are now 44 designated E-Communities, each engaging local leaders to build support networks at the city or county level. (And there is an experiment within the experiment, the Wichita E-Community, which is targeting distressed urban entrepreneurs.) These are clear success stories.

But I consider the pilots that don't go according to plan to be successes as well because we can learn and adjust. In one example, we have made multiple attempts to develop a gap-funding model for Startups in the more densely populated parts of the state, each time to learn that something about the structure or approach hindered progress. In a second example, we attempted a modification of our StartUp Kansas loan program to layer extra support to the state's Rural Opportunity Zone (ROZ) program. Everything looked great on paper...until there was no demand for the product. Both cases yielded valuable information: with startups we have new strategies to test, and with ROZ, we developed a method for reaching out to prospective applicants to connect them to our programs and partners, which was a big (and unintended) win.

At NetWork Kansas, we wouldn't be able to experiment in these ways without the support of our Board of Directors, and it helps that we follow “The Lean Startup” advice to test MVPs; our pilots are limited in scope and we strive for quick market validation or rejection. 

So as a support organization, ask yourself this: What can my organization do to act experimentally? You will be risking a little pride that comes with perfectionism (as a perfectionist, believe me, I know), but if you are smart by starting with pilot ideas of small scope, you will not risk your organization's brand or your job. And you will be pleasantly surprised by what you learn about yourself, your organization, and the people you are serving! 

Content contributed by Anne Dewvall Network Kansas. Network Kansas is a proud affiliate of U.S. SourceLink, America’s largest resource network for entrepreneurs.