Statewide resource helps entrepreneurs learn, network, grow and get tech assistance

Statewide resource helps entrepreneurs learn, network, grow and get tech assistance

BY TOM MARTIN Contributing columnist
Lexington-Herald Leader
November 15, 2018 03:54 PM

Striking out on your own in an entrepreneurial business venture can be a scary thing. One way to overcome the trials and tribulations of launching a startup is to network and to get out there and gather resources. But how do you do that?

Tom Martin got some answers to that question from Bobby Clark, president of Sustainable Business Ventures, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

Tom Martin: Your organization, Sustainable Business Ventures, received a grant to do a study of the entrepreneurial climate in Kentucky. Can you give us some highlights?

Bobby Clark: Yes. We obtained a $50,000 grant from the Delta Dental Making Smiles Happen Foundation. The grant application was to study the entrepreneur climate in Kentucky and establish a Kentucky entrepreneur network. The study was given and responded to by over 840 respondents throughout Kentucky thanks to the Commerce Lexington, the Kentucky Chamber, the Kentucky Association of Economic Development, and manufacturers. About 38 percent thought the state was doing a poor job of helping small businesses.

The second question we asked was, ‘would you be interested in joining a network of entrepreneurs’ and 82 percent said yes they were interested in learning more about this network. Naturally, the biggest concern was how to raise money to help them grow their businesses. Taxes were also an issue related to that, but there are real challenges to the businesses in rural communities like Eastern Kentucky. They don’t have access to the same level of support that is needed for them to grow. And since there are no big employers in these rural communities, their future is through entrepreneurial mindset.

Q: Can you describe it for us?

A: The new Kentucky Entrepreneur Network is powered by a new state- of-the-art digital platform called Entrep. Imagine this platform as LinkedIn-meets-Amazon-meets-Netflix-meets-Harvard-meets so that we can create an environment of accelerated entrepreneurial development. Communities like LinkedIn will have profiles of communities, entrepreneurs, businesses, and mentors. They’ll have social connections, the ability to publish content and to follow feeds from other connections like Facebook and LinkedIn has.

The artificial intelligence and algorithms will match entrepreneurs with other entrepreneurs in similar situations, and with businesses, mentors, funding, research and content based on their profiles and interest, like or Amazon matches up what you need. The accelerated performance learning platform provides assessments and personalized learning delivery and tracking based on roles, interests, and assessments similar to an online university, and then it manages mentor relationships so you can get the guidance to facilitate growing your business.

Q: Can you tell us what the study found in terms of the list of organizations that now offer assistance versus the awareness of that they exist?

A: Our study showed that 30 percent of respondents are aware of Small Business Development Services but only 20 percent have used. 22 percent were aware of the Kentucky Innovation Network but only 6 percent have used. An SBA study showed that nationwide less than 10 percent have used SBDC and fewer than 6 percent in rural communities have used.

It’s a different environment in more urban areas like Commerce Lexington, or Greater Louisville Inc. because there’s more time and opportunity to get together and network but it is a challenge to get needed support in rural communities. It gets very lonely out there in the entrepreneur world.

Q: Sounds like a real need for some sort of concerted marketing effort.

A: Economic Development Secretary Terry Gill and Brian Medford at the Office of Entrepreneurship (OE) are transforming the old Kentucky Innovation Network and it’s being driven by entrepreneurs. The OE issued RFPs asking for proposals to establish regional clusters of opportunity, get entrepreneurs involved in decision-making and find out what the real needs are. SOAR — Shaping Our Appalachian Region — was the first regional cluster announced that will serve 54 counties, and Awesome Inc. will be in charge of facilitating the central Kentucky regional cluster. There will be others announced in the coming weeks.

Q: Fifty percent of the folks that responded to the survey said the most valuable service provided is technical assistance, from business plan to market analysis. Where can a Kentucky entrepreneur go for that kind of help?

A: The way this network is setup, you can join for free. And there will be different communities established out there, whether it’s regional or more specific such as marketing assistance or how to write a business plan. There will be downloadable content. Some will be free. Some will be charged. The beauty is you’ll be able to watch an elevator pitch program on your iPhone for 30 minutes. It may be free or may cost $4.99, but it’s going to give you what you need. Most importantly, the system will learn what you know and your weaknesses and begin to offer and suggest ideas on what you need to grow and succeed.

Q: We’ve heard various estimates of what proportion of the American work-force will be freelancing in coming years, but one reliable source, Intuit, the QuickBooks company, puts it at about 40 percent by the year 2020. That’s a lot of independent contractors struggling to get a toe hold with a business that generates some income. Can Kentucky Entrepreneur Network help these people?

A: We want to connect freelancers to each other and to other entrepreneurs that have had this experience. ‘Yes, you have a contract as a free-lancer to do it, but what happens if something goes wrong with the contract? You need to be networking and looking at ways to diversify in order to grow your business.’

The Eastern Kentucky Coordinated Employment Program worked with one lady who started in a customer service job, but then turned that into a business and now has four trucking companies working for her business and she’s making money as an entrepreneur. So, the network will guide you to different locations to get the service that you need or where you can ask questions like “Has anybody run into this particular problem?” or “I’m an independent contractor. How do I grow my business?” That’s how the network will work.

Q: What has your organization been doing to help high school students understand what they need to start their own businesses?

A: We are doing some work in 23 Eastern Kentucky counties. Commercial Bank of West Liberty is going to provide us with an entrepreneurial training hub. And we’re gonna be able to provide training to all 23 counties, but we’re going to pilot an entrepreneur training club at Morgan County Schools. Plus, this incubator in downtown at the bank is going to be available during off hours for these students to run their business.