An Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Thrives with a Catalyst for Connections

Phones continually ring at the offices of KCSourceLink.

Entrepreneurs calling for assistance are able to talk to a real person to determine their first steps to starting a business. Questions submitted online receive an answer within 24 hours; follow-up calls keep the conversations going. The door to this long-time resource for Kansas City entrepreneurs is always open.

This network of entrepreneurs and resource providers didn’t exist 15 years ago. Resources existed, yet entrepreneurs found it difficult to find the right ones, creating a frustrating market gap for entrepreneurs looking to grow their businesses.

Thanks to KCSourceLink, the opportunity to easily and effectively connect to resource providers has been available for entrepreneurs in the greater Kansas City metro area since June 2003.

It’s all listed on the organization’s homepage: startup, microenterprise, main street, innovation-led, second stage, or entrepreneurial community; no matter what you are, KCSourceLink connects entrepreneurs to resources they need, while also allowing resource providers to connect with each other.

Making connections

The tools and how-to guides exist online, but you can find the people of KCSourceLink at events or in coffee shops. They’re building a community of people who support entrepreneurs. When KCSourceLink launched – a community initiative jointly founded by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the University of Missouri-Kansas City Innovation Center, and the Small Business Administration – it knew it needed to find a way to connect entrepreneurs to the people who wanted to help them.

The first item on the agenda: create a network of resource partners.

Maria Meyers, executive director and a major player in building KCSourceLink from the ground up, said they wanted to bring together the entrepreneurial support organizations in the community. "We were probably one of only a few people looking at that at the time," she said. "I think a lot of people were networking together with entrepreneurs but maybe not so much networking the entrepreneurial resources."

These resources included the incubators, micro lenders, small business development centers, and groups that were doing coaching, counseling, training, and those who provide access to capital for entrepreneurs. Meyers said they gathered them all in a room to ask what they needed to help entrepreneurs. The organizations said they needed to:

  • Improve awareness of their existence;
  • Create relationships with each other to better understand their roles so they are able to make good client referrals;
  • Identify the gaps in the services available to determine what they needed to do in the community;
  • Earn more funding; and
  • Measure economic impact so they could have proof they were delivering services effectively.

From there, KCSourceLink became the central point for entrepreneurs, or aspiring entrepreneurs, to get information and access to resources. Quarterly meetings with resource partners kept the door open for resource partners to get to know each other. As time went on, the community grew enough that they could pick out other gaps in the network and work together to fill in those holes.

Homegrown entrepreneurship

As the network grew and changed, so did Kansas City and the world at large. Meyers said around the time of the recession, the perception of the value of entrepreneurship as a great way to create jobs in the community began to rise.

"With the advent of Google Fiber and the Chamber [of Commerce] saying that we wanted to be America’s most entrepreneurial city, we saw the advent of this revolution that occurred in Kansas City around entrepreneurship, and we’ve been able to be a part of that," Meyers said.

While KCSourceLink is one of the key organizations in Kansas City for entrepreneurship, Meyers stresses the importance of the whole network. "When we talk about KCSourceLink, we’re talking about all of those people that are out there supporting entrepreneurs," she said.

Those people, all 240-plus organizations in KCSourceLink’s network, are the reason for KCSourceLink’s success.

"From its inception, KCSourceLink has helped a lot of different types of entrepreneurs, at different stages of their growth," said Larry Jacob, vice president of Public Affairs at the Kauffman Foundation. "Maria Meyers had a great perspective on networks and putting people together that could support each other."

Donald Hawkins, founder of CitySmart, an online platform that makes it easier for businesses to market and advertise, first came into contact with KCSourceLink back in March to learn how to connect better to Kansas City’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

"I can say without any fear whatsoever, Kansas City, through programs like KCSourceLink, has the most resources for entrepreneurs that I’ve ever seen," said the recent transplant familiar with the tech scenes in Tennessee and Atlanta. "To be able to email a resource and get direct feedback instantly, without having to pay money or join some premium XYZ, just does not exist in other markets. I probably saved myself eight to nine months of work just from the resources I’ve received."

The next 15 years

While KCSourceLink celebrates 15 years, its focus is on the next 15 years. The key to hitting that 30-year mark is working to identify and address the gaps.

"It is building on our framework we’ve already set in place,” said Jenny Miller, Network Builder at KCSourceLink. “And continuing to grow the entrepreneurial infrastructure overall and then figuring out how we can work with new audiences to better include them and make sure the whole community is engaged with entrepreneurship at a level that’s appropriate for them.”

To improve access and inclusion, Miller said they are hiring a bilingual staff member to accommodate clients more easily, as well as building relationships with organizations, churches, and neighborhood associations that work with the immigrant and refugee communities.

They are also looking to better engage with local legacy corporations.

"We know that we could improve corporate engagement with the entrepreneurial ecosystem," Meyers said. "We’re not exactly sure what that means or how, but we know that’s something people would like to see happen."

Meyers said she believes Kansas City has the ability to grow into a financing hub for entrepreneurs. With places like Boston and San Francisco becoming too expensive, people are looking to the Midwest to start and grow a business. That shift, Meyers said, will change the way things happen at KCSourceLink. They’ll continue to network and fill the gaps, but they’ll measure the change in order to be ready for what’s to come.

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