Two weeks ago the Good Food Business Accelerator kicked off its second year. The GFBA is a fellows program that assists Midwest farms and food entrepreneurs with mentoring, training, sales support and financing to launch and grow their businesses.
I worked with FamilyFarmed.org in the conception of and strategy for the accelerator, and conducted trainings on a number of subjects for the fellows last year.
At the kickoff I joined a panel of first year mentors, partners and fellows who shared their experiences with a crowd of prospective applicants. After my prepared remarks, Jim Slama, the founder of FamilyFarmed.org, asked if I would say a few words about the accelerator community. At first I wasn’t quite sure what I would say, but looking into a room full of small business leaders, I just decided to speak from the heart. I picked up the mic and began, “You know that being an entrepreneur is incredibly lonely…”
The discussion struck a chord with at least one business owner who came to me afterwards fighting back tears. “Customers love my product and the business is growing, but this week I’ve been dealing with a situation that I cannot resolve, and I’m not sure if I can survive it.” The issue is with the co-packer, a situation that could be addressed with one simple thing: better information about alternate suppliers. But the owner does not know where to turn, and in exhaustion is ready to pull the plug.
It’s Lonely Out There
I see this too often. Dealing with challenges alone, even small ones when they happen day in and day out, can eventually wear out talented businesspeople with good ideas. Decision-making can be excruciating and, ironically, take far longer than necessary when you are owner, manager and board all in one.
As a business owner and entrepreneur myself, I’ve experienced firsthand how lonely it can feel struggling with the mundane and the complex of running and growing a business, and have come to recognize the importance of cultivating an ecosystem of support. Fortunately, there are easy ways to do this.
Resources for Food Entrepreneurs
As more and more professionals venture out on their own, resources are becoming increasingly available, such as formal business incubators or accelerators like GFBA, shared commercial kitchen spaces like Kitchen Chicago and Baltimore Food Hub, and shared work spaces, of which there are over 80 in Chicago alone! In these physical environments, entrepreneurs working on different products and even spanning diverse industries can lend their talents to each other, share knowledge and resources, and sometimes serve as much needed confidantes and therapists.
This practical support is also available through organizations that develop, aggregate and curate industry information, and online forums that offer peer to peer information sharing. In the good food space a few resources that we find particularly helpful are the National Good Food Network, the Food Hub Community of Practice and COMFOOD. Entities like the Michigan Food Hub Network and Farm to Institution New England are tremendous assets to food hubs, bringing these businesses together to ask questions, share learnings, and receive the technical support and guidance that small businesses are not otherwise able to access.
But it’s not just practical information that keeps small business owners thriving. Perhaps more important is the emotional, spiritual and inspirational support provided by an invested community. And this is the real reason for this blog post. Entrepreneurs and small business owners – especially those going at it solo – need other entrepreneurs.
After a long career in very large companies I left the corporate world and started New Venture Advisors. Three women I know well were in similar transition. One left a huge food company to start a small food business, another left a prominent incubation and investment firm to start a social impact fund and consulting practice, and a third left a global advertising agency to start one of her own. We all were (and still are!) passionate about our work and building high impact, high performing organizations. Yet we each found it difficult to establish goals and keep ourselves accountable to them outside the structure of a formal organization. So we created an informal one which we call SOAR (it does stand for something but the acronym has now become more meaningful to us than the underlying words).
For more than three years, we have met by phone every Friday morning for an hour. We use this time for brainstorming, strategic gut checks, advice on business development and operations, resourcing requests and just about anything related to our businesses. I’m amazed at the breadth of the knowledge, wisdom and networks of these remarkable women, and at the generosity with which they share their time, advice and energy. I credit much of NVA’s continued existence to them.
As I’ve mentioned SOAR to others, I have found that the concept of an accountability or entrepreneur’s group is not unusual. Some are larger and more focused on professional development and networking, some small and focused on the needs of individuals.
If you are thinking about starting a network or support group like this one, here are some guiding principles that may be helpful, based on what we’ve learned:
- Invite individuals who are open to sharing sensitive business information with the group and will not disclose that of others. Our group wouldn’t prosper without complete transparency and confidentiality.
- Invite those who will make it a priority. We don’t have attendance rules, but after more than three years, almost all of us meet almost every week.
- Make it a weekly appointment at a time that is usually free from conflicts. Weekly makes it a habit, and occasional cancellations less impactful. We talk at 7:30 am before other meetings.
- When there are conflicts, almost never reschedule. Rescheduling is burdensome. It’s better to skip a week or have some miss. For us, a quorum is sometimes two people.
- Keep the count small enough to give each person about 15 minutes. Six people could work if you can all afford 1.5 hours weekly. For us, four is the perfect size and an hour the perfect duration.
- Be respectful of the time. We don’t have a timekeeper and do allow for shorter and longer segments, but we all strive to start on time and almost never exceed one hour.
- Bring an agenda for your own time and tell the group how you plan to use it. As we begin our segments we might say “Today I just have an update” or “Today I need your help thinking through an issue.” This helps the others know how to listen.
- Occasionally meet live to discuss goals and strategic plans. This helps the group to become better advisors to each other. We have had annual meetings to review our respective performance and set goals.
- Bring together people from whom you feel comfortable seeking business input and expertise, and with whom you feel comfortable sharing your emotional highs and lows, too.
For some people, a structured group like this may not actually make sense. It might not be a good fit with your work schedule, your personality or your network of entrepreneurs and business owners. If that is the case, you might consider finding several mentors with whom you meet monthly or quarterly. Building an advisory council for your company, with people you trust, respect and enjoy spending time with, may be a good alternative or addition to these ideas. You may also benefit from working one or two days per week in a shared office environment, where you can draw from fellow solo artists, and get energized by the buzz of your surroundings. Or simply make it a point to schedule lunch or coffee once per week with someone you can confide in, gain insights from and share your own wisdom with.
I hope this inspires other solo entrepreneurs to find a community of support, whether a SOAR group of your own, an online forum to share collective wisdom like the Food Hub Community of Practice, or an accelerator with a cohort of peers and mentors like the Good Food Business Accelerator. These are just a few of the many options available for entrepreneurs and small business owners. If you know of other resources, please share!