Sink or Swim: What’s next for RVA’s early-stage startups
If you have been following our journey over the past year, you know that we ran Virginia’s first social enterprise mini-accelerator last September. And before the program even started I found myself secretly wondering what is going to happen after. How were we going to continue if our first experiment proved successful?
We knew early on that running an intense one-week program meant we were excluding a lot of potential participants. We were also aware that we were tying ourselves to one particular brand. In addition, we realized that searching for social entrepreneurs as we defined it limited our reach to working with founders who want to use business as a force for good. Most of all, we knew that we had only just started figuring out what would work in Central Virginia.
Thanks to being part of the Startup Champions Network, we were lucky to find ourselves chatting to Enoch Elwell, founder of Co.Starters who had felt our pain of working with idea-stage founders in a city that was ridden by a defragmented ecosystem, support organization that struggle to collaborate and a deep and wide misunderstanding of what social entrepreneurship is and can be. The more we learned about Co.Starters, the more convinced we were that this was a great fit for our second experiment. With a solid lean startup concept in place, we are starting to fine-tune the machine of supporting socially responsible founders in Central Virginia and beyond.
As soon as you put the term of social entrepreneurship on the table, people have various ideas of who you’re talking about (my thoughts on the concept here). I have had numerous conversations with Richmonders who thought it described a barber-shop in from a low-income community, a large-scale enterprise (in the sense of enterprise) with social impact, or a business that donates parts of their profit to a nonprofit. Not only do understandings of the term differ; we also learned during our last program that many founders don’t self-identify as social entrepreneurs. To many of them, giving back to the community and being an ethical corporate citizen is just common sense. We have come to the point that — instead of searching for the social enterprise unicorns — we want to work with a wide variety of founders who have an interest in creating good for their neighborhoods through business. By exposing open-minded entrepreneurs to the idea of using their business as a mechanism to make a positive impact we hope to reach more entrepreneurs on a wider scale of ethical business instead of excluding the ones who simply aren’t there yet from the jump. Co.Starters VA is looking for individuals who are interested in using their business as a force for good — be it through social and/or environmental responsibility, ethical business conduct or a fully fledged social business. Instead of getting stuck in the swamp of definitions, we are looking for founders who want to launch a business that does not only create financial value but social and/or environmental value for not only the founders but the community they operate in or with at large.
Keeping it simple
As soon as you start using phrases like “startup” and “high-growth” most people I spoke to pictured white males in hoodies and baggy jeans frantically typing away on their keyboards (Silicon Valley anyone?). I learned this lesson first hand last year: As I was listing all the benefits of an entrepreneurial support program to community leaders, they did not see how their neighbors in low-income communities would have any interest in such a program that was usually for “these tech startups”. This time, we are keeping the language simple. We work with people who want to start something: starters.
Sink or Swim
As a Sink or Swim program, Co.Starters VA helps early-stage founders validate business ideas. Throughout the nine weeks founders will learn a repeatable method to figure out whether their idea has the potential to be a viable business (swim) or not (sink). Before anyone quits their full-time job to pursue a business idea, he or she can learn a lot about their business’ viability without taking too many risks and chasing the wrong model. Our primary goal is to invest in founders by sharpening their entrepreneurial mindset and allowing them to fail early. We believe that testing and failing with several ideas very early on makes for better entrepreneurs further down the road. Failing early is a good thing and we encourage founders to get to their dead-ends fast so they know what doesn’t work.
Building on existing infrastructure
We have some great programs in place who offer business foundation training for individuals who are looking to start main-street businesses. Startup Works, BizWorks, UnboundRVA — to name only three — do an incredible job empowering individuals who are looking to sustain their own livelihoods by starting a business for themselves. That’s not our target group — we could not run this type of program as well as these organizations who have been in place for years and create deep impact among their founders.
We want to avoid duplication as much as possible; instead our goal is to build a funnel for companies that have the potential to scale. Creating a local impact through a one-person company is noble and worthwhile. But what we have learned is that founders who are restricted by their own capacity are limited in the impact they can create. They can only ever do as much as their roles as parents, teachers or part-time employees allow. With this program, we are looking for founders who are interested in growing a company that with increasing sales are also increasing the impact they are making. In doing so, we hope that Co.Starters can play the role of working with founders at the earlier idea stage to validate their business models to better equip them for follow-on programs like Hatch, Lighthouse Labs or New Richmond Ventures.
With all this said, the program is run primarily by founders (see next paragraph) and community leaders. During a day and a half of training that we only just completed, twenty representatives of the startup ecosystem and community organizations learned about the Co.Starters philosophy (day 1); six of them went through an intensive lean startup training on day 2. To ensure that participants build up community connections during the program, it was important to us to invite founders as well as program facilitators from other support organizations to join the training. Some took us up on it, others didn’t.
In the end of the day, no entrepreneur will be successful in isolation. With Co.Starters, our goal is to build bridges among founders, supporters and communities to help each other flourish.
A nine-week, founder-led program
Instead of an intense one-week immersive experience, Co.Starters will be run as a night program on Tuesdays. By hosting sessions after work, we hope to engage founders that have not yet dared take the leap of leaving their full-time jobs or family for a venture of which they don’t even know whether or not it is going to be viable. After nine weeks of testing and fine-tuning their business models, founders will know whether they are pursuing a viable business or a hobby.
What excites me more than anything is that Co.Starters is run by entrepreneurs. The more time I spend in the startup scene, the more founders I meet who have excelled at launching companies within the last five to ten years. They understand the ins and outs of getting a business off the ground in the times of online shops, SEO and social media. Especially with an eye on scalable ventures, a deep understanding of web-based business models and marketing is a valuable asset. Besides, it is a great opportunity for local founders to start giving back to the next generation that comes after them. I don’t believe you have to successfully exit and retire from business before you can turn to becoming a mentor to budding entrepreneurs. They are relevant now and hopefully facilitating and mentoring in Co.Starters is valuable to facilitators, too.
As experiments go, we will see what we can learn from this format. I am very excited about this approach of community integration and founder engagement with other parts of the ecosystem.