Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem
Valley Venture Mentors Stays Focused on the Big Picture
Scott Foster says there are many ways to qualify and quantify the physical growth and escalating impact of Valley Venture Mentors (VVM) since it was launched more than two years ago as a unique support system for entrepreneurs looking to start a venture or take one to the next level.
For starters, there’s the rising number of applications for six-month mentorship programs — there are now more than 30 for the six to eight slots that will comprise this fall’s cycle — as well as the fact that many of these are from individuals and groups outside the 413 area code, “because they don’t have something like this where they are,” said Foster, a business-law attorney with the Springfield-based firm Bulkley Richardson.
There’s also the ever-greater interest being shown by economic-development leaders in VVM and its potential for spurring job growth in the region and state. Greg Bialecki, state Secretary of Housing and Economic Development, has described it as a “catalyst” organization in speeches he’s made. Meanwhile, representatives of the Economic Development Council of Western Mass. have been regular attendees of VVM’s monthly meetings.
And then, there’s acknowledgement among VVM’s leaders that this organization, like many of the ventures being mentored, is having some growing pains of its own. Indeed, said Foster, there are ongoing discussions about VVM hiring its first paid staff and moving into a permanent facility; it currently does most of its business in the spacious Bulkley Richardson boardroom.
Steve Willis, a VVM co-founder and mentor, and an entrepreneur who has launched several high-tech firms, said the organization is, in many ways, similar to the startups it serves.
“It has a small group of people who had an ambitious idea, and it was grown very carefully,” he explained. “It’s now ready for another round of financing to scale the business out. We have a set of ambitious plans in place, and it’s time to have a strategy and a business plan to grow this out.”
All of this is part of what Foster calls “creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
And he used that phrase — which isn’t technically accurate, because ecosystems exist only in nature — to describe an environment in which entrepreneurship (and the economic development and jobs that ensue) is encouraged and given an opportunity to thrive.
“The entrepreneurial ecosystem in the region is nascent, and it needs to grow,” he explained. “There’s a lot of passion for entrepreneurialism in the Valley, both on the mentoring side and the entrepreneur side, and what there wasn’t before was a community that this spirit could tap into in a cohesive, consistent way.
“What we’ve heard back from people involved in the program is that VVM has created the right atmosphere,” he continued, “one that allows people to come out, allows them to interact with one another, and drives them to want to build the ecosystem and make it stronger.”
Jess Dupuis says VVM has been instrumental in helping her map out plans for taking her beauty products venture to the next level.
Jess Dupuis is one of the many entrepreneurs expressing such opinions.
In 2010, she started a business called Olive Natural Beauty, which manufactures and distributes a line of olive-oil-based beauty products, now sold through 20 retail partners.
Dupuis said she applied to VVM earlier this year because, while her business seemed to be on the right path, she knew she needed to focus on the proverbial big picture, and needed some help doing so.
“Up to this point, I’ve been really flying by the seat of my pants in that I’m still a young business person and I’ve never been an entrepreneur before, so there are a lot of things I’m learning by trial and error,” she said, adding that what she’s received from her mentors and VVM as a whole amounts to real-time feedback.
“I wanted some guidance and feedback, especially on how to scale my business and take it to the next level, because up until now, it’s been 100% me,” she went on. “And it’s been an amazing experience; I’ve had the chance to speak with industry professionals and people who have gone through it.”
For this issue and its focus on entrepreneurship, BusinessWest looks at how VVM has grown and evolved since its creation, and to where the organization wants to go next as it works to create that ecosystem that Foster described.
When BusinessWest talked with Foster and VVM co-founder Paul Silva just after the initiative was launched in early 2011, they used a number of words and phrases to describe their organization, its mission, and its MO.
It was described as a “halfway house between the classroom and the real world,” a vehicle for providing “nourishment” to startups and next-stage companies, and a group dedicated to help entrepreneurs eliminate the “rookie mistakes” that often set a venture back or keep it from getting off the ground.
As she talked about her experiences with VVM, Dupuis said it has been all of those things. Elaborating, she told BusinessWest that her business is at a critical crossroads in terms of growth and development, with some important decisions to be made on everything from marketing to whether she needs to bring on a manufacturer and a distributor for her products.
“And before I take some of these steps, I wanted to talk with experts about what their thoughts are,” she said. “I want to be able to take those ideas and that feedback and use it as I put things down on paper into a formal plan.”
Here’s how the mentorship program works: first, VVM issues what amounts to a call for applications to what are now two cycles of mentorship, one in the fall and the other in the spring. Two tracks are now necessary, simply because the volume of applications has grown considerably, mostly due to the positive experiences of participants and word-of-mouth referrals.
“These individuals are talking about their experiences to other parts of the community — and by community, I mean beyond just the Pioneer Valley,” said Foster. “We’re getting applications from Providence, the Greater Boston area, Connecticut … people who are interacting with the program are going back and talking to other entrepreneurs, their friends, other mentors, and they’re realizing that this is unique in the way it’s delivering advice, the scope of the mentoring, and the openness of the community.
“We’ve structured something that allows an excellent exchange of ideas and support from the mentors, and also from the entrepreneurs to each other,” he continued. “The feedback we get from the teams that have been through it, and the mentors as well, is that it’s an excellent environment.”
The deadline for the next cycle is Sept. 1, said Foster, adding that there will be a “pitch camp” a few weeks later, followed by formal auditions later in the month. This multi-stage process, which will ultimately identify the six to eight ventures chosen for mentorship, was designed to create “good fits” — matches that work for both the companies and VVM.
And there are many reasons why an applicant may not constitute an effective fit, said Willis, listing such things as geography — a New Jersey-based individual or group might find it difficult to attend monthly sessions in Springfield — and the fact that some applicants simply might not be far enough along to benefit from mentorship.
“The fit is two ways,” said Willis. “Can we provide adequate service to them? And on their side, can they commit the time? Will they listen? Is this a good fit? It’s not necessarily about the business, but about the team and the people.”
Applications come in a number of flavors, said Foster, noting they range from “an idea that’s been well-thought through to a company that’s up and has a minimally viable product, and they’re looking to take it to the next level.”
When it comes to choosing applicants for participation, Foster said VVM and its mentors are what he called “generalists,” meaning they don’t focus on specific sectors, such as technology or the biosciences, and this quality has helped the initiative grow.
“There aren’t many generalist programs out there, and there are many advantages to having that quality,” said Foster, adding that ideas and business concepts that have come before the mentors have been both high-tech and low-tech, ranging from a complicated algorithm for engaging in currency hedging to a device that would monitor the natural gas entering a home or commercial building. “We’ve found that this leads to some great dialogue among the mentors and the teams that are there; they learn differently from each other, and they realize that, no matter what their sector is, they all have some similar challenges they’re going to have to face — how to hire people, how to staff up, how to raise money, how to communicate with people about your idea. Those are themes that reach across all the different kinds of businesses.”
Getting the Idea
Jess Greene’s venture is on the high-tech side of the ledger, but it also involves the arts.
In 2011, she created the website seekyourcourse.com, which is focused on “helping adults be more creative, and making it easier for adults interested in engaging their creative or artistic side in a class.”
Originally, the site, based on an advertisement-revenue model, was designed to host a database of educational opportunities for adults in the arts, she said, adding that it has undergone a host of changes since, and is now more focused on its blog, which boasts 26 regular contributors who post everything from tutorials to stories of their own creativity.
The venture remains a work in progress, a site devoted to engaging the strong online creative community, she went on, adding that the mentors at VVM have been instrumental in helping her shape a vision and business plan for what she called “seekyourcourse 2.0,” which will have more of a community focus and take the business concept to the next level.
She gathered ideas for this concept while on a four-month, 15,000-mile trip around the country, during which she met many of the people she communicated with online and welcomed their thoughts on what people might want and need from her site. And she’s shared that data with her mentors and also other mentees, like Dupuis. Through all those resources, she’s gained insight into everything from branding to revenue generation to driving traffic to her site.
“It’s great to suddenly have this community of people who have all this expertise,” she told BusinessWest while explaining how and why VVM has worked. “It’s a great environment.”
Dupuis agreed, and said VVM has been of considerable help with many aspects of her business, from hard financials to marketing to the challenging task of scaling a business and making it much bigger than it is.
Foster summed it all up by saying that VVM’s broad goal in her case was to make her a “smarter businesswoman,” and that this is the assignment with all the entrepreneurs it works with.
“No one is attempting to make these decisions for her,” he said, referring to business steps such as adding employees, ramping up or outsourcing production, or bringing on a distributor. “We just make sure that she has the information she needs to look at her business and figure out what makes the most sense for her as she tries to get to the next level.”
Dupuis cited proper branding of her line of products as just one of the many often-complex business-plan matters that VVM and its real-time feedback have helped her address.
“I graduated summa cum laude with a degree in marketing communications, so this is what I would consider my area of expertise,” she explained. “But VVM has really helped me hone in and think about how I want to brand these products. Do I want this to be a CVS-type brand, or is this a more luxurious brand that should be sold in Whole Foods? If you’re in one store, you may not be able to market to the other.”
Some important decisions will be made in the months to come, she went on, adding that VVM has given her plenty to think about.
Moving forward, the organization would like to do that with more individuals and teams, which brings Foster and Willis back to VVM’s own plans for taking itself to the next level.
Such ramping up could — and likely will — involve everything from hiring staff to establishing a physical presence with an office and meeting facility, to creating entrepreneurship competitions that will bring people to Greater Springfield and help strengthen that entrepreneurial community Foster described.
“This is moving from being an all-volunteer organization to one that will need staff,” he said. “We think we should be growing, and we’re still figuring out where our space should be in terms of an office and a co-working space that’s open to the teams. We know there’s a need for more educational programs, either offered by us or by others, that are targeted at this group of entrepreneurs.”
Funding will obviously be needed for all of this, he went on, adding that VVM is currently finalizing two grant applications that spell out the organization’s plans for growth and the many reasons why such development is important for the region. One is a response to a request for information from the Mass. Technology Collaborative, which has a mandate from the state to encourage mentorship programs across the Commonwealth, said Foster, adding that VVM was asked by that organization to submit information about its mission, programs, and successes to date.
“We’re making sure we have the right plan, and we’re looking at fund-raising,” he said, adding that the latter is going on mostly behind the scenes, but soon, the process of ramping up VVM will become much more public.
In Good Company
Looking at the present and possible future for VVM, Willis drew more analogies between the organization and the ventures seeking mentorship.
“We are, in a way, growing this the way we think startups should grow,” he explained, “and we have very similar issues to what small businesses are seeing.”
Coping with those issues is now a big part of that process of building an entrepreneurial ecosystem, an ongoing endeavor that is capturing the attention and imagination of economic-development leaders and business owners alike.
VVM has come a long way in two short years, and the future looks exceedingly bright for an organization that is getting down to business — in every way that phrase can be used.
George O’Brien can be reached at email@example.com