From Endpoints to Avenues: How to Build Trajectories
This article is a part of Roadmap, a project to provide low-cost tools and techniques to improve university entrepreneurship ecosystems.
There were the students who became close friends over the course of a healthcare tech start-up competition and went on to win. Afterwards they did not know how to move from winning presentation to testable prototype, and ultimately disbanded.
There was the team whose internet-connected gym equipment garnered immense customer interest while at a university incubator. After the program finished there was no one to help them go from the development of one prototype to the manufacture of hundreds, and their company folded.
Then there were the founders who secured an established hospital as an initial customer. After graduation the founders had no guidance to move from one current customer to the dozens of customers they needed to stay afloat.
In all of these stories the founders technically succeeded by the criteria of the programs in which they participated. But when the programs ended, their companies faltered. These places represent endpoints in a university’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Endpoints are places between official programs where entrepreneurs are most likely to fall through the gaps.These endpoints are caused by the focus of university personnel on the development of individual entrepreneurial initiatives rather than the overall entrpreneurial environment.
The problem of initiative focus emerges from benign circumstances. A university wants to provide entrepreneurial support and so creates an incubator, maker-space, or competition. Each initiative has an appointed lead. Each lead has their own set of evaluative criteria on which their success is judged. The manager of a business plan competition might be judged on the number of contestant entries, the manager of an incubator on the number of start-up applicants, the university entrepreneurship manager on the number of start-ups incorporated. All of these individual metrics judge level of entrepreneurial activity, but do not necessarily measure long term entrepreneurial success. This local view of how each individual program improves its own metrics results in a large waste of time and money for both students and universities. Success needs to also be measured across the entire ecosystem as a whole.
Creating a holistic ecosystem begins with connecting each different event or resource together. These channels are called avenues. Avenues are places where entrepreneurs end one program but know which step they should take and there is a clear process in place between each program. The culmination of the next steps between a university’s various programs forms a fully connected ecosystem. This shift from endpoints to avenues has the ability to create more effective use of time, money, and energy of all participants with compounding effects on entrepreneurial success. More connections between programs means less time entrepreneurs need to waste to find their next step, and universities get more successful start-ups by having fewer companies drop out of the entrepreneurial pipeline.
The next two sections touch on how to create avenues internally between program leads and advice on how to present avenues to entrepreneurs.
Internal: Goal Alignment
The success of avenues in an entrepreneurial ecosystem is dependent on an attitude that the entire ecosystem wins together. The ecosystem does not win if patents are created for technology that is already outdated for commercial ventures. Start-ups do not scale when there are legal concerns that have been overlooked because the law school and the computer science programs do not talk to each other.
Whether a singular competition or the four-year academic programs, each piece of an entrepreneurial ecosystem should have their individual indicators of success deeply connected to the rest of the ecosystem. Number of applicants to individual programs is not the ultimate goal; applicants that get successfully through the entire university ecosystem to become profitable companies is. This ecosystem-oriented thinking makes it so truly connected but small ecosystems can have more success than a larger but disconnected ecosystem.
Internal: Information Sharing
The success of your students depends not just on your program alone, but your understanding of and connections with the programs around you. You should know both where students come from before they enter your individual program and where they go when they leave. Are they prepared for the next step? If their start-up is unsuccessful, why and could they have learned this information sooner? Where are there too many applicants and are these applicants at the right program for their stage and industry? To get this information, every component of the ecosystem should have a monthly or quarterly meeting to share this information.
There should also be a centralized database of all the start-ups in the ecosystem with such information as company name, founders, industry, contact info. This information can help match founders with mentors and co-founders. This information also helps to find gaps in the pipeline and more efficiently provide entrepreneurial infrastructure.
In a start-up founders have to often search for feedback and iterate on their results; a start-up ecosystem is not unlike the companies it supports.
External: Tools for Avenue Creation
For each program that entrepreneurs participate in, they should know of at least one potential next step (though there might be several!). There should also be an external-facing information sharing center for entrepreneurs to find resources if their goals do not fit the listed avenues. Below are ways these Next Steps can be presented:
- During a business plan competition or Hackathon while the judges deliberate, you can talk about further resources available to students. You might also invite a professor to give a talk that relates to a class for business development to encourage students to move further along with their company developments.
- Pass out flyers at the end of conferences with different resources available to students. Did they just finish a competition geared towards freshman and sophomores? Suggest classes they can take to learn further. Did they finish an incubator program and need to understand how to scale? Suggest alumni meet-ups and angel networks.
- Put up on a pin board of different resources across the university. Make sure that this pin board is in a central, easy to locate space. This pin board is best if grouped by stages so next steps are clear. Remember, entrepreneurs don’t need to know every resource. They need to know what resource is the best for them. Stages help cut down the information that entrepreneurs need to sift through to locate information relevant to themselves.
- Make yourself available. Many times the steps entrepreneurs want to go in a different direction — turn their company into a non-profit, move to a new geography, hire a manufacturer in China. You should suggest many common routes, while listening to the direction they want. You might have no idea what incubators are in their new location or know how to work with remote distributors. But the more connections you help entrepreneurs foster, the more avenues you now know of for the next person.
- Create a graphic to show a map through the process of how entrepreneurs go from idea to scalable company at your university. This graphic might contain many different routes.
- Entrepreneurs often fail. Instead of letting these companies fall completely out of the pipeline, help these founders find new roles as competition leaders and mentors in the ecosystem.
You have already done the enormous amount of work to create an incredible program. The creation of avenues out of endpoints is the last step, but it has the potential for the largest long term results because it means your work is having a wider reach.
To download sample flyers for Next Steps, go to www.adjacent.us/roadmap/endpoints.