Delaware’s Entrepreneurial Ecosystem: It Takes a Village

written by Dora Cheatham, Director, Economic Development Council, New Castle County Chamber of Commerce & Program Manager, Emerging Enterprise Center

 

Last week’s Delaware Entrepreneurial Summit – co-hosted by the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce Emerging Enterprise Center and the Delaware Small Business Development Center and held at the DuPont Country Club – with the aim of gathering together entrepreneurs, mentors and small business resources – was proof positive yet again that Delaware’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is unlike any other.  Keynote speakers gave a big picture view of entrepreneurship and innovation, while entrepreneurs and innovators who had been there, done that and had the scars to prove it shared their knowledge, expertise and experiences both in the traditional and scientific startup arenas.  Small business resources were on hand for assistance and there was networking – lots of networking.

Guest Speaker Michelle Christian – SBA Regional Director – articulated what we in Delaware know all too well but so often fail to shout from the rooftops:  that as a state, our entrepreneurial resources work in tandem – rather than compete – to help budding entrepreneurs and startups.  This doesn’t mean that every entrepreneur or startup is a star in the making.   What it does mean, is that good ideas, the ones that pass the “sniff test”, have an entire support system behind them ready, willing and able to help them succeed.

Take D150 Fueling for example.  The brainchild of three friends from Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey who met on the University of Delaware rowing team, the idea for a fueling innovation system that sends fueling professionals to refuel business vehicles at a customer’s lot was incubated at the University of Delaware’s Horn Program.  An invitation to apply for an NCC Innovates Sponsorship Award from New Castle County’s Department of Economic Development won them a year’s membership in the Emerging Enterprise Center Resident Program, which was announced at last year’s Entrepreneurial Summit.  On winning the award D150 stated that one of the reasons they wanted to keep their ties to Delaware is “the great community and how much people are willing to help us out.”  Since winning the award, D150 have generated over $3.5 million in revenue, created 5 full time and 2 part time jobs, invested in additional vehicles are on track for continued for continued growth throughout 2019.

On a wholly different entrepreneurial SAS Nanotechnologies illustrates an even broader ecosystem that Delaware enjoys.  Founded by Dr. Sumedh Surwade, it all started with his PhD and Post-doc research in Polymer Science and the fundamental and application aspects of nanomaterials.

After completing his research, Dr. Surwade landed at Delaware Technology Park (DTP) where he continued to refine his technology and develop environmentally friendly, self-healing anti-corrosive coatings.  He also began to formulate his business idea.  While at DTP, he learned about the Delaware Sustainable Chemistry Alliance (DESCA) and the DESCA TechConnect Workshop.  Dr. Surwade says:

“DESCA events were my main source of networking and these helped me tremendously in connecting with experienced professionals. Going through the TechConnect Workshop and getting direct and honest feedback on my technology from experienced industry professionals was very useful. Their feedback helped me to broaden my thinking, evaluate different applications of my technology and focus on commercialization.”  

DESCA also helped Dr. Surwade form his Advisory Board, connected him with strategic partners, and brought him into contact with Lou DiNetta of the Delaware SBDC who worked closely with Dr. Surwade to help him win an SBIR Phase I Grant in the amount of $225,000 and apply for a Phase II award in February of 2019.

Realizing the important of connecting and networking, Dr. Surwade also joined the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce where he learned about, and was encouraged, to pitch for the Emerging Enterprise Center’s annual Swim with the Sharks Pitch Competition, sponsored by New Castle County’s NCC Innovates Initiative.  This led to another win:  $10,000 in cash, a 6 month membership in the Emerging Enterprise Center incubator, 6 months of accounting services and IT consulting services.   At the Emerging Enterprise Center, Dr. Surwade has a place to hold conferences, meet with customers and seek additional advice and resource assistance – most recently, connecting him with the Delaware Manufacturing Extension Partnership (DEMEP) to help him source a toll manufacturer and connect him with additional strategic partners. 

Just a few months after his Swim with the Sharks win, Dr. Surwade was invited to pitch again at DESCA’s Venture Forum where he was approached by a VC firm seeking to invest in SAS Nanotechnologies.

Since emerging from the research world, SAS Nanotechnologies have navigated what is commonly known as the “valley of death” in science innovation with the help of organizations that are dedicated to helping them commercialize their technology successfully. 

These are just two of many stories that illustrate how “it takes a village” working in unison to drive economic development, and a myriad quotes that can similarly illustrate the concept – but let’s go with one from Henry Ford:  “Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.”

Why Continuous Learning Matters

Written by Dora Cheatham, Program Manager, Emerging Enterprise Center

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”  Confucius

When I first entered the world of business more years ago than I care to remember, it was a very different place.  Word processors were just making an appearance and sending a fax was the ultimate in high speed communication, the internet barely existed, and Amazon wasn’t even a glimmer in Jeff Bezos’ eye.

Fast forward to 2018 and while the basic principles of business remain the same, the way we DO business is infinitely different. Technology has changed how we make decisions and embark on a strategic direction, how we execute on strategy, how we transact business, how we communicate. Equally, we have access to more informational and educational resources than ever before. For the small business owner today – more than ever – to ignore the need for continuous learning is to remain stagnant at best, fail at worst.

The Emerging Enterprise Center’s Business Growth Workshops hone in on business processes that every small business and entrepreneur needs while tying into the ever-evolving business environment.  Among these:

Marketing & Communication:  30 years ago, sales and marketing were almost synonymous and advertising represented the main thrust of the marketing and sales effort.  Today the world of sales and marketing couldn’t be more different, yet too often small business owners still believe that, as long as they market their product or business “customers will come”.  This couldn’t be further from the truth, so it is critical that new entrepreneurs as well as small business owners are clear in their own minds of the differences between strategic marketing, marketing communications, advertising, and sales so that they can develop and implement a sustainable business growth plan.

Selling Value:  Probably the toughest thing for first time – and sometimes serial – entrepreneurs to grasp, is the difference between selling a PRODUCT or SERVICE and selling VALUE.  Entrepreneurs and innovators, rightly, are passionate about their product and their passion is reflected when they speak about it.  What it can do, how it can do it, how it was developed, the features, the benefits.  The more clearly those features and benefits can be articulated into end user value, the less important price becomes as a part of the sales equation.  This translates into a more valuable business model that generates greater revenue.  To quote Warren Buffet:  “Price is what you pay, value is what you get.”    Are you clear about the value that you are providing to your customers?

Innovation: “Innovate or die” has become a 21st century mantra and rightly so.  Failure to innovate led to the slow demise of companies like Eastman Kodak, Blockbuster, Sears and, more recently, Toys ‘R’ Us.  In today’s world of rapid technological development, changing tastes and increasing competition, product life cycles are becoming shorter and shorter.  Businesses that fail to update are gradually squeezed out of the market.  Innovation doesn’t have to be disruptive – it can be gradual and incremental.  The key is to remain relevant!

Globalization:  Globalization can be a hotly contested topic but has nevertheless had a profound impact on business with increased competition, expanded markets, increased resources, technology transfer.  The increased ease with which business can be transacted internationally means that even the smallest of businesses can access customers and markets which in the past may have seemed unreachable, either directly or through strategic business alliances.

In the end, while ignorance – at times – can be bliss, when running a business, it can be fatal.  As a business owner, I’m all too aware of the fact that the first step to growing a business is the ability to acknowledge that “I don’t know what I don’t know.”  So I make sure I continue to learn.

For more information on the Emerging Enterprise Center’s Business Growth Workshops, contact Erica Crell at (302) 294-2063 or via email.

A Strategy to Exit

Written by Cheryl Beth Kuchler, CEO Think Tank

STRATEGY TO EXIT

Rich Manders of Freescale Coaching grew his company, iAutomation, to $12Million with $2.5M in EBITDA and sold 75% of the business back in 2007. Over the past decade the company has continued on a growth track reaching over $100M in 2016.

During the acquisition process, the acquiring Private Equity firm, Riverside Company, used the “SPARKLE” model as a checklist evaluate the company’s value. Each letter represents an aspect of your business that should “sparkle” and if your business doesn’t, the acquiring firm wins.

At the 2016 Harvard Innovation Symposium, Rich shared the model and explained how buyers use the checklist to determine the price of a business. HINT: The more a company SPARKLES, the more the right buyer is willing to pay.

I highly recommend watching the entire presentation – about 43 minutes. If you’re time-strapped, however, you can read a recap of what each letter stands for here.

How does Your Business Grow?

Written by Dora Cheatham, Program Manager, Emerging Enterprise Center

 

INNOVATE OR DIE has become a 21st century mantra, and rightly so. Today’s globe is smaller than ever, communications are instantaneous, competition is fierce and market expectations are high and ever-changing. Innovation is therefore a prerequisite for survival.

But what is this seeming “answer to all ills” that we call innovation? How do we make it succeed? And how do we do so while simultaneously meeting various business and ROI criteria that may be imposed upon us and are often at odds with a long term innovation strategy?

When we speak of innovation, many people immediately think of breakthrough developments that changed the course of the marketplace, industry or even history: the automobile, the telephone, the microchip, iTunes. However, innovation can be as simple as changing packaging, repositioning a product, or moving into an adjacent business space. Just yesterday, we saw the release of the 6th version of the iPhone together with the Apple watch: earth shattering? Maybe not, but people were standing in line for the new version of the phone and analysts are expecting a bullish next few months for Apple.

Some may think that this dilutes the concept of innovation, but a successful – and cost-effective – innovation strategy should incorporate a range of development projects that not only works towards breakthrough products and technologies, but also allocates resources to the improvement of existing products, the expansion of existing products into new markets, and the development of existing technologies into new products.

One of the best illustrations of this concept is Bansi Nagji and Geoff Tuff’s “Innovation Ambition Matrix”. Following a review of a number of high performing firms, Nagji and Tuff noted that on average, these firms allocated investments in similar ratios: 70% on the improvement of existing products or core, 20% on the expansion or existing products into new areas, 10% on breakthrough innovation. Their findings also showed that the return ratios were the direct inverse to the investment percentages. While breakthrough innovations yielded a greater return, core innovations required less time and money to develop, and as a rule were more readily accepted by the end user.

By understanding and defining innovation in terms of all of these elements – and not just breakthrough products – creating a growth strategy and implementing a new product development process that fits in with a firm’s core competences makes the entire concept of innovation, while no less daunting, certainly far more manageable and sustainable.

This also makes the concept of innovation far easier to disseminate throughout the organization so that it becomes a part of the organizational culture. When employees understand that innovation need not necessarily be limited to R&D or Engineering, they are more likely to contribute ideas that – while they may not lead to breakthrough products – could certainly lead to product improvements or cost reductions.

Redefining Profit Drivers

Additional routes to growth and innovation should also involve taking an objective view of your business model to clearly understand your profit drivers as they relate to your customers’ needs. This can prove a valuable tool and may lead to a reassessment of your market metrics and a redefinition of how you position your product and/or services and better align your offering to customer needs. We are seeing this more and more as businesses strive to offer insights and solutions rather than individual products.

 Free up Resources by Controlling Hidden Costs

While all of this is going on, there is one more important element that should be incorporated in the innovation process – and that is the regular and consistent review and maintenance of the existing product portfolio. Are the products still relevant and in demand? Are there any weak or inefficient products that could or should be repositioned, improved, or even removed to make way for newer products? Maintenance of inefficient products is a hidden cost and resource drain in many organizations. To allow innovation to function at its most effective, these resources should be freed up in order to be allocated to efforts that add greater long term value.

Strategy x Execution = Success

 

Of course – as with all strategies and my own personal mantra – it’s not just about the strategy but about the implementation and execution of that strategy. Often strategies fail – be they innovation, business, market or product strategies – not necessarily because the strategy itself is flawed but because the implementation and execution is flawed. As the entrepreneur Naveen Jain once said

“Success doesn’t necessarily come from breakthrough innovation but from flawless execution. A great strategy alone won’t win a game or battle; the win comes from basic blocking and tackling.”

The KISS Principle: From Innovation to Communication

Written by Dora Cheatham, Program Manager, Emerging Enterprise Center

KISS – alternately known “keep it simple, stupid”, “keep it short and simple” and “keep it simple and straightforward” – is an acronym reportedly coined by Kelly Johnson in the early 20th century, a lead engineer at Lockheed Skunk Works who created the Lockheed US and SR-71 Blackbird spy planes. It’s also a design principle noted by the US Navy in 1960 believing that most systems work best when you avoid unnecessary complexity.

The concept is nothing new and has been embraced by innovators throughout the centuries, from Leonardo da Vinci “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” to Steve Jobs “That’s been one of my mantras – focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

Lean and Six Sigma were both based on the simplification and optimization of processes to increase productivity and reduce the potential for error. Alan Turing – considered the father of computing and artificial intelligence – built the stunningly simple Turing Machine which is today the basis of all modern computers. The same applies in the business world. Whether it’s a go-to-market plan, the design of a new process, or implementing cultural change the key to success is simplicity.

By simplifying and communicating sometimes complex organizational strategies and discussions, it makes them accessible to the entire organization which in turn enables the entire organization to embrace them. So the concept of QA in manufacturing can be viewed less as a system of forms and check marks and more as a fundamental belief in manufacturing products of the highest quality possible. Innovation can be viewed less as a function of R&D or Engineering, divorced from the rest of the organization, and more an overriding vision that is integrated into the mainstream of the organization, engendering commitment at all levels.

Similarly, the communication of complex, technical products needs to be broken down into language understood by anyone involved in the purchase process, with clear explanations of the pros and cons surrounding their purchase decision and based on trustworthy information. Too often, marketing of complex products – especially at a B2B level – is communicated in language and concepts which may hold great value to some in the decision making process, but may hold little value to others. Ensure that the communication is clear enough to be understand by all involved in the purchasing decision.

In their excellent article published in Harvard Business Review, Patrick Spenner and Karen Freeman discussed their findings after a 3-month long study on what drives consumers to opt for, or stick with, a specific brand. They found that “the single biggest driver of stickiness, by far, was “decision simplicity” – the ease with which consumers can gather trustworthy information about a product confidently and efficiently weigh their purchase options. What consumers want from marketers is, simply, simplicity.”

So how do you go about simplifying communication? The steps are simple (pun intended):

DECONSTRUCT: Break down the idea to its basic elements.

SIMPLIFY: Simplify the premise by taking out excess information that does not directly contribute to the value expected by the end user(s).

RECONSTRUCT: Reconstruct by focusing strictly on the value, bearing in mind that value may represent different things to the various members of your audience.

COMMUNICATE: Communicate in a language that is accessible to a wider audience. Use clear language, avoid the use of jargon and acronyms that only a limited audience would understand.

I’ll leave the final word to that great genius Einstein:

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”