Seven innovation and collaboration outcomes that can be accelerated using technology
The last bastion of non-automated, highly manual inefficient processes is the world of nonprofits and community building. Technology has revolutionized the way corporations run their businesses, it has turned industries upside down, accelerated innovations and has penetrated every aspect of our lives. Yet today when someone wants to start a business, they will still have to go through several traditional barriers that make a really hard endeavor, even harder.
In the last 18 months, as we have spoken with 100s of community organizers and ecosystem builders across the country, we have seen the lack of technology to drive entrepreneurship engagement as a huge missed opportunity. We have even had community organizers come to us and tell us that technology aided connectivity to support entrepreneurs was not a need right now. I think that where community organizations don’t use technology to enable their work, they are doing a huge disservice to the very entrepreneurs they serve by making it harder to start businesses and harder to get access to the resources entrepreneurs need.
While technology innovation enabled the offshoring of low cost manual work, it also enabled entrepreneurs everywhere to compete on the same level playing field as the big corporations. This is the case for rural entrepreneurs as well. They understand the need for technology as an enabler to compete and are willing to learn the requisite tools that will give them that advantage. This is also true for entrepreneurship support organizations. The ones that embrace technology will do greater good, will have further and deeper reach, will create impact sooner and probably be the only relevant ones in the long run.
Here are some ways in which technology can enable entrepreneurship support organizations to connect and better serve their ecosystems.
Technology connects entrepreneurs to resources with greater efficiency
This was the primary reason for us to launch Startup Space. When I started my first company, my personal experience was that it was difficult to find the right resources in my community to scale my startup. It was only when I shut down my business after years of trying to make it work that I realized that there were several organizations I could have gone to to get the help I needed. One reason I was not aware of these resources was the lack of a better social network. Startup Space as a hyperlocal social networking platform performs a primary task of connecting entrepreneurs to resources in their communities.
With the spotlight on entrepreneurship in the US, the need to better support entrepreneurs has been further crystallized and brought to the top. Communities have started paying attention to resource gaps and they are being addressed. However, that is only part of the solution. The challenges around connecting the right entrepreneur to the right resource also needs to be addressed to ensure that we build inclusionary startup ecosystems.
Technology creates scale and enables human resources to go farther
In the world of nonprofits where most of the funding is through one-time grants that have to be renewed after each period, technology provides scale without having to bring on additional personnel. Whether it is mentorship or managing an incoming cohort, having a toolkit that automates manual processes like scheduling a mentorship session or accepting payments can reduce admin time and delight entrepreneurs. This enables community organizers to focus on the things that actually matter, like 1-2-1 coaching of entrepreneurs and spending more time doing value-added tasks and leaving the manual tasks to technology automation.
Technology drives rapid prototyping of ideas by providing access to larger markets and customer niches
One of the main steps in quickly validating prototypes is to get customer feedback. In rural America, finding the right customer for your product might be hard in a town of say, 10,000 people. Technology can help bridge the gap between entrepreneurs and their ideal customers, who might be in a different city, without having to travel across the country to meet with them..
Using mobile apps connected to virtual communities across the country, rural entrepreneurs can find customers in their market niches and directly communicate with them. Our Startup Space platform is one such virtual community builder that enables people to reach out of their local immediate communities to find help in other parts of the country. This ultimately helps bring ideas faster to market and find new markets.
Technology enables access to critical information that drives innovations
The traditional means of providing resources to entrepreneurs have been through SCORE and SBDC centers, which still serve as valuable resources. However, to reach every entrepreneur, we will need to think of non-traditional approaches to these resource access points. One such non-traditional access point is a mobile resource directory on a smartphone that automatically geo-fences resources based on proximity to the entrepreneur. This creates a way for entrepreneurs to get relevant local resources right within the communities they live and work in.
A shared calendar for various community organizations to post their events might sound like a simple idea, but even such a small enabler can make a big difference in making sure that entrepreneurs use their limited resource of time to show up at the right events. A community platform that enables such cross collaboration between community organizers to share such information can be a huge asset in a rural community.
One persistent barrier for rural entrepreneurs has been the lack of internet connectivity due to lack of broadband penetration. A simple workaround for this is to have educational content like videos, pdfs, how-to guides, etc. available on smartphones. That is exactly what we did at Startup Space. We created a learning platform that can be accessed from anywhere on a smartphone so rural entrepreneurs can now learn the latest techniques like sales funnels, etc. and scale their businesses, while living and working in their communities.
Technology makes collaboration between entrepreneurs easier
Entrepreneurs love collaborating, you can see it in the networking events you go to, there are usually the same welcoming faces in every meetup. However, in this connected world we live in, collaboration is no longer possible at only these meetups. Especially when the primary asset an entrepreneur has is time, they no longer have the luxury of making valuable connections only at these physical events. The prime example of this is Facebook where I have over 1000 “friends” and most of them are actually business acquaintances. This need to connect with people who have common interests is also true in the world of entrepreneurship.
Entrepreneurs earn for the ability to be virtually connected with like minded entrepreneurs from across the country and even the globe. It is a service that every entrepreneurship center should offer their entrepreneurs; a platform that serves as a gateway to connect their entrepreneurs with communities of entrepreneurs virtually.
Technology enables better results for inclusion and diversity programs
Technology provides marginalized entrepreneurs with access to the same resources and helps drive inclusivity in a community. Technology creates more access points to resources for minority entrepreneurs and meets the entrepreneurs in their journey without creating the traditional barriers that physical spaces or networking events have. It also helps home based and micro-businesses access critical resources from the comfort of their homes or workplaces as some of these are 2nd or 3rd jobs and networking is a luxury they cant afford.
Technology can also play a powerful role in preventing discrimination and biases that can creep into social programs. One way to do that is to measure the reach of social programs on the platform and get an unvarnished report on impact and whether the programs are reaching all the demographics in a community. On Startup Space, you can run reports to measure attendance across various communities of interest categories like people of color, LBGTQ+, and compare them against programming data to see which entrepreneurs attend which events to be better informed about the reach and D&I metrics for your programs.
Technology helps measure and tell powerful data driven stories
“What cannot be measured cannot be improved, and what is not managed cannot be measured effectively.” – Anonymous.
There is so much good work being done in communities across the US today to support entrepreneurship but it is a shame that all that good is not being captured and talked about because if you could report on those stories, you could drive a lot more investments into those communities.
There are two sides to measurement and management systems for entrepreneurship centers. The first is the management systems that need to be implemented to get work done. And the second is the measurement system where you collect data from the work. This is a cyclic approach where you manage and then measure outcomes. You then use the data from the measurement system to put together data driven programs that are fed back into the system and measured again.
Then there is the storytelling aspect that is now enriched with insights from the data you have from your management systems your data collection. Sponsors and fundraisers want to see inclusion and diversity metrics to understand reach. They also want to understand impact around the value creation for their investments. How many new businesses were started, what industries were these businesses in, what stages are entrepreneurs most struggling with, what resource gaps exist in the ecosystem, etc. Having a robust management system cuts down the time it takes to gather such data as well as removes some traditional biases that exist around a purely survey based approach to the data gathering.
In conclusion, there needs to be a paradigm shift in how technology is viewed in nonprofits and community organizations. This shift will require funders, government agencies and family foundations to also play a critical role in requiring such efficiency at the organizations they support. We have already lost so many types of jobs to other parts of the world due to the need for efficiency and automation. Entrepreneurship and the right to use our abilities to create wealth for ourselves and our families is the one defining quality of Americans that cannot be sent overseas. However, if not nurtured and given the right tools and support, the competition will come to America’s doorsteps because efficiency, innovation and automation are enablers that level the playing field, even for entrepreneurs and organizations that support them.