In the last five years working for the Cleveland-based nonprofit development organization JumpStart, I've traveled all over the 21 counties of Northeast Ohio and worked with hundreds of entrepreneurs. I've advised and mentored young companies; advocated for much-needed resources; been a judge for an array of pitch or business plan competitions; and sat on advisory boards and investment committees. I've also helped several communities raise, launch and manage their own hyper-local seed funds.
It would be an understatement to say I've learned a lot. But the knowledge I've accumulated from this experience has in turn helped my organization--as well as our accelerator, seed fund, incubator and educational partners--develop and become part of a very impactful and coordinated support system for entrepreneurs. (This is a good thing indeed, especially considering these organizations collectively see more 400 applications for support on an annual basis!)
As I reflect on the insights I've gleaned from collaborating to accelerate regional entrepreneurial successes, the following five things rise to the top of my mind as being the most important takeaways.
There are no dumb ideas. Many will scoff at this--and I can't blame you, as I've heard many an excited founder pitch me on something I couldn't fathom ever being a success. Yet time and time again, I've witnessed people develop something the market is picking up on. They've pivoted, twisted and turned--or simply chosen something that wasn't so dumb after all--and I discovered it was my judgment of the idea that was off. At the end of the day, what truly matters is that once entrepreneurs have committed to their idea, they make the leap and pursue it full throttle.
The notion that there are no dumb ideas holds equally true for support organizations, who want to put their own unique twist on how to best encourage and mentor entrepreneurs. For someone who came to the economic development world from the commercial world, I'd hear ideas for the next best way to support startups, and my competitive hackles would go up. But I decided to take the attitude of "the more the merrier" when it came to resources and approaches to advice. And you know what? Most of these ideas and organizations have flourished, and we've got much greater vibrancy in the community as a result.
Community support makes a big difference. The Northeast Ohio community was catalyzed as I was coming in to this work. However, watching the region's commitment to entrepreneurs grow during the past five years has been very inspiring, especially because this spans such a wide expanse of the state. The region is blessed to have a huge amount of support, whether financial or otherwise. Many decades ago, successful entrepreneurs built some of the foundations that provide much-needed funding and resources; it's fitting that their legacies support the next generation of leaders that hopefully will also share their wealth as they succeed.
Real-world experience matters when working with entrepreneurs. The best coaches/mentors/advisers/entrepreneurs-in-residence have also been entrepreneurs. Besides the fact they can directly relate to what the individual is going through--after all, they've walked in their shoes--they also have a greater level of credibility with the founders and their teams. While there is a lot of research and best practice curriculum designed to help guide entrepreneurs, each situation is so unique that being equipped with the educational components and real-world experience can really make a meaningful difference.
Never lose faith in the entrepreneur--and don't forget empathy. The level of empathy needed to do this type of work is enormous, especially to see past the emotions that invariably arise as first-time entrepreneurs are tested by tough market feedback, investor rejections, missed/no payroll and tight (or non-existent) personal finances. Yet just when you think a company may cease to exist, entrepreneurs can persevere somehow and make a go out of it. I've observed more than a few companies suffer from a major setback, and later make a comeback that no one would have predicted.
And for those that have failed, it's equally inspiring to see them pick themselves up and try again. Our community was not always accepting of failure, and I think seeing examples of these struggles (and of individual perseverance) has helped us be more open to these trials and tribulations.
Being an entrepreneur is one of the hardest jobs out there. What entrepreneurs do each and every day is incredibly hard, stressful and fraught with the greatest highs and lows of anything anyone can endeavor to undertake. I have been so impressed and motivated by the energy exuded by the hundreds of individuals I've encountered, and I am very grateful that they shared a small part of their journey with me.
As I look to jump back into the fray myself and leave JumpStart to work at a startup again--venturing forth to take yet another run at being "in the show," as they say in baseball--I am even more appreciative of the opportunity I've had to engage with so many talented individuals. Being able to participate in such an exciting field is one life experience I will never forget--and I'll be cheering from the sidelines and ready to check back in another five years and see what kind of successes Northeast Ohio's entrepreneurial landscape has produced.