Beyond networking: Engaging the Shenandoah Valley ecosystem
The Shenandoah Valley is not short of networking events for business owners. Thanks to a robust network of Chambers of Commerce and partners such as Shenandoah Valley Partnership, small business owners have ample opportunities to connect with each other and grow their network at lead share events, coffee & connections, and happy hours.
But what if “just networking” isn’t what you’re looking for?
Together with different partners, the ecosystem team at the Shenandoah Community Capital Fund has been experimenting with different event formats that go beyond networking to provide additional value to entrepreneurs.
Since August 2023, we’ve co-hosted seven events with one hundred entrepreneurs and small business owners in the Shenandoah Valley. We hosted small business breakfast and lunches at Broadway Co-working and we co-hosted coffee chats and happy hours in Shenandoah County. While we know it’s important to create space for entrepreneurs to gather and be in community, we wanted to take things one step further and guide the conversation around issues we’d heard in the community.
At two events we came equipped with flip charts, sharpies, and a lot of Post-its, and we asked entrepreneurs to brainstorm:
The assets in their entrepreneurial community that they successfully leveraged to build and grow their businesses
The support and asset gaps they’re facing as business owners, and
The ideal solution/asset they wish they had in their community.
With this simple mapping exercise, we can create a digital map of assets in any given location via Valley Business Compass.
More importantly, we can create a shared understanding of what’s working and what’s missing in any given local ecosystem which lays the foundation for conversations about what gaps we can fill in partnership with other accomplices and entrepreneurs.
Thematic deep dive
In every conversation we have with entrepreneurs in the Valley, we keep an ear out for the most pressing issues and themes that challenge local founders (see our monthly field notes). A key theme that keeps coming up is “marketing”. But that alone doesn’t tell us much about the core problem and how we might solve it. Along with an online survey (customer discovery!) and our 1:1 conversations, we addressed this elephant in the room with entrepreneurs at a small business lunch. We asked:
How important is marketing to your overall business success?
Where do you currently go for marketing help?
What’s your greatest challenge in terms of marketing?
As far as offering solutions go, how would you like those to be delivered?
While none of these questions provided us with perfect answers, they started a conversation to gain a deeper understanding of the current issues. The last question in particular gave us more insight into how to make services and products more accessible for the entrepreneurs they are designed for. Because we know that having a solution that wasn’t designed with the end user in mind is just as useless as no solution at all.
During these conversations, other questions arose that gave a more nuanced insight into marketing challenges for Valley entrepreneurs:
Even if I have a website, how do I make sure I show up on the first page of a Google search?
If I can’t afford to hire a full- or even part-time marketing person, where are my time and money best spent?
How do I move from traditional print to digital marketing? Where do I even start?
If you’re an entrepreneur in the Shenandoah Valley who struggles with marketing and you’re tired of struggling on your own, fill out this short survey and we’ll follow up to include you in beta-testing our solution(s)! If you’re a marketing expert or service provider who would like to help Valley entrepreneurs get unstuck and more proficient in marketing, please reach out to Anika (Anika@sccfva.org) and join our small business marketing task force.
Some issues that entrepreneurs face can be quick fixes if only they get in front of the right experts at the right time. Tax questions? Legal issues? Stuck on the latest social media trend? Work life out-of-balance?
Our idea was to test what happens when we get entrepreneurs together with experts who can help them answer some basic questions and get them unstuck quickly on some of the easy fixes. In partnership with Grow Waynesboro, we ran our first experiment on November 9, 2023.
We invited six subject matter experts and eight entrepreneurs to join us at the Shenandoah Valley Art Center for our first Small Business Social. In 15-minute 1:1 sessions, entrepreneurs explained their business challenges and received feedback, advice, and ideas from local subject matter experts. We ran four rounds of speed mentoring exposing entrepreneurs to four different experts and exposing experts to four potential new clients.
Here’s what we learned:
Prioritizing goals and developing strategies to pursue these goals - while avoiding procrastination - is hard.
Entrepreneurs need help to prioritize: They have a lot of dreams and creative ideas but also need to build and strengthen the core of their business
Almost all entrepreneurs need more guidance on business brass tacks: how to increase revenue, hiring and delegating for growth, and business strategy
Entrepreneurs are passionate about their business but they also want to enjoy their lives along the journey
Small business owners need to clarify their message. Some had good content but it needed to be abbreviated or laid out differently so that it grabbed attention.
Another upside of hosting speed mentoring events is that entrepreneurs can start building trust with experts in the ecosystem while we learn that none of these challenges are unique. Deepening that sense of camaraderie among players in the ecosystem is a great side benefit of being in community.
The best part? During wrap-up, we ask for public service announcements of events, opportunities, and asks for help within the ecosystem. At our first event, we ended up with 15 opportunities for local entrepreneurs to meet up, train together, or support each other.
Ecosystem events in 2024
There is a lot in store for entrepreneurs and small business owners in the Shenandoah Valley in 2024!
If you’re interested in supporting entrepreneurs in your community, reach out to us! We love to partner with other individuals and organizations who deeply care about the young businesses in their community.
In 2024, we hope to co-host more events to
map assets in different counties of the Valley.
Explore relevant topics that entrepreneurs across the Valley struggle with (access to capital, hiring and retaining employees, etc.)
Quickly solve problems for entrepreneurs through speed mentoring events, and to
Create space for entrepreneurs to convene in a meaningful way.
As an ecosystem convener, we can’t and don’t want to do any of this alone. We can’t be everywhere all the time and cater to every entrepreneur. Neither do we want to!
With so many wonderful entrepreneurial supporters and champions in the Valley, let’s join forces to better support our local startups and small businesses! Here’s what we’d like to collaborate on:
Striking the right balance between structure and content while allowing for friendly conversations is hard. We’d love your help and input!
Finding the right time is hard: Some people can only attend in the mornings, others happily gather during lunch and others prefer after-hours events. We’re looking for partners who want to open up their space at times that best work for them to cater to as many entrepreneurs as possible.
Finding a convenient location in such a large region is tricky: We’re looking for partners who want to host an event in their community so we can reach entrepreneurs in as many different locations as possible.
If you want to be involved as a partner, sponsor, or entrepreneur, please reach out to Anika!