The date was March 11, 2020 and we were holding our monthly “SURGE Days” event. The second Wednesday of the month where we invite our startup community to join us in open coworking, mentor office hours, and enjoying pizza while engaging with our lunchtime speaker. This day we were anticipating one of our partners speaking about an exciting new pitch competition that was set to launch that week. Then at about 10:30 I got the call letting me know that our speaker wasn’t coming. The competition was being postponed until further notice. That is the day that COVID-19 began to change everything.
As the days and weeks unfolded it became apparent that this situation was not going to be temporary. We needed to restructure all of our offerings to help support startups in every way possible. And it all had to be done virtually.
We began by reaching out to each founder individually. We helped to navigate them to various state and federal financial resources designed to help keep their companies afloat. Then we asked them what else they needed. These are 3 areas that stood out- Guidance, Accountability, Community. Here are the offerings we put in place:
FOUNDER FOCUSED ROUNDTABLES– Creating a trusting environment where small groups of 4 to 5 founders each can share their most critical issues (business, personal, family) and provide each other guidance and support. It uses a peer-to-peer framework with a facilitator to help keep conversations on track and ensure equal participation. The founders share what they learned from the conversation, and what action they will take as a result. The next meeting begins with updates from the founders on their particular situation.
Results: We piloted our first group of founders 4 weeks ago and the feedback has been very positive. We plan on adding additional groups in the coming weeks.
Challenges: Scaling/scheduling multiple groups and finding facilitators that are able to make a long-term commitment.
VIRTUAL STARTUP COMMUNITY- UNION is an online platform that creates virtual density of a startup ecosystem. The platform allows us to communicate and deliver educational and informative content. Entrepreneurs can engage with each other, schedule mentor office hours, and ask for help from the startup community.
Results: We implemented the platform over a year ago and have been seeing engagement increase significantly in the recent months. This is most likely a result of us adding much more value-added content and information specific to COVID. Also, all of our virtual mentor office hours are scheduled through this platform.
Challenges: Getting people to transition and get into the habit of engaging on yet another virtual platform.
FACEBOOK WATCH PARTIES-These are weekly pre-recorded interviews with regional entrepreneurs, investors and innovators who have inspirational and encouraging information to share with the startup community. We post the videos as a “Premier” on Facebook where the guest is available to answer questions in the comment section. The premiers happen during lunch hour, which typically was a time when our in-person presentation programming would take place. The videos are archived in our “Learn” library on our UNION platform.
Results: Momentum is building with these videos and we are seeing increasing engagement with each one. They also get a lot of additional views/comments for weeks after the initial premiere. It is a great way for us to showcase what our startup community is working on and for people to connect with the movers and shakers in their region.
Challenges: With everything moving to a virtual format, digital fatigue is setting in. We will most likely transition this to be a monthly event.
MOVING FORWARD– as the world slowly transitions back to “normal” we will continue to create programs that allow for flexibility. Flexibility being in delivery (in-person vs. virtual) and the ability to pivot as the situation unfolds. Staying in close contact with our startups and being able to be proactive in our support is a top driver of our work. The most important thing will be for us to continue to nurture community engagement and add unique value that sets us apart.
As entrepreneurial support organizations, everything we do should be laser-focused on the current needs of our startups. During these turbulent and uncertain times they need our support and value-added connectivity to the ecosystem and each other more than ever.
About the Author: Amanda Chocko is an InBIA member and Director of SURGE at Lakeshore Advantage