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Survival tips for startups: Build a support system, but avoid ‘idea fairies’

Attendees listen to speakers at the Get Connected Incubator and Accelerator Expo sponsored by Central Piedmont Community College on May 19, 2016.
Attendees listen to speakers at the Get Connected Incubator and Accelerator Expo sponsored by Central Piedmont Community College on May 19, 2016. cesmith@charlotteobserver.com

When it comes to starting and growing your business, consider surrounding yourself with others instead of flying solo.

Keep your day job, especially one that makes you savvier about your venture. And be as choosy about picking mentors as you would about choosing friends.

Small Business Month in May brought a flurry of events for new and existing entrepreneurs, from a City of Charlotte celebration of small businesses, to panel discussions around the city featuring entrepreneurs sharing their best practices, habits and tips for success.

Here are some highlights and speakers’ tips from one of those conferences – Central Piedmont Community College’s Get Connected Incubator and Accelerator Expo.

Work in groups: There’s strength in numbers when solopreneurs work with others, whether that’s in shared work spaces at co-working spots, or within incubators, where entrepreneurs receive support and guidance for handling all aspects of their ventures.

James Jordon, president of JCC General Contractors of Greenville, S.C., compared it to “getting naked” when he worked with the Greenville Chamber Minority Business Accelerator and shared details about his business. But “we just knew we needed help,” and it all helped him figure out strengths and weaknesses. “It helped me think about the business in a very different way.”

An incubator setting, with businesses working under one roof, also lets you see how others handle good and bad times. “We fail a lot, we really do,” said Ryan Kennedy, founder and CEO of Atom Power, which develops digitally-controlled circuit breaker technology. Kennedy said being surrounded by engineering and technology entrepreneurs within the Ventureprise incubator and accelerator based at UNC Charlotte’s PORTAL building allow the chance to see “lots of failures, lots of Eureka moments.”

Staying connected: Even after leaving an incubator, find ways to continue to network, or create your own group, according to Michelle Menard, president and CEO of Charlotte-based Choice Translating. She founded her multimillion dollar business while she was a student at UNC Charlotte and part of the Ben Craig Center, Ventureprise’s predecessor.

Menard is in the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, a peer-to-peer group where influential business owners can give and get feedback confidentially. “Get that support group set up and touch base with them regularly,” she said. “We're all dealing with challenges either in our personal life or professional life.”

Finding your funding strategy: Be conscious and very conservative about bringing on debt, Jordon advised.

To help figure out his financing method, Davon Bailey, founder of the Eat Work Play networking group launched through Charlotte-based City Startup Labs’ incubator, intentionally chose a career path that has him working in compliance for a bank. “That was strategic,” Bailey said, to learn finance structure and best strategies for his business.

Take advice in measured ways: Even the best-intentioned mentors may offer good ideas that you don’t need to adopt immediately. Think of them as “idea fairies,” said Mike Murphy, co-founder of education company ProctorFree. Protect your employees from this by putting boxes around their time so it’s not wasted.

While honest and critical feedback is important from mentors, you have to sift through it, too, said Jason Wilkins, co-founder of InnovaKnits, LLC, a textile innovations manufacturer who partners with the Manufacturing Solutions Center in Conover. “You can ask 50 different mentors for advice, but it’s up to you to filter it out.”

Think of the endless stream of advice that all startups get as eating the fruit and spitting out the seeds, according to Chris Laney, president and CEO of Greensboro-based Zenergy Technologies. His software quality assurance and testing firm grew out of the Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship in Greensboro.

“Advice is not one size fits all,” Laney said. “What’s good for one person may not be good for you and your business.”

But don’t get rid of those seeds altogether, Laney said. Store them in the back of your mind to possibly use later.

Some seeds may grow into something different, a hybrid tree that doesn’t look like the same advice, but is still tailored to you.

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