This guest blog was contributed by Andrew Bennett, co-founder of KnowledgePost and $25,000 Innovation Fund award winner. It's a firsthand perspective on the Innovation Fund application process.
I co-founded a nonprofit called Engage! Cleveland and a for-profit internet business called KnowledgePost. Both have been physically, emotionally and financially draining.
Entrepreneurs often leave full-time jobs and steady paychecks, invest their savings with zero promise of return, and almost always sacrifice personal time with friends and family. Entrepreneurship can be scary, exhilarating, fulfilling, depressing, infuriating, mind-expanding, and every other adjective in the dictionary. It can make entrepreneurs question their sanity, their abilities, and whether the sacrifice is worth it. It is the guaranteed rollercoaster of entrepreneurship that I say a support system is needed, because without it, entrepreneurs will diminish their chances for success.
We are fortunate in Northeast Ohio to have a robust number of organizations and people who are willing to support entrepreneurs as they go through the startup journey. I personally have received support from GLIDE, Braintree, JumpStart and countless successful entrepreneurs whose brains I pick on a weekly basis.
All of the support we’ve received has been immeasurably valuable to my KnowledgePost co-founder, Evan Ishida, and me. And winning a $25,000 grant from the Innovation Fund was an incredible boost toward our startup’s growth. Not a penny went to waste.
After spending over $50,000 of our own money on a beta site, we needed a cash injection to help take the product to a non-beta version that we could release to the masses. As of today, we are pushing through the final phases of the new site and it will be released in mid-May. At that point we will be able to start scaling our customer base, generating revenue and taking the company to the next stage in the startup process. Simply put, we wouldn’t be able to get our new site up and running without the grant we received.
But the support isn’t just financial. The Innovation Fund benefits went beyond the money. Here’s what the fund does for startups, in addition to giving them capital.
#1: Helps entrepreneurs build financial and presentation skills
I didn’t particularly enjoy diving into the financial details of my business nor having to present them to large numbers of people, but thankfully the Innovation Fund forced me to do both. One might have the best concept in the world, but if an entrepreneur doesn’t understand the intricacies of the business and can’t communicate them effectively, they are in deep trouble. The Innovation Fund application process is quite rigorous and it forces entrepreneurs to think about the financial side of their business and then deliver the message in a way that a 5th grader can understand; this is quite challenging actually. Humans by nature tend to avoid scenarios they don’t particular enjoy, but the application process forces entrepreneurs to expand their financial and presentation capabilities, which is incredibly important when talking with future customers, partners, advisors and investors.
#2: Forces entrepreneurs to have a customer validated concept
The first time Evan and I applied to the Innovation Fund we got shutdown because we were just an idea. Although we thought our business concept was a no-brainer, we actually had no proof that customers thought so too. As you may have heard before, ideas are a dime a dozen and really aren’t anything to get excited about. However, when an idea has been validated by its target customers, it means there is proof that a real business can be built. After our rejection, Evan and I put on our big boy pants and made sure to share our concept with customers. We thought we might be going to the market a little early, but nonetheless it forced us to face our fears and see if the KnowledgePost concept had legs. After 3 months of building customer proof, we reapplied to the Innovation Fund and were awarded a $25,000 grant. The Innovation Fund forces entrepreneurs to get evidence that their business concept is worth pursuing, which may be scary to find out, but ultimately is hugely beneficial.
#3: Supports entrepreneurs on their rollercoaster journey
As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, the entrepreneurship experience can feel like the fiercest of rollercoasters at Cedar Point, which is why having experienced support is desperately needed. Sometimes the GLIDE team is there to help entrepreneurs think through their revenue models, key customers, marketing approaches, value propositions and other key elements of the business, sometimes they are there to give a pat on the back and provide emotional support, and sometimes they are there to give a kick in the butt and make sure an entrepreneur is doing what needs to be done in order to achieve success. The ongoing support is perhaps the biggest benefit of all, especially when doubts and challenges come knocking on the door, which they always do.
At the end of the day everyone is applying to the Innovation Fund because they need the money. But whether an entrepreneur is fortunate enough to receive a grant from the Innovation Fund or not, the process alone is well worth the effort. As a person who has been rejected and supported by the Innovation Fund, I can vouch for the program and the tremendous benefit they provide to Northeast Ohio entrepreneurs.