There are several key elements that support the promotion and development of entrepreneurial communities. Five of those elements include: (1) building and growing new businesses; (2) develop entrepreneurial business skills; (3) developing vital resource centers; (4) creating community awareness of and support for entrepreneurs; and (5) building networks and collaborations (RUPRI Center for Rural Entrepreneurship).
A Wisconsin example demonstrates how a proud history of progressive ideas and pioneering activities developed and utilized inventor and entrepreneur (I&E) clubs to support all five of these important elements. These networks are showing impressive results by accomplishing what one club facilitator noted as the its most critical success — “changing the business culture to one that embraces innovation and entrepreneurship.” These clubs provide a venue for networking among entrepreneurs, as well as linking participants into a larger system of support services outside the community.
In the summer of 2007 Wisconsin surveyed 21 clubs characterized as “actively meeting.” At there time there were approximately 45 clubs in the state. The clubs were in a variety of stages from just being formed to those actively meeting. Average attendance among the clubs has been 27 members and guests.
The survey purpose was to answer these questions:
The survey found 38% of clubs reported new jobs in their region created as a result of club participation. The same number of respondents indicated one or more patents had been filed by club members. Nearly a third of the respondents reported members have received grants for research or business idea development. Most of these grants have come in the form of angel financing. In one case a company received a grant for design of a hydroponics greenhouse and another club member received funding from a private furniture company for a project.
Similarities and differences were found in the organization of clubs. These factors included key member benefits included networking, education, and monthly meetings. Few clubs have paid staff; they rely on volunteers and other business and economic development professionals. About two-thirds of the clubs were established within the past year. The oldest club was established approximately five years ago, and another 14 clubs are less than a year old.
About half of the clubs officially serve a single county and the rest serve more than one county. All of the clubs welcome participants regardless of their home or business location. Many of the clubs have strong ties with other economic development organizations in their region.
The average budget for a clubs was a little more than $1,300. Based largely on the early success of the Juneau County I&E Club, Wisconsin has offered $1,000 start-up grants to clubs for their activities. Only a few clubs have resources beyond this grant, often from charging minimal dues. Most clubs reported they did not have many expenses beyond providing light refreshments.
Clubs depend on volunteers often drawn from local economic development organizations, University of Wisconsin-Extension county faculty, technical colleges, local universities or Chamber of Commerce staff. A few clubs have a formal advisory board or steering committee. Only about one-fourth have any approved mission statement and one-third have by-laws.
Most clubs meet on a monthly basis, another organizational key but three clubs meet every other month. An increasing number of clubs take summers off based on problematic attendance drops. Attendance, overall, was an issue. A few clubs changed the time of day. Other attendance strategies included moving to an every other month meeting frequency, taking summer months off, and tweaking the format of the meetings and presentation topics.
The typical meeting includes a major portion of time for networking and a guest speaker or topic. Examples of successful speakers include tax advisers, patent attorneys, advertising agency staff, and motivational speakers. The most popular programs include those featuring successful inventors and entrepreneurs, education related to intellectual property, and networking opportunities.
Confidentially is a potentially sticky issue that I&E clubs face. Clubs need to provide a safe environment where new ideas and practices can be freely discussed and feel safe that other members will not use these ideas without permission. Most clubs handle the issue through informal mechanisms. The facilitator makes an announcement at the beginning of the meeting regarding disclosure rules. This announcement reminds everyone it is an open meeting and they should be careful not to reveal proprietary information.
A more formal solution may be having participants sign nondisclosure and non-use agreements. This occurred in five clubs surveyed. Interviews suggested both of these strategies for dealing with confidentiality were generally effective and the choice of strategies was more one of fitting it to the character of the participants.
One obstacle for many clubs has been the distance attendees had to travel. This is to some degree related to the lack of population density. Maintaining attendance and participation were a major challenge identified by more than half of the facilitators. There were several clubs struggling with attendance and participation. These aspects are not different from the normal course of development for other new organizations as membership settles out based on travel distance, program emphasis, club dynamics, and personal interest.
Many of the clubs were inspired by the Juneau County club, which was formed in 2003. Terry Whipple, Executive Director of the Juneau County Economic Development Corporation and Juneau County I&E Club facilitator, has been a strong proponent of I&E clubs and has promoted them across Wisconsin and nationally. Seven of the facilitators we interviewed specifically mentioned that their club was inspired by Terry Whipple’s presentation on entrepreneur clubs.
In summary, Wisconsin I&E clubs encourage potential entrepreneurs to share ideas, obtain information, and make connections with others. Clubs differ in the desired outcomes and impacts of their I&E club activities. Some had specific tasks of business formation, job creation, and innovation while others take a broader view to promote a “community culture for entrepreneurship.” in their community. The survey found that club membership did result in created jobs, obtained patents and received grants for their ideas and enterprises.
I&E clubs in Wisconsin are part of a larger effort to promote entrepreneurship through the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Network (WEN). A comprehensive and potentially seamless service provider network, the WEN offers great potential to support needs of inventors and entrepreneurs.
Prepared by Greg Wise, University of Wisconsin Extension
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