Help is on the way for Colorado’s small businesses hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. It’s not a stimulus check, but rather a cadre of seasoned faculty members and business leaders able to mentor struggling businesses at no charge.
In short, the new CU Boulder initiative COventure Forward is one tool in the toolbox to help businesses weather this unprecedented economic storm.
Launched this month by the Deming Center for Entrepreneurship at the Leeds School of Business, COventure Forward is designed to connect small businesses, start-ups, scale-ups and entrepreneurs to a seasoned mentorship network.
“When the COVID-19 crisis first hit us, we knew this would turn many entrepreneurs’ lives upside down and would bring new and difficult challenges,” said Scott Fox, an entrepreneur in the cellular and wireless industries and an entrepreneur-in-residence at Venture Partners at CU Boulder.
As of April 28, COventure Forward had nearly 60 mentors signed up to give free advice to 41 businesses and entrepreneurs statewide.
“Most of these mentors have navigated downturns in the past,” said Erick Mueller, executive director of the Deming Center. “Now they can share their expertise and guide newer businesses through those challenges.”
Overnight, the problems faced by new businesses in Colorado shifted from strategizing to get their business off the ground to preventing their business from running into the ground. On the line are their own livelihoods and those of their employees.
Fox’s industry, for example, made rapid accommodations for unprecedented wireless bandwidth, making now all-too-familiar decisions about who was “essential” to get the job done.
Before COVID-19, many Colorado businesses were talking about growing their operations and hiring new people. Without much warning, they started talking about slashing office space and furloughing employees.
“Most entrepreneurs and small business owners have triaged their operations via the Paycheck Protection Program and other government funds, as well as key decisions to conserve cash,” Mueller said. “Now, they’ll have to start planning for what the next few months and years look like in response to this crisis.”
For many budding businesses, the future will be both daunting and exciting.
“Another important outcome many of us are working toward is helping entrepreneurs become better equipped at embracing change,” said Fox. “While dramatic change often brings uncertainty and fear, these same disruptions can also lead to unprecedented opportunities.”
While scaling up a small business is challenging in the best of times, the quick pivots required to stay in business now could include everything from taking brick-and-mortar sales online to remote teambuilding. Mueller said mentors can be a lifeline.
“A fresh perspective can be invaluable in determining the best path forward,” said Mueller. “Mentors can provide direct feedback, tips and advice on a specific challenge that may be beyond a single entrepreneur’s expertise.”
Mentors can also reap benefits from helping a mentee.
Susan Strong has mentored entrepreneurs via multiple programs in Fort Collins and Boulder for years.
As she shares her hard-earned experience, she gets something in return.
“I find it incredibly rewarding to share what worked and what didn’t work and to meet so many motivated and interesting founders,” Strong said. “I learn new things from them every day.”
Rising tides lift all boats
Beyond business lessons, both Fox and Strong emphasize the value of a human connection in stressful times.
“It is important that people learn that they are not alone, many other people are in the same boat,” said Strong. “And that people care about them as individuals.”
Both mentors said they want their mentees to come away with a sense of community and of understanding that they will all get through the COVID-19 economic downturn together, even as they deal with some of the toughest choices of their lives.
“These can be difficult decisions to make and having some experienced eyes and ears to help can make all the difference in the world to a startup,” Fox said.