I Went From From Zero To $300K

Learn how grant funding may be just what you need to move your entrepreneurial idea forward.

Shannon Hennig
Jun 6 · 6 min read

Funding. Money. Dollars. These make the world go round and if you’re an entrepreneur, startup or small business owner you’re always on the lookout for more.

Without funding most of your ideas are likely to just stay as scratches on a napkin or dreams in a notebook.

Two years ago I took an unconventional idea about patient engagement in clinical research, and leveraged it into a project that has since secured $300k in funding from a major federal funder — and we won’t be stopping there.

The key to success? Learning how to tell a story that meets the requirements of the funder, while also bringing business acumen into the world of academic medical research.

This may sound like a really difficult task, but with the right approach and understanding of your customer (or in my case, patients), it’s entirely possible to secure funding to move your idea forward.

Learning The System

It might seem like an unconventional way to move an entrepreneurial venture forward, but there are billions of dollars available through government and private foundations that are tied to health, research, technology, social services and public administration.

These opportunities are typically advertised through a Request for Proposals (RFP), or a Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) at the local, state and federal levels. One of the best sources for finding federal opportunities is through the Grants.gov website.

In my case, the focus was on improving the health of women experiencing a maternal mental illness, like postpartum depression, through online peer support and social media engagement.

Mental health is a significant priority area for organizations like the National Institutes for Health, and the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute, so this is where my efforts were focused to secure funding.

We initially received a small funding contract for $15k to get things off the ground.

Our success then resulted in another funding contract worth $25k to continue growing an online community of women to engage in clinical research.

From there we were awarded another $250k to continue working on a project related to maternal mental health and the opioid crisis.

We were also in receipt of $20k from a private donor to continue our work — which has meant ongoing stability for the project while we continue to explore other funding streams.

It was these various funding contracts that allowed me to start a side hustle, while working towards full-time self-employment.

In order to help applicants, many funders will offer webinars and other online training opportunities to walk you through the application process. Often there will be a requirement for a Letter of Intent/Interest to be submitted for review, prior to your being invited to submit a full proposal.

You don’t have to be a non-profit organization, service provider or academic researcher to qualify for these types of opportunities — they’re often open to for-profit businesses!

Funders are usually looking for some evidence of collaboration and engagement with multiple stakeholders and love to see public/private partnerships.

Each funder will have a variety of requirements that must be met in order to qualify for an opportunity, and these need to be examined closely when you’re looking at an RFP or FOA.

Learning how the funding system works can take a lot of time, but it’s worth the investment as it opens up an entire world of opportunities for you and your business.

Telling A Story

Just like any pitch that you’d make to an traditional investor, you need to have a well crafted, authentic story about who you are and why they should spend their dollars on your idea.

Unlike a for-profit model, typically funders aren’t focused on the potential of a project to make money, but want to know how your proposal meets their requirements, and ultimately solves the problem they’ve advertised in their RFP or LOA.

This approach might require a shift in your mindset and how you think about funding opportunities, but the same fundamentals apply as if you’re working with an investor.

Do you have a proof of concept or evidence that your solution will work?

What is the potential return on investment?

How will you measure outcomes and success?

In addition to providing a strong narrative component to a grant application, funders will look for a detailed budget, a breakdown of your organizational structure, the personnel that will work on the project (including their training and background), a project timeline and evaluation plan.

The story you tell in your grant application has to be strong and make a convincing case for why your proposal warrants funding over all the other applications they’ve received.

It may also require you to really think outside of the box as to how your idea can meet their goals.

For example, I’ve spent countless hours reworking my explanation of how social media can be used to deliver something like peer support — which is an intervention with lots of evidence to support its use in health care.

Funders don’t know or understand why having 20,000 followers on Facebook or another 5,500 on Instagram that’s been generated through organic growth is important in order to build trust and an develop an online community — and it’s been my job to tell a compelling story as to it’s value.

Using The Evidence

In the same way that you might do intensive market research and put together a business plan for an investor, evidence is the key to supporting a successful funding application.

This means using peer-reviewed literature and other credible sources to support your idea and proposed solution.

It also means that you need to understand the customer or population that you’re trying to serve.

In marketing speak, do you have an empathy driven persona of your customer? Do you understand their wants, needs, and pain points?

Weaving this evidence into the story that you tell in your funding application is a learned skill, but it can be developed with time and practice.

It’s also worth considering hiring a grant writer to help you navigate this process. Depending on the number of requirements a funder has for an application that may see your submission reach 50, 60 or even 100 pages, look for someone who does more than write.

You want a professional with knowledge of the system, who knows how to craft a winning proposal and that can project manage — because a single application can easily turn into a full time job for weeks at a time.

With a clear vision and well developed story of how your idea can solve a problem, grant funding may be the key to moving your business or startup forward. Learning how the system works and understanding the major funders at local, state and federal levels will give you the knowledge you need to navigate through the thousands of opportunities available.

By telling a compelling story that’s supported by evidence, together with a deep understanding of your customer, this unconventional approach to entrepreneurship may be just what you need to succeed.

Reach out if you have questions about grant funding or how my team and I have built the Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative from the sides of our desks, and what our plans are for the future.

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Shannon Hennig

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Writer & entrepreneur. I teach talented professionals to turn their expertise into a successful side hustle. Subscribe for more tips & tools. bit.ly/2Lj4DoY

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +479K people. Follow to join our community.