Co.Starters is in the business of launching businesses.
Gig Tank may get the headlines, with its mission to leverage Chattanooga’s gigabit Internet to create high-growth high-tech startups—but another Company Lab program called Co.Starters has been working longer and without much fanfare, helping a much larger number of small businesses of all types get started in Chattanooga.
Enoch Elwell leads Co.Starters, originally called SpringBoard. After four years, this startup development program has racked up some pretty impressive numbers. From 2008 through March 2014, Co.Starters counts 957 program participants, who have created 440 new businesses and 1,032 new jobs. (These numbers include programs run by Co.Lab, as well as by other organizations that license the program, such as the Urban League, Society of Work and LAUNCH Chattanooga.)
These numbers include satellite programs in Cincinnati and Detroit, but about two-thirds can be attributed to Chattanooga, according to Elwell. And the tallies have continued to rise since these stats were compiled in February.
Like the entire Co.Lab organization, Co.Starters began with CreateHere, which was deliberately sunsetted at the end of 2011. CreateHere pursued a variety of strategies to “use creativity and innovation to make Chattanooga a better place.” One of its programs was SpringBoard, a business-planning course that continued Co.Lab’s flagship program.
After several years of graduating hundreds of potential new company starters, Co.Lab took SpringBoard through a rebranding and relaunch that both built on its successes and rethought it from the inside out.
“We found that the core product we were delivering wasn’t actually the biggest value,” says Elwell. “It just happened to be a structure in which all these other side benefits were happening, which were really transforming people’s lives.”
Elwell counts three main lessons he and his team have learned that shaped the relaunch. Lesson one: Community is more important than knowledge.
“We have access to all the knowledge we need, but we don’t know how to apply it, or what questions to ask, or we don’t have the moral support to just go out and do it,” he says. “We found that the biggest value was the community of support around you, both the peers who can kind of cheerlead for you, share their experiences and connections, and also the community leaders, who can provide some higher-level direction. They can see further than you can, or they have unique value in the resources and connections they can share.”
Lesson two: Simplicity is key. Many potential business owners are intimidated by business jargon or the price of an MBA.
“People have been launching businesses for thousands of years, and somehow they’ve done it without getting MBAs,” says Elwell. “We fundamentally believe that the skills needed to launch a business can be learned through relationships and through real life and with regular language. And we don’t need to put a business school construct around individuals who are trying to run practical businesses for them to be successful.”
Lesson three: Invest in individuals. Most of the economic development world is about job growth, but Co.Starters is more interested in the individual entrepreneur.
“The way we like to see things happen is we find what people’s actual goals and desires are and craft a story that fits where they want to end up,” says Elwell. “We fundamentally believe you have to invest in the individual first and support them in their journey. If you do that then you’ll have the best chance of long term success.”
The revamped program shifted its focus from creating a business plan to creating a business model. While a business plan outlines all the tactical details of how the business will work, a business model focuses on capturing and testing all the assumptions that drive the business.
“The goal is for people to understand why their business works or doesn’t work, change it until it actually fits the market, and then be able to explain why their business fits the market and why its going to work, based on facts,” says Elwell. “Once you’ve developed your business model and understand it well, it’s easy to whip out a formal business plan because you know all the answers. It’s just putting them in a different format.”
If the mission of encouraging startup businesses seems like something only a business person could love, consider this: Elwell thinks the greatest value to communities that adopt Co.Starters—including Chattanooga—is in the culture building that small creative businesses do.
“When you visit a city and you love it, you usually try to describe how awesome that city is, in terms of small businesses,” he says, like coffee shops, unique shops, local restaurants and art galleries. “Of course there’s the big infrastructure projects like the Riverwalk that tie in as well, but usually they’re side by side with small creative businesses. That is a fundamental part of transforming a community, which you can’t put a price tag on. And that’s the real value of the small businesses we’re trying to support.”
The next Co.Starters class at Co.Lab begins in January. For more information, visit colab.co/costarter