You’re convinced that you have a great business ideaâ€”one potentially worth millions, or even billions. Where do you go from here? The actions you take to answer that question can be the difference between becoming the next great entrepreneurial innovator or just someone with an overactive business imagination who never moves past the dream stage.
If you’re smart, you’ll network your way to someone like William Crowder, the managing director of the Minority Entrepreneur Accelerator Program (MEAP) announced by DreamIt Ventures, a pre-seed stage venture firm. MEAP, created by a partnership between DreamIt and Comcast Interactive Capital, the venture capital affiliate of Comcast Corporation, is seeking minority-led start-up businesses to receive funding, business expertise, mentors, office space, business contacts and other benefits. The program is now accepting applications and will select five companies to participate in DreamItâ€™s three-month accelerator program in Philadelphia this fall. The deadline for MEAP applications is July 8, 2011; the program will begin on September 9.
BlackEnterprise.com sat down with Crowder, founder of Growth Strategy Advisors, a strategic consulting and business development firm, and a former business development specialist at AOL, for advice on what qualities entrepreneurs need to bring to the table to make themselves attractive to MEAP and other businesss accelerators and pre-seed financing sources.
“The first thing to keep in mind is that we’re talking about the preseed stage of investing, which means we’re looking for raw ideas,” says Crowder. “In a lot of cases, people think about companies that are going after venture funding they think, ‘I need a business plan, I need big presentations, I need a product that’s already working and I need customers, and I need to be generating revenue.’ That’s not what we’re talking about when we’re talking about this type of early-stage investing.”
“Here, we’re talking about literally your ideas for what you are trying to accomplish,” he explains. “You may have a business; it may be running. You may have a product that you think is ready to go. This is the place to get your ideas out on paper, to build that first version of your product and to test it.
“One of the things that the accelerators do is attempt to get your product built in a way that you can get immediate customer response. You’ll know in a very short time whether your idea has any merit whatsoever with you’re potential customer, and we’ll know if there’s a real business. The goal is to create viable businesses, and viable businesses have to have customers who absolutely love, need, require the type of product or service you want to offer.”
Here are Crowder’s five keys to getting your startup idea from concept to launch:
- Preseed venture investors are looking for great business ideas, not great business plans. “I would argue that the last thing I want to see is a full-fledged business plan at this point,” says Crowder. “At this stage, no one really knows what you have. You don’t even know what you have. You think you have something great; we think you might have something great. We want to find out.”
- Be coachable. Inflexibility and being closed-minded about your business idea will make you unattractive to accelerator programs like DreamIt. “What we are looking for are great people, people who are really smart and really passionate about what they want to accomplish,” says Crowder. “We can work with you and your idea. We’re going to provide mentorship and access to our managing and founding partners of DreamIt, all of whom have launched and sold businesses, in many cases multiple times. There are going to be things that sound great, that once you start working with some of your mentors you’ll find are not so great at all. You need to be able to adjust.”
- Be committed to creating a viable businessâ€”not married to your original idea. “We’ve had instances when someone showed up in our program with one idea, midway through the program realized the idea wasn’t that great, changed it, came up with something new, and actually launched that business within the three month period that we ran the program,” says Crowder. “So think of accelerators as a testing ground for you, your ideas and your team.”
- Be willing and able to collaborate with others. “We like to work with entrepreneurial teams; not just a single individual but people who know how to work together and recognize that they don’t have all the answers but work together to get to the solutions they need,” says Crowder. “One of the big things about DreamIt is that we’re going to give you office space, but your office space is a big room with all of the other companies there as well. Everything we do is something that fosters collaboration. You’re bouncing ideas off someone about what you want to do, you hear what they’re trying to do, and you wonder, hey, maybe we can incorporate that into what we want to accomplish. You’re testing each other, you’re competing with each other and you’re pushing each other. Out of that experience comes the best ideas. You may not have the best idea. But in a room full of passionate entrepreneurs who have a wide range of skills and experience, there’s no telling what can come out of that as you’re trying to evolve your own business.
- Be willing to take risks. “Entrepreneurship by its very nature is risky, but when you’re talking about startups, you’re talking about the ultimate risk,” says Crowder. “But accelerator programs like MEAP are looking to mitigate some of that risk. We’re trying to create an environment for you to come on in and move fast. Whether that be failing fast or succeeding fast, either way it happens quickly and in a way you can respond to it, and the failure doesn’t have to be fatal.”