Ah, Valentine's Day, when thoughts turn to finding that proverbial knight in shining armor or the princess whose foot perfectly fits the glass slipper. It's no different for the many entrepreneurs who find themselves yearning for the perfect match to help convert a solid idea into a viable business or product. For them, Feb. 14 is a reminder that the time may be ripe to find that special strategic someone to swoop in, fill a need and help a small business live happily ever after.
Like the poke of Cupid's arrow, the realization that something vital is missing in an entrepreneurial arsenal--a funding source, for example, or an engineer to turn a concept into a tangible, working product--can point you toward your perfect match. If you're an entrepreneur longing to fill such a void, you have company.
"As a solo entrepreneur, everything is on you. You might feel as if there's nowhere to go to get real solutions. It can be lonely," says Michael Boehm, inventor of the George Foreman Grill, who shopped his cooker concept for two years before finding a partner to help commercialize it in 1995.
Many lonely entrepreneurs find fulfillment only after matching up with an outside resource, says Mike Docherty, founder and CEO of Venture2, a firm that aligns entrepreneurs and technology innovators with corporations to accelerate product development via a collaborative process known as open innovation.
"Entrepreneurs and startups need to do what they are good at. If they think they can bootstrap it, if they want to commercialize and scale up their idea themselves, then have at it," Docherty says. "But 90 percent of entrepreneurs are inventors and risk-takers who would benefit from matching up with a resource that can help them get where they want to go."
That resource could be a pricey business consultant or big-ticket business planning software. But nascent businesses have other options. The world is full of reputable matchmakers who stand ready to help complete an idea or make an enterprise whole--without breaking the bank or sacrificing control of an idea.
"You have to struggle through the jungle," Boehm says, "and find just the right sources for the kind of help you need."
If what you need is a funding source, Prosper.com is a person-to-person lending marketplace that provides unsecured, three-year, fixed-rate loans for business and personal use. The would-be borrower posts the nature of the loan request, credit history and the maximum interest rate he is willing to pay, then lenders bid down the interest rate in an auction. If the borrower decides to accept the loan at the bid-down rate, funds are issued directly into his account. "It's an option worth considering, especially with credit markets so tight," says Kristin Johnson, regional director of the Northern California Small Business Development Center network.
For more conventional forms of funding, there's ActiveCapital.org, a site for startups looking to connect directly with accredited investors and vise versa. For a searchable online database of small venture capital firms, visit the National Association of Small Business Investment Companies website. At the websiteof the National Venture Capital Association, there are links to state, regional and special-interest VC organizations.
Maybe what you need is a corporate partner to help bring an idea to the big time. According to Docherty, opportunities await entrepreneurs in the emerging field of open innovation, where large companies and innovators collaborate to bring a proven concept to market. Now more than ever, he says, "progressive, large companies are recognizing they need outside innovators as much as innovators need them." His company, Venture2, organizes one-day "Innovation Speed Dating" events, where pre-screened entrepreneurs and corporate product-development execs rotate through a series of face-to-face first and second "dates," with the goal of finding a partner.
For those who prefer to avoid the dating scene, there's PartnerUp.com, which matches entrepreneurs with business partners, co-founders, and board members. Users solicit interest by posting partnership opportunities. Once potential partners identify one another, they can communicate anonymously before formalizing a relationship.
Location, Location, Location
Entrepreneurs seeking guidance in locating their business can turn to the likes of ZoomProspector.com, which helps small businesses identify optimal locations based on a range of community and property characteristics. Not only is the service free, users don't have to contend with multiple government offices, real estate agents and data sources to get the demographics they desire. Once a location is pinpointed, turn to a site such as PartnerUp.com's MoveUp marketplace, a clearinghouse for small business-oriented commercial real estate, including sublease and short-term lease opportunities.
Open innovation has broadened product development options for entrepreneurs and large companies alike. For example, on TekScout.com, a subscription-based service, companies post complex development projects to a network of scientists and engineers, who get financial and/or intellectual rewards for finding solutions. At InnoCentive.com, product-development challenges are posted to the site's network of 160,000 "solvers." Financial awards go to parties that come up with the best solutions.
The matchmaking opportunities don't end there. If it's a brand identity or a slick ad campaign you need, NuIdeaExchange.com offers access to marketing and advertising expertise. If you have a void to fill and believe in the old-fashioned barter system, u-exchange.com lets you post and swap goods and services with other members, free of fees and commissions.
So take heart, lonely entrepreneurs. Someone out there cares enough to want to help you succeed. Don't let another Valentine's Day slip past without reaching out to find that special strategic someone.
David Port is a freelancer based in Denver who writes on small business, and financial and energy issues.