For those sick of punching clocks or working under a manager’s watchful eye, starting your own business seems like a pretty sweet gig. Make your own hours, focus on the things important to you — what’s not to like?
But the reality is starting your own enterprise is tough. From finding investment capital and funding to getting off the ground floor and popularizing your brand, startup enterprises can present overwhelming challenges to newcomers in the business world.
That’s where Venture Asheville steps in. Through its Elevate program, local startups have the chance to collaborate with other early-stage entrepreneurs, troubleshoot daily challenges with mentors experienced in the business world and foster a more tightly knit local business community.
Ramping up for its second cohort this summer, Venture Asheville is seeking applicants to help lead the way toward a diversification of jobs, higher wages for workers in Western North Carolina and stronger technology and sustainability industries in the region.
How does your startup grow?
Launched in January, Elevate was initiated to “catalyze high-growth startups” in the Asheville area, says Matt Popowski, communications and marketing manager for the Economic Development Coalition.
Elevate is free for participants through the first year, as long as an entrepreneur maintains a 90 percent participation rate throughout the program. With 10 entrepreneurs per cohort, or group, each session offers personalized feedback from a mentor team of business professionals from around the area, using the Massachusetts Institute of Technology group-mentoring model.
Perhaps most importantly, Venture Asheville has partnered with Vistage International, a private peer advisory group company with connections to CEOs across the world, to facilitate peer-to-peer advisory meetings where local professionals can network, troubleshoot, develop knowledge and issue processing strategies together.
“What really excites me about the entrepreneurial group is they are so eager to learn,” says Bill Tate, Vistage’s Asheville CEO, who has 25 years of experience running multimillion-dollar companies and currently serves as Elevate’s peer-to-peer group facilitator. “They enjoy being in a room with people that are having the same challenges they’re experiencing, whether that’s finding capital, building their business, hiring new people, pivoting — it’s an exciting time for them.”
By bringing a variety of voices to the table, Tate says startup founders can pick the advice most applicable to their situations. “With the wrong mentor giving you bad advice, it could lead to bad things happening with your business,” he notes. “With the team approach, you get a very diverse opinion across the board, and the CEO can determine what the right thing is for their business.”
Elevate isn’t for the dilettante or overly sensitive, Popowski says. Participants must come in with “an open mind that’s receptive to change and potentially making significant strategic shifts in how they operate their business, be willing to honestly talk about the issues that keep them up at night and commit to using advice they willingly accept to make changes that address those critical issues.”
A good start
With Elevate almost a half-year into its first cohort, Popowski says the initial results have been encouraging. Among the 10 entrepreneurs currently participating is Clark Harris, who founded the rewards card platform LoLo in 2013, which puts a local twist on traditional rewards card programs. “I wanted to create a fun and engaging way to support local businesses,” he says. “We allow consumers to turn their credit and debit cards into local rewards cards.”
Elevate has given him the chance to connect with others who are trying to build their brand. “Entrepreneur is a lonely profession at times,” Harris says. “One of the best things about the Vistage side of Elevate is the fellowship. You start to see you’re not the only one dealing with these challenges.”
Because Elevate is free, entrepreneurs can also save the costs of hiring expensive outside consultants to guide them early on, he notes. “There’s something very valuable in sitting down face to face with three different mentors and letting a discussion take place and being able to see how they react to certain challenges.”
Venture Asheville will track the first 10 participants’ revenue growth, new hires and employee wages, and capital funding over the next year, according to Popowski, and use that data to fine-tune the program for future groups.
Investing in Asheville’s industry
Those involved with Elevate hope that the program will help further Asheville’s and WNC’s immense potential to be a national center for technological and entrepreneurial development. “Entrepreneurship is a hugely important cultural and economic contributor to the local business community,” Popowski says. “We expect [Elevate] will add new jobs and career opportunities in Asheville, increase company revenues and help establish and expand 50 high-growth companies in the area.”
The elements to accomplish this dream, if they can be harnessed, are already present in the community, says Tate, but Asheville must provide support to startups once they begin to advance. “I think where we’ve failed as a community is to help these young companies become sustainable and to provide high-paying jobs for the Asheville area — That’s our goal [with Elevate].”
With a growing need for technological innovation, specifically in sustainable or “green” technology sectors, the opportunity to capitalize locally is strong, he adds. “That’s the type of environment we live in in Asheville, and I think there’s an opportunity for all of those jobs coming around.”
Harris says he’s been impressed with Asheville’s collaborative atmosphere and believes that can be harnessed into growing and diversifying the local economy. While the city may lack the financial resources and talent pool of larger cities, he believes that programs like Elevate are beginning to close that gap and hopes that local entrepreneurs and city officials will continue to help facilitate the growth of local businesses.
“I’d love to see a local, community-based crowdfunding platform,” Harris says. “You want people to be able to validate the concept before they invest their life savings; you want to make sure there’s a market set. That is something that can be done very easily in our community.”
Venture Asheville is accepting applications for the second Elevate cohort through Friday, June 3. The focus for this session is on businesses in the Internet and software industries and low-carbon economy industries that display the potential to achieve $20 million in revenue within five years.
Qualified entrepreneurs must live or work within Buncombe County. While preference is given to companies already in the market, those in an earlier stage will be considered.
Popowski says that the Elevate program will reach 30 high-growth startups by the end of the year, with plans to support 50 concurrently participating businesses from its various cohorts by the summer of 2017.
For his part, Tate hopes to facilitate more support for programs like Elevate that benefit local startups in the coming years. “We have some very generous people in our community that started out in an incubator here in Asheville. They know that the more businesses they can bring up, it creates a better economic climate for everybody. If more business owners could do that, I think we could create a climate here that would be second to none.”
For more information on the Elevate program, a description of application guidelines, to apply for a spot in the summer cohort group or to learn about other programs and initiatives to support Asheville entrepreneurs, visit ventureasheville.com/elevate.