Over the last 5 years, we have supported 1,000 entrepreneurs. It sounds a lot. Yet, when you look at the processes we use, the way we organise resources, it does not seem like much. This blog is about simple ways of organising business support for entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneur Commons, London, took over the Business Mentoring Meetup in April 2011. As the global chapter of not for profit peer to peer support body. We felt obliged to support this group because London needed more support for entrepreneurs. Unlike today Startup Britain, Enterprise Nation, and the accelerator ecosystem we have today didn’t exist. This was also the height of the downturn. When mainstream professionals were losing their jobs. We felt organising an open and inclusive space for entrepreneurs would help with this.
The dilemma for us was what approach would work best. All the other global chapters were bringing investors, entrepreneurs and other interested parties together. The idea was that these closed group setting would help build trust and strong networks. So when the occasion arose each member could call on the other for support. The need to go through the usual process of building trust and dealing with the prerequisites. The closed group sessions would have already done this. In London, we felt the concerns were different. We felt as the home of global finance, the creative industries, good quality universities and a population of 8 million people we needed to do things differently.
We decided on using an open format that would allow for wide participation. This also meant we had to accommodate the needs of entrepreneurs. We started the process in April 2011 with standard peer to peer support. This meant whoever turned up would be paired off with another. They would then spend time supporting each other.
We found despite the enthusiasm there was usually a mismatch. For instance, one person needs marketing or finance support. The other is from a sales background professionals. Another dilemma was the numbers. Sometimes, 20 entrepreneurs would attend and sometimes none. Literally ! no one would turn up and then the next week for no clear reason we would have 15 entrepreneurs turn up. So, we had to even out the numbers somehow along the way as well. To deal with all this we started to use kaizen as a process. Here we would make incremental changes on a regular basis based on the user feedback we received. This meant over time the needs of entrepreneurs were met quickly. For example, there was a need for professional guidance from lawyers, accountants, marketers, etc. So we encouraged them to join us during our sessions.
Independent Professionals give back to society
Over time as the patterns emerged we found Independent Professionals enjoyed supporting entrepreneurs. They also felt they did not have the time and resources to support entrepreneurs on their own. They just were not sure how to justify the time allocation. So a space like our group was great for them. They could simply highlight their availability on a quarterly basis. We then made it available to the entrepreneurs in a way that suited both parties. We also encouraged them to justify the time as part of their CSR - contribution to society.
The theory bit
Along this journey, we started to use communities of practice approach. We customized it to suit the needs of the group. We found it was a good way to overcome the know-how deficit micro and small businesses commonly have. Here you had professionals from different sectors coming together and sharing know how with each other. It also helped professionals who experience isolation. We provided them with a space where they could come by when they felt the need. Even if it was just to have a conservation. Please remember most entrepreneurs lack support of this kind from friends and family. They simply do not understand entrepreneurship. A common complaint has been “ Most of my close ones simply say why don't you get a job instead - it so much easier !”.
Over time we felt the need to focus more on the interplay during the weekly sessions. Here we felt Nonaka’s notion explicit / Implicit knowledge interplay was taking place. But, there was no framework / process being used. So I dug up my MBA material on Knowledge Cafes. We then gradually customised the concept to meet the needs of the group. Here we the organisers would facilitate. We would make sure all those attend the group session would participate. Most of the time the introverts had a lot to offer. They just needed some space and time to relax and open up. We kept these knowledge cafes as informal as possible. This helped people from all backgrounds to come and interact with each other. Over time these Knowledge Cafes would invite a maximum of 10 attendees. We found this micro event approach useful to keep the conversation personal and focused. This way independent professionals could go into a lot of depth with the entrepreneurs. We also found this approach helped entrepreneurs over a longer cycle. Some members have been coming over for 2 to 3 years. The common experience tends to be when they will come by when their is an urgent need in the business.
The flipped learning approach
To keep members who couldn't attend informed we started to send around weekly biz tips. These tips cover various aspects anyone in a business would find useful. For example, how to negotiate? How sales is changing? How to organise an MVP? Click here for the full list. They get circulated globally via social media. E.g. their facebook exposure alone is over 10,000 a week. We feel good quality publicly available information can support entrepreneurs wherever they are. They also help educate our target audience. So when the Independent professionals interact with the entrepreneurs they can go into more depth. This simply makes everything more productive for all of us. The entrepreneurs get to bridge their knowing / doing gaps. The independent professionals get to stretch themselves while supporting society.
In truth, the last five years has been a great experience. If we look at this experience from an impact point of view then there is no match. We have supported mothers who have gone to become Euro Top 30 Tech entrepreneurs. We have supported UKTI to support South Korean High Growth startups. This was during the state visit if the South Korean President. We have supported postgraduate students and staff from King’s College, London. We have supported all female entrepreneurship groups. They were looking to help their members build their businesses. So, in short, our mechanism to contribute to society has been busy adding value to society at a micro level. Just in a way that has a global impact.