You’ve probably heard this before. “Virtual is the new normal.” This statement might be true, but if you are an incubator or accelerator manager, this doesn’t give you an answer to the question how to better serve your startup clients in this new environment. Many of us found success in hosting webinars during the first few months of the COVID-19 crisis, but you might have noticed a significant drop in the participation rate since then. Zoom fatigue is real, but I think there are a couple of things we can do to truly be helpful to clients in these difficult times.
Ask & Listen
Organizing webinars, starting Slack channels and Facebook groups to connect and support entrepreneurs, these are all great ideas until everyone else also starts doing it and people get overwhelmed. Sometimes we might forget to simply reach out to clients and ask them directly what their biggest challenges are. Even though I coach entrepreneurs to conduct customer interviews before they start building anything, I still sometimes find myself getting ready to put the cart before the horse by developing solutions to problems that might not even be what’s important to my clients. A quick phone call, an email, or a short survey sent to the entrepreneurs in our communities might save us a lot of time, and most importantly, refocus us on what really matters to them.
After surveying my clients, I quickly realized that curating content and facilitating virtual roundtables for 5-6 people on a weekly or biweekly basis was among the things that brings the most value to them. We live in confusing times and folks can get diverted from their objectives pretty easily. To help them stay on track, you can ask each participant to share what they have been working on since your last meeting and what they are going to do before the next roundtable. Introducing the accountability component and having a clear structure to these meetings is very important, but you can also break the mold from time to time and invite guest entrepreneurs to these events to make them even more exciting.
I learned that bringing on a business owner who went through the financial crisis of 2007-08 and successfully navigated their way out of some truly challenging situations works really well. Of course, we shouldn’t compare the current conditions to what happened over 10 years ago, but entrepreneurs love listening to stories from battle-tested CEOs. The important thing here is not to invite someone who runs a humongous organization, but somebody who is relatable to early-stage entrepreneurs. Virtual roundtables like these not only lifted my clients’ spirits, but also led to the creation of some meaningful connections among participants and speakers. This is not the same as the serendipity of random in-person connections that typically happen in co-working spaces and events, but it’s probably the next best thing in the virtual world.
Collaborate to Create Opportunities
Your community is probably your biggest asset as an entrepreneurship center manager. This includes not only sponsors, partners, mentors, and investors, but also graduates of your programs. Keep your alumni engaged by sending them information about funding opportunities, prospective customers, and interesting events. You can also bring them to speak to your current clients and ask them to share stories from their entrepreneurial journey. Sometimes it turns out that these graduates can facilitate introductions to potential investors and advisors outside of your immediate network.
Now is also a good time to reach out to other entrepreneurship support organizations in your area. SCORE and the SBDCs could be a great resource for your center and clients. Invite their representatives to your virtual events or, even better, organize something together! Collaborations like these are going to increase your attendance rate, but most importantly, could also increase the chances of your clients surviving the crisis by putting them in front of people who can provide support.
There are so many software tools out there that you can use to manage your center and your client relationships. A nice tip I learned recently from InBIA’s webinar on Virtual Incubation: Considerations, Impact and Lessons Learned is to keep things simple and only introduce a new tool when you have a definite explanation as to why it is important and why it will benefit the client.
A common mistake I’ve noticed and made myself is to begin using a communication tool and fail to remain active on it or forget to engage the people I invited. Seeding the conversation with questions and having team members always active and available to answer quick questions from clients is what can make or break an initiative like this. There are some great discussions about virtual programming (here) and tools for creating a healthy virtual community (here) on InBIA’s Exchange.
This Exchange is available only to business incubation and acceleration professionals who are members of the organization. If you are not a member already, you might want to checkout the 34th International Conference on Business Incubation on June 23 – 25, 2020 before you join. This will be a great opportunity to connect with industry experts and see how they are running their virtual programs and supporting startup communities. This time, the event is going virtual and you still have time to register here.
I hope to see you, virtually, there!
About the Author: Todor Raykov
Todor Raykov is the manager of incubator and accelerator programs at NextFab (https://nextfab.com/), a network of entrepreneurship support centers in Philadelphia, PA and Wilmington, DE. In his role, he has invested in 32 high-tech startups and helped them secure over 12 million dollars in funding from angel investors and venture capitalists.
Todor has been a member of InBIA since 2014 and obtained his Entrepreneurship Center Management (ECM) certificate in 2016. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent the position of NextFab.