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What Does It Take to Get from Startup to Growth? Risk Tolerance, Mentorship, Access

July 13, 2023
A newcomer in East Tennessee reflects on establishing an entrepreneurial network.

IndustryWeek's elite panel of regular contributors.

After living in 10 different communities across the United States, I find that I am “home” when I start to make connections who know my previous connections; a web is woven. I’ve now spent six months living in Knoxville, Tennessee and am beginning to establish a network in the entrepreneurial community here, after leading a manufacturing company in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Before I even moved to Knoxville, I was advised to sign up for Teknovation.biz, a morning email celebrating all the stories of technology, innovation and entrepreneurship in East Tennessee. Immediately upon receiving the email, I was shocked to see all the funding in the local area to help startups get their ideas off the ground.

Recently, I had the good fortune of meeting Tom Ballard, the founder, editor and publisher of Teknovation, who has spent his career building connections between public and private entities in East Tennessee. Ballard was able to connect some dots for me as to how ideas in the area grow from concept to startup companies.

But what I found even more interesting was Ballard’s response to my question: “What gaps could be filled to make more local companies successful?” His answer: mentorship, access to capital and risk tolerance.

A thought struck me … Ballard is absolutely correct. To get from startup to growth in the lifecycle of a business, the key ingredients he identified are essential.

1. Risk Tolerance

No one sets out to fail. Great success is generally years in the making and on the heels of failed ideas. Therefore, try reframing failure as experimentation.

In the real world, not all ideas will be successful. In fact, there will be a lot more failures than successes, but we can learn from the failures. When we have the opportunity to experiment and try again, success often follows.

Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, the successful women’s shapewear company, credits her success to the discussions she had at her childhood dinner table. Instead of asking, “What did you learn at school today?” her parents asked, “What did you fail at today?” When there was no failure to report, Blakely’s father would express disappointment. This attitude towards failure gave Blakely the confidence she relied upon to overcome a series of remarkable obstacles when building her business. She began her business with just $5,000 in the bank, had no experience in the hosiery industry and had never taken a single business course. Today, Blakely is a billionaire!

2. Mentorship

Aspiring entrepreneurs and company leaders can find mentors in many places. Maybe it is an impromptu meeting at the coffee shop with a friend to talk through a difficult decision you are faced with. Or, you could join a peer group where you have access to other executives experiencing similar challenges as yourself. Other mentorship opportunities include tapping into the expertise of someone on your board of directors or an executive coach.

Personally, I have mentored or been a mentee in all these formats. Reaching out to a business leader you admire and asking for a meeting is your first step to understanding you are not alone. And, your mentor can help you make additional connections to help you reach your goals.

3. Access to Capital

As a business grows, access to capital is a necessity.

When you first come up with a concept, you may have to bootstrap in order to further explore the idea. In the pre-seed stage, the first round of funders may include grants and your family and close friends.

As you build and launch, companies need capital in order to buy equipment to scale production and hire leaders to manage the business. These funds can come from crowdfunding, angel investors or venture capital funds. Companies that continue to grow in revenue and profit will gain access to traditional bank funding.

A day will come when the founder wants to exit the business. This is when private equity or a third-party buyer will purchase the mature company—hopefully keeping the company in the local community and growing for generations to come.

So, what infrastructure must be built, in East Tennessee and in other local communities, to bridge the gap between the startup and growth stages to create more viable companies?

Ashleigh Walters was president of Onex Inc. through 2022 and is the author of  Leading with Grit and Grace.

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