Let’s all stop for a moment and think about what we have learned, so far, as managers of incubators, accelerators and other programs that support entrepreneurs. Over the past week, I’ve been speaking with managers of entrepreneurial support programs (ESPs) across the U.S. about their approaches to meeting the challenges presented by COVID-19 and adapting to serve their members. Here are the key lessons learned that will help all of us to better serve entrepreneurs and small businesses in our communities and move our programs forward successfully:
Embrace the value of virtual. Virtual delivery of services may be our only option now, but we have learned that it provides value and creates new opportunities for access and participation. Events and conferences that were once out-of-reach to potential participants due to location and/or travel costs are now accessible through a virtual platform. The information and learnings shared at those events can now reach more entrepreneurs and stakeholders. Even pitch events, which were once big social networking events with lots of energy (and high cost), have moved online. While we still have not figured out how to recreate the social networking aspect successfully, the events themselves are no longer constrained by the number of attendees that can fit in a room or the cost of creating and managing the event. Since costs are now lower, the attendance fee can be reduced to increase accessibility and participation. Out-of-town conferences are also now accessible online. Engaging experts and others from outside of your region in your virtual conferences and meetings has become an option. As a result, participation by entrepreneurs, stakeholders, community members and others have significantly increased. Events that once had 150 attendees can now have 250 or more virtual attendees. Overall, reaching more entrepreneurs, business owners, and stakeholders is enhancing the visibility of your programs.
Be a curator for your members. The amount of information about assistance for entrepreneurs and small business during this crisis can be overwhelming, especially for an entrepreneur or small business owner not accustomed to navigating government programs, or just trying to focus on the day-to-day reality of trying to keep their business afloat. As an ESP manager, you can serve as the curator for the information, filtering it for your members and sharing what is most relevant for each of your members.
Ramp up the one-on-one coaching of entrepreneurs and small businesses. Now, more than ever, your members need (and want) advice tailored to meet their specific needs, and they need a good listener. Spend more time coaching rather than programming. Increase the number of experienced coaches by reaching out to experienced business people in your community, your board and advisory board members, and your list of contacts. When coaching, focus not only on the member’s immediate needs but also on helping them to be resilient and reach the recovery phase.
Foster peer-to-peer relationships among your members. Starting a business can be a lonely experience, and even more so during this crisis. ESP managers must continue to help their members to connect with peer entrepreneurs and across the ESP’s ecosystem of contacts. Experiment with and deploy virtual platforms to facilitate peer-to-peer relationships regularly. CEO roundtables, which have always been very popular programs at incubators and accelerators, can become virtual; however, they require active facilitation in a virtual setting. Host virtual happy hours for your members. Keep the size of the group small—between 6 and 10 participants—to help to facilitate the dialogue and building of relationships.
Create new rules for facility-based ESPs. Incubators and other ESPs that provide wet labs, prototyping equipment and other specialized space and equipment are already making accommodations to allow access for essential research and work. Put the appropriate procedures in place (including scheduling of use to minimize the number of members working in a lab) and communicate them to members; then work with members to ensure that they adhere to the new procedures. Moving forward, facilities with more open floorplans will require reconfiguration of the space before re-opening.
Rethink your strategy and program. Use this time to pause and rethink both the strategy for your ESP and its programs. While some of you are still in head-down mode navigating the crisis with your members, others are settling into the new normal and starting to rethink their focus and strategies. What is your market? Who are your members and what will their needs be? What types of programs and services will address those needs, and what methods will you use to deliver them? Be prepared for the economic recovery.
About the Author: Carol Lauffer
Carol has more than 30 years of experience in economic development and management. She began her career at the University City Science Center in Philadelphia where she managed the Ben Franklin Partnership’s grant program for incubators and other small business assistance programs.
As a dedicated member of the industry, Carol has served on association boards, including the International Business Innovation Association (InBIA, formerly NBIA) and the International Economic Development Council (IEDC). She held the post of Chair of the Board of Directors of InBIA in 2010-11. Carol is a course instructor for both organizations’ certification programs, and a frequent speaker on best practices for business acceleration/incubation and entrepreneurial support programs, strengthening entrepreneurial ecosystems, and targeting technology clusters for economic development.