This post is the second in a four-part series about creating a new entrepreneurship program, the Missouri Women’s Business Center, while simultaneously helping entrepreneurs start and grow their own businesses. View Part 1, “Taking the Leap,” here.
Once I decided to step (or leap!) into the role of launching the Missouri Women’s Business Center, I had to figure out precisely what we would do. By the nature of our program type and the mandate of our primary funding source (the U.S. Small Business Administration), I knew we’d offer business coaching and education, and that we’d serve women. But what would that look like? More importantly, what did the community need?
Over the past year, I’ve learned from many sources that successful entrepreneurs don’t just create a product or service. They solve a problem or meet a previously unmet need. The challenge lies in finding exactly what that need is. To do that, you have to know what else is out there (you might call this your competition) and what your customers want.
No matter what kind of business you’re starting — dog grooming, a web application, a better mousetrap, or a women’s business center — it’s very likely that something similar already exists. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for you in the market. You just have to find the gap.
The MoWBC joined an established entrepreneurial ecosystem with many services already available to entrepreneurs and small business owners. Programs like the Small Business and Technology Development Centers, REDI, the Chamber of Commerce, SCORE, 1 Million Cups, and the Missouri Innovation Center were already helping small businesses and entrepreneurs. Columbia College and the University of Missouri each have entrepreneurship initiatives. Just before we opened, the City of Columbia created a supplier diversity program focused on women and people of color. Our local Columbia Chamber has a thriving Women’s Network that includes many women leaders and business owners. Was a Women’s Business Center even needed here?
Of course, Central Missouri Community Action, the host agency for the MoWBC, had already answered that question when it conducted research used to apply for (and receive) the SBA grant. But as a native Show-Me Stater, I had to see the gap for myself. And my team and I needed more information to drill down on how our new program would fill it.
We started with the people already working in our sector. Thankfully, as I mentioned in Part 1 of this series, the organizations mentioned above welcomed us as a potential collaborator rather than competition. We learned about their programs and listened to their thoughts on what was missing.
We also went right to the source, asking potential clients directly what they were looking for and not yet finding in small business resources. We surveyed attendees at our open house, and when we launched our website (more on that in Part 3 of this series), we put a link to the needs survey right on the front page.
What did we find? Here are a few of the gaps we identified that have guided our first year:
- We found continuing barriers to small business ownership for aspiring entrepreneurs who have financial constraints and/or credit issues, as well as those with social disadvantages.
- We found a desire for more women-specific programming centering on our unique challenges such as work-life balance, gender politics, self-doubt and getting access to capital.
- We found that Columbia and Jefferson City have far more resources for entrepreneurs (especially business coaching and education) than other communities in our eight-county service area.
In responding to these gaps, we keep the issues unique to women front and center. They’ve become the basis for creating our open mastermind group, our Women Who Own It speaker series, and many of the workshop topics we’ve offered to date. We specialize in meeting each aspiring or existing business owner where she is on her business journey. As a part of CMCA, we work especially well with high-barrier entrepreneurs who may not have access to as many resources to get started.
On the funding side, we’ve built upon CMCA’s existing relationship with Justine Petersen, a St. Louis-based nonprofit microlender, to increase the number of these loans provided in Mid-Missouri to start and grow small businesses. Looking across our eight-county service area, we established a second location in Fulton last fall and have worked to build relationships in the rural communities where needs are greater. In our second year, we will increase our rural programming and introduce an online component so people can get coaching and training without needing transportation.
It is important to note that we didn’t stop seeking gaps after we opened. There is still a survey on the first page of our website (your input is welcome!) and we continue to work with our partners, clients and advisory board (more on them in Part 4) to identify needs. Successful entrepreneurs continuously ask their customers and prospects for feedback on how to improve and what else to provide. We want to ensure that the Missouri Women’s Business Center continues to solve real problems and filled needed gaps.
Jaime Freidrichs is the director of the Missouri Women’s Business Center. She blogs about women in entrepreneurship for CBT.