The original idea behind what is now Co.Starters was to test drive different program formats for early-stage entrepreneurs in Richmond, VA. My co-founder Larkin Garbee and I came across a lot of founders who had an idea for a venture but no clue whether it could turn into a profitable business. We would spend hours mentoring individuals that had never heard of a value proposition or even considered whether they would break even (let alone make a profit). In collaboration with what was then called Unreasonable Institute — now known as Uncharted — we launched Unreasonable Lab Virginia: A one-week intensive program for social entrepreneurs (founders who want to create social change not necessarily through nonprofits or government but by running a socially and environmentally conscious business. Read more about social entrepreneurship here). We focused on social entrepreneurs because that’s where my true passion lies. I don’t get excited about developing the next Instagram filter to make millions (is that even a still thing?), but present me with an idea that solves a real problem for marginalized communities and I’m all in (read more here)!
It’s fair to say that Unreasonable Lab Virginia is the professional endeavor I am most proud of in my career. Every night I went home after a 12-hour-day of programming I felt a deep sense of purpose and fulfillment that has been unmatched by anything I have done ever since. You can read more about what we learned before, during, and following Unreasonable Lab.
Following this Unreasonable pilot, we went on to test other formats to figure out what would work best in our local community. Six months post-Unreasonable Lab, we launched CO.STARTERS RVA. Instead of a one-week full-time intensive bootcamp, we ran a ten-week evening program one night a week. In fact, demand was so high that we ran two cohorts in parallel: one for high-growth companies and one for main street small businesses. After a successful nine-week pilot, we launched our fall program in September with a total of 15 companies — a mix of high-growth and main street. For this fall cohort, we
- Added a session on the value proposition canvas to put more emphasis on customer discovery,
- Moved 99% of communication and scheduling needs to an online platform,
- Offered weekly one-on-one office hours with facilitators, and
- Added a full time co-working membership for each participating team.
Of the fall cohort, one founder stepped out right after the first session never to be heard from again. One founder completely dismissed his idea and launched a different venture following our value proposition canvas session (way to pivot!). Two closed shop completely once they realized what it took to (1) break even and (2) make a profit. And three are still deciding. Which I consider a success.
The Co.Starters Approach
I don’t normally sing our own praises but here’s where I think we hit the nail on the head:
- Sink or Swim. Co.Starters is not a How To Start a Business in 10 Weeks program. Local resources like RVA Works, the SBA and countless online resources provide enough content, no need to reinvent this wheel. Co.Starters is a business model validation program; at the end of 10 weeks founders know whether their idea can work (swim) or not (sink), and if it does, what what the next three months should look like.
- Guest speakers. For each session we bring in a local entrepreneur or subject matter experts (think attorney, bookkeeper, etc.) who can share some insight from the real world of launching and running a business. I am proud of the group of guest speakers we could win for this round as they represented different backgrounds, industries and business stages.
- Speed mentoring. The last night of the program is typically dedicated to a celebration night. Thanks to Larkin, we took a different approach and organized a speed-mentoring session with entrepreneurs, spring Alumni and mentors from our community. It was an incredibly powerful experience, not only for the entrepreneurs who said afterward that “I was able to answer all questions, everyone had a great idea on how I can move forward. I feel ready to go now!” and “Entrepreneurs who I had never met took me seriously. I suddenly feel like this can actually work and be a legitimate business!”. Even mentors reached out after the event with comments like “So much fun! Thank you so much for inviting me! And thank you for all that you do!” and “It was sooo much fun. Thanks for the invite!” Full credit to Larkin for pulling this event together and rallying so many inspiring entrepreneurs.
Co.Starters in 2018?!
As we look toward the next year of programming for early-stage ideas that need validation, a few items need to be addressed:
- Curriculum delivery. We walk a fine line between the program feeling like school and just chatting about entrepreneurship, in particular if you run it on Tuesday nights from six to nine p.m. On the one hand we want founders to make tangible progress through outputs like clearly defined customer personas, value propositions, questionnaires for customer discovery and business model canvases. At the same time, this school-like setting drains founders’ energy in record time and their learning is not experiential. I am not surprised at all that guest speakers are the highlight of each session but you don’t validate your business idea by chatting with entrepreneurs. Sorry.
- (Wo)Man power. I feel as though we have been asking a lot of our facilitators. In an effort to continuously adapt and improve the program, I would love nothing more than to expand our pool of facilitators to more evenly distribute the workload and experiment with different facilitation styles.
- Thirdly — and this one is of a more personal nature — we have definitely moved away from working with social entrepreneurs. What our ecosystem needs is programming for early-stage founders. Lots of it. I am confident we could fill three cohorts per year and cater to these very early validation needs. But MY passion lies in working with founders who want to create lasting social change, and that’s a much smaller niche than what our ecosystem needs at this stage.
Learn more about my work at www.anikahorn.com