Saturday, March 28, 2009

"What's important is getting the whole community more entrepreneurial."

I greatly enjoy my participation in the Wisconsin Entrepreneur's Network (WEN). I'm a member, a WEN resource provider, and a big fan.

Among the cool things WEN provides in a lovely, concise digital newsletter (linked below).

A story in this week's WEN newsletter linked to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel piece that resonated in very practical ways. It was an interview with Massachusetts Institute of Technology master mentor, Sherwin Greenblatt. Pretty cool job description.

MIT has the best track record of any academic R&D center for startups. I take that to be carefully measured, reality based, peer review results (as opposed to theory-of-the hour stuff that's in the wind right now). Granted these are mostly tech companies MIT is dealing with, but I posit that Mr. Greenblatt's results apply system-wide across all of entrepreneurship.

So what's the first thing Mr. Greenblatt wants to tell us about growing successful enterprises? Do we have to look for more grants? Do we have offer more incentives? No.

His answer is the core truth of how we can grow local, regional, national and ultimately global economies. "What's important is getting the whole community more entrepreneurial."

Here's how the article describes MIT's approach to this: "Entrepreneurs get better after they have failed once or twice. MIT doesn't give up on them if they stumble."

This is a vital to understanding the process of building entrepreneurial communities. Of course you will have failures if you enable people to take measured chances. The trick is measuring those risks carefully, and building community support for the risk takers.

The MIT program focuses on mentors as one key way to involve the community.

Mentors create paths to success that non-mentored enterprises often can't find. So a couple of quick bullet points culled from many excellent points in this article….

"The mentor approach works. Fifty companies have been launched in the MIT community; 40,000 hours of mentor time have been volunteered; 120 ventures are being actively mentored; and $550 million in capital has been raised for its mentored deals to date."

"A team of two to four mentors per deal works best because it brings in diversity of expertise and creates checks and balances on opinions rendered to the entrepreneur"

"Entrepreneurs are not kept in the mentoring program unless they are very serious, are making real progress on milestones and make a moral commitment to give back to the community if their deal flies."

"Mentors get involved because they like the social interaction with each other and take satisfaction from seeing entrepreneurs flourish. They like learning from other smart people."

"Finding the right mentors for each enterprise is a social matching exercise. The chemistry among people has to be right. If it isn't, changes are made in the mentor line-up."

(And, too often true) Some entrepreneurs are crazy; others don't listen. Neither can be helped."

The fact that the academic institution with the best track record for launching new enterprises would do it through carefully designed mentorships is wonderfully simple.

Mentors are a critical piece of the entrepreneurial equation. I've been gifted with the opportunity to work with great mentors and I know just how well great match-ups can be for all involved.

My takeaway from the MIT experience is the bigger point made by Mr. Greenblatt about what they have found works best for growing successful enterprises: What's most important is getting the whole community more entrepreneurial.

I could not agree more. This is the key to successful economic development.

What does this mean for startups and small businesses? It means you don't need permission, you need to make mistakes. You need to start, learn, and repeat.

What does this mean for communities? The most dynamic local economies have the highest startup birth rates, but they also have the highest startup death rates as well. More churn. Entrepreneurs in the local economy must be made to feel more comfortable and supported when taking appropriate, measured chances.

This leads to more economic diversity for communities. It creates more chances for citizens to create more economic independence for themselves and the regions where they live.

As the article says, don't focus on individual deals, focus on creating an entrepreneurial community.

That's a plan ALL of us can participate in.

Sign up for the Wisconsin Entrepreneur Network newsletter

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Mentors are key to start-ups. Posted: Mar. 21, 2009

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