How can we grow small businesses?
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – Most new jobs in this country are created by small businesses. But how are small businesses created? A local nonprofit group thinks it may have an answer to that question.
The Vail Leadership Institute will this fall roll out a new program called the “Entrepreneur’s BaseCamp,” which combines ideas for helping new businesses launch – or existing businesses grow – as well as a novel idea to help support both the Institute and other nonprofit groups.
The idea for a “business incubator/accelerator” came from other programs of the Institute, which for the past 15 years or so has held small-group classes for local professionals. Institute founder John Horan-Kates said the idea for the new project came from any number of sources, including the Social Venture Network in Seattle and TechStars, in Boulder.
A big boost came from the Kansas City-based Kaufman Foundation, which has supported Institute programs in the past, and also helped launch what’s now the Walking Mountains Science School. The foundation focuses on entrepreneurial ventures, and has developed course for both start-up ventures and existing businesses that want to grow.
Horan-Kates is licensed to teach those courses, but he and other Institute members have created their own version of the program.
The small group model
Leadership Institute classes generally consist of between five and seven members who work with each other, group leaders and mentors.
“The small group is a powerful model,” Horan-Kates said. “We’ve found that groups become a kind of board of trusted advisers to members.”
The BaseCamp combines that small-group model with Kaufman’s curriculum.
“We tie in the head and heart concepts,” former Institute board chairman Bob Vanourek said. The program asks, and tries to answer, the question of how to create both ethical and effective leaders.
“We want to explore how you can build something built to last, not built to flip,” Vanourek said.
The BaseCamp concept had its first workout in a pilot program earlier this year. Lynn Blake of the Starting Hearts nonprofit was a member of that first class.
“I had already started Starting Hearts prior to starting the program, but I didn’t have the plan in place to take it to the community and start building interest,” Blake said. “(The course) really took me through the process of building a business … It was a great learning experience.”
Blake said the group she was in was one of the best parts of the experience.
“It was a very diverse group, but everybody was about the same age and about the same type of thinker,” Blake said. “It’s a great group of people to talk to.”
More than a class
But the BaseCamp idea goes beyond taking a course and going out into the world. The idea also may be a way for nonprofit groups to become more self-sufficient.
In return for training and mentoring, entrepreneurs – including those starting nonprofits – are asked for 3.5 percent of revenues for five years, along with a 3 percent ownership stake in perpetuity.
Using that model, successful ventures will then be able to help keep the Institute operating with less help from foundations, government grants and donations.
In return, entrepreneurs receive advice and guidance long after their courses have ended.
“We’ll be walking with them for five years,” Horan-Kates said. “We’ve got people who have been successful, who are already involved with us… We’re going to expand that network, and they’re going to help us launch these young businesses… We’re holding hands with these (entrepreneurs), investing in money, in thinking, in ideas and in support. If you’re successful, we succeed.”
While the BaseCamp idea is just getting started, it already has a small group of fans. Vail Valley Partnership Executive Director Chris Romer is one. Part of the Partnership’s job is to help encourage business growth, and Romer emailed that he likes what he’s seen so far.
“Anything that benefits the small business community, and offers tools to aspiring entrepreneurs, helps benefit Eagle County as a place to do business,” Romer wrote. “I hope it works.”
Vanourek said he hopes that the BaseCamp idea also appeals to people beyond the valley, to those who might want to relocate here in the future. Our key selling point is the thousands of acres of public land in the county.
“In business today you can’t just work 60 or 70 hours a week,” Vanourek said. Giving people the chance to get outdoors can help fuel ideas that could make businesses more successful.
Horan-Kates said the chance to work with younger entrepreneurs has been reinvigorating for him, too.
“It’s taken me back to my roots … in business development,” Horan-Kates said. “It feels like I’m going home.”
Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or firstname.lastname@example.org.