IASourceLink donned a startup attitude and enrolled in Venture School, a nationally recognized six-week program for entrepreneurs developed by the University of Iowa’s John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (JPEC). The program was designed to aid aspiring entrepreneurs in accelerating the startup process.
Based on NSF Innovation Corps Curriculum—think Lean Launchpad—Venture School will help IASourceLink to better understand the startup process for the entrepreneurs it serves and use the lessons to help it reach further and faster into its own market.
So what can an entrepreneurial service organization learn from acting like a startup for a month? Plenty.
“I personally think there’s value in running government programs through this process to help them really validate whether there is a market and determine how best to align for it,” says Paul Kinghorn, director of the UNI Center for Business Growth and Innovation.
Here are four of IASourceLink’s key takeaways from Venture School.
Know your customers.
At the end the day, nonprofits and for-profits alike have people—partners, customers, clients—to whom they’re trying to bring value. IASourceLink is no different. They serve Iowa small business owners and entrepreneurs, inviting them into their services and their website to help them find the right resource to start and grow their businesses.
But IASourceLink is also building a network of resources, and so their clients/customers are also those entrepreneurial service organizations to whom they can bring more value and visibility. By understanding their audiences, the community and what their customers need and want, IASourceLInk can better shape its programming to meet market demand.
Venture School asked participants to take their businesses through the business model canvas. This allowed IASourceLInk to look at who their customers are, what their value proposition is and to understand a day-in-the-life of their customer. This led them to a new understanding of what their customers—entrepreneurs and service providers—struggle with and where IASourceLink could best add value.
Test your hypotheses.
We all have ideas of what we think our customers want. Through this process, IASourceLink tested their assumptions. They interviewed 80 of their customers—entrepreneur and service providers—asking them targeted questions about their challenges and their needs. They discovered that rural entrepreneurs and service providers have different needs and networks than their urban counterparts. The interviews also revealed that they weren’t always speaking the same language as their target audience. Both of those insights gave IASourceLink the opportunity to redefine their ongoing vision and even their vocabulary.
Evaluate your sales funnel.
Through Venture School, IASourceLink took a hard look at how they interacted with their service providers, at all points of their service cycle. They discovered they could improve education and training on the frontline, with the staff of their 350+ Resource Partners who answer the phones and talk directly to business owners. Those “first responders” are the ones who need to have clear view of the benefits of the full resource network, so they can refer entrepreneurs back to IASourceLink when entrepreneurs’ questions go beyond what their particular organization offers.
Find and fill the gaps.
IASourceLink found that its urban, innovative entrepreneurs were well connected into Iowa’s entrepreneurial network. But in rural communities, the distance between entrepreneur and the resource network was greater. Entrepreneurs in rural communities don’t have the dense sphere of influence they could easily tap to find connections, mentors, investors and customers. This is an opportunity for IASourceLink to bridge the gap and link rural, innovative entrepreneurs to state resources.
Says Amy Kuhlers, IASourceLInk program manager with the Iowa Economic Development Authority, “Taking part in Venture School provided IASourceLink a great foundation for planning next steps in program evolution. By strategically focusing on our findings, we will be better equipped to serve our clients, better Iowa’s entrepreneurial environment and build positive program awareness."
Ready to put the startup spin on your SourceLink? Follow IASourceLink’s lead and dig into the entrepreneurial courses offered by your resource partners to best understand the training available to and challenges of your community’s entrepreneurs.