Saturday, June 23, 2007

Cultivating Entrepreneurs

I was asked recently to join a group of entrepreneurs to help mentor start up businesses in the St. Louis area, Innovate St. Louis Venture Mentoring Service (IVMS). IVMS follows a template and set of rules developed by the Venture Mentoring Service of MIT, which was identified as a best-practice mentoring program by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation of Kansas City.

Flattering as all get out to be invited to do this sort of thing. I eagerly accepted the appointment, looking forward to working with some like minded youngsters (or not), getting ready to make a go of it in business. I could relate to what was ahead of the entrepreneurs, and I had certainly made enough mistakes to pass on to anyone wanting to look for warning signs of...not-yet-success.

Being a late entrepreneurial bloomer myself, I figure that, because I stayed in the "pit" so long, working for somebody else's idea, somebody else's mission and purpose, I had gathered quite a few do's and don'ts from those I now call my hero's. My hero's can accept my label of them or not. People have influence on others, it is up to the subject to do with what they may. My hero's are the people that I have worked for in the past, in the pit; those who put up with me, were most likely frustrated with me from time to time, those who would calm me, yell at me, reflect with me, consult me. I was always the one who could be counted on. My secret to success: accountability. It's why I was able to learn, borrow and intellectualize ideas garnered from my hero's and their hero's before them. It just works that way. Failure to learn from the mistakes of others is a bit dangerous.

Our first meeting was at Washington University, at Simon Hall at the Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.

Sitting around the tables of the newly formed group, I counted the seconds before I would stand, offer a brief description of my experiences in an effort to justify my reason for being there. In my mind, I was the only one of my kind: stupid, undereducated, less impressive, less experienced, less of a list of accomplishments, under classed, under dressed, balder, shorter, dirtier, less tan and any other "less than" that I could come up with. These men and women were heavy hitters. Me, just a food guy who uses daily that which was given to me by a handful of hero's. I could hardly keep my heart rate under control, too much coffee, can't....breathe....

It was my turn to tell my story.

I figure I am the token boot strapper, the one who will tell it like it is to the folks who need to hear it. There are a hand full of books that I live by. Write them down if you wish. The Art of the Start, The Tipping Point and Blink. (I have provided links to Amazon, buy them, read them, be them). These books provide an unconventional understanding of the process by which I run my business. They might be cliche by now, so be it. I am not even sure the concepts were new. I think they are captivating. Even though I have a tough time getting through any book.

There are reasons for these choices. First, I didn't have any money getting started and, while my particular situation did not require me to write a check, so to speak, rather guarantee the financial situation upon my getting involved. I was in a situation that required me to think on my feet. As things came my way, I would react, intuitively. My business plan was in my head, I didn't have to prove much to anyone, other than my employees, who I needed to believe in me as we set out together to change the world with our version of Food Service. The Art of the start pretty well describes the process that one can subscribe, if boot strapping is the method.

There are ways to reduce pre-marketing costs, start up costs and other business plan things that, if put in to creative perspective, anyone can start the process of taking an idea and seeing it through to fruition. You have to listen to people because everyone has a perspective and they matter. You also have to create, cultivate and persuade audiences to let you in to their circles. There are audiences and there are cultures within. Understanding the cultures, the methods, actions and functions of a group, an audience, can yield results when building a brand. The Tipping point provides an understanding of what is called the epidemic marketing process, putting in to perspective how sinuous relationships between groups and the six degrees of separation can ultimately put your product at the forefront of the target culture (audience).

Blink talks about adaptive reflex, which I think has mostly to do with intuition, experiential training, that which becomes automatic. My mother always had a good intuition, her adaptive reflex is incredible. Mine is too. I think it has something to do with having to overcome learning dysfunction of the 70's. I adapted to certain things, created a process that allowed me to absorb information based on experiential training. For example, Blues man Jim Sullivan has been teaching me guitar, I can not "get" reading TAB. He has written out all this stuff, given me clear instruction. Hell, my daughter reads TAB. Am I just too stupid? No, I don't learn that way and I have to experience the sound and pattern of the chord, then run it over and over until it becomes some sort of tempo, or better yet, a connection to something else, a degree of separation from something else, an experience, pleasure, pain or other. Over time, your mind just sees things that way, reacts intuitively, like the blink of an eye, when something gets in it.
I should have said all that, when given my turn to talk to the group. But I suppose they already trust me to give it my all, to be a good custodian of the enntreprenurial fostering process. I wonder how much I will learn from these folks? What things I might garner from knowing them, what friendships might come of it. Who knows what might come out of all this. One thing is for certain, more six degrees of seperation, more adaptive reflex to interesting situations, and for me lately, more paying it forward.

I started out writing about Organic Foods today, and about Tessa Greenspan, a true entrepreneur who invited me to her Farmers Market in Webster Groves the other day. Lots to learn from her, a new hero, a new culture, a bigger, brighter audience to sell stuff to.

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