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Spotlight on practice

November/December 2009

Maine program trains next generation of business leaders

Maine has moose, spectacular state and national parks, Stephen King and lobster. What it doesn’t have, says Steve Bazinet, is a pipeline of high-growth-potential businesses or a deep bench of entrepreneurial leadership for such companies.

To remedy that problem, the president of the Maine Center for Enterprise Development in Portland, Maine, created an entrepreneur development program to identify the next generation of business leaders and provide them with the resources to improve their chances of business success.

Inspired by descriptions of Kansas’ KTEC Pipeline program, Bazinet realized that the basic model was familiar: “It sounded like the Top Gun program the Navy has for the best-of-the-best aviators,” Bazinet says.

Armed with a $50,000 pilot grant from the Maine Institute of Technology, Bazinet created his own Top Gun program for up-and-coming Maine entrepreneurs. For each of 12 weeks, the initial class of 12 Top Gun candidates participated in workshops and panel discussions on topics such as product development, sales strategy, team building, and capital and funding structure. Those lessons were reinforced in mandatory weekly meetings with experienced business leaders matched one-on-one as mentors.

The focus throughout was on individual development, not business development. “What got them into the program was not whether their current business venture had legs,” he says, “but whether they at some point would create innovative business ventures” with the potential to employ dozens or hundreds.

Bazinet lined up support from some 90 companies and entrepreneurs as mentors, service providers, sponsors and hosts of each week’s meetings. “Mainers like to keep their noses to the grindstone and mind their own business,” Bazinet says. “But when they’re asked to help, they hardly ever say no.”

The program culminated the week before Thanksgiving with a pitch session before 100 investors and stakeholders, many from the northeast capital hotspot, Boston. The event was intended to help not only Top Gun participants, but also Maine as a whole, Bazinet says.

“It’s to attract attention,” he says. “To say, ‘We’re doing some interesting things up here; you might want to keep us on your radar. Don’t let us slip under your nose because we’re quiet.’”

With the pilot program completed, Bazinet hopes to be able to secure long-term support for Top Gun. “If enough good things come out of this,” he says, “I’m optimistic we’ll find funding.”—Corinne Colbert

Georgia program helps entrepreneurs access capital

Every start-up business needs money. But as venture capitalists have moved away from seed-stage investing toward later-stage companies — and investment capital in general has become scarce in a weak economy — getting money for a new venture has become a greater challenge than ever.

For the past three years, the Advanced Technology Development Center in Atlanta has been trying to even the odds for some promising companies through its CapVenture program. Each summer, a carefully screened group of about 30 entrepreneurs undergoes a five-week intensive course in business capital and how to position a company to get it.

Applicants submit an executive summary of their business or idea; a group of ATDC staff reviews the applications to decide which would most benefit from participation.

“We look for technology companies that have the most potential to move the needle in learning and raising capital,” says David Sung, an ATDC venture catalyst who manages the CapVenture program.

Once accepted, companies are matched with individual coaches — current or former entrepreneurs — who donate their time to work side-by-side with the entrepreneur throughout the five-week curriculum of lectures and workshops. Those coaches give participants the benefit of their experience, combining classroom education with real-world smarts. (CapVenture participants also are automatically accepted as ATDC clients.)

The program culminates in a graduation celebration that features three-minute pitch presentations from each participating company. The idea is not to get money then and there, but rather to practice the presentation and get feedback. “Honing your story down to three minutes and no more than six to eight slides is greatly helpful,” Sung says. “At the end of the day, lots of these early-stage companies may be working on something fantastic, but they don’t know how to tell that story.”

Past classes have used their CapVenture training well: Sung estimates that about one-third of each previous class has gone on to raise real money. He’s not sure how well the 2009 class will do, but he knows they will be able to capitalize on any opportunities that come their way.

“We’re not only helping these companies [get capital], but also educating them about the kinds of capital they can raise,” he says.—CC

Keywords: best practices, business financing, coaching clients, human resources – client, venture capital

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