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Joining a Support Group, Part I

With a spiraling economy and, for some, rough waters ahead, Starve-Ups and organizations like it help young entrepreneurs muddle through and prosper.

Starting up is never easy-and keeping your business thriving is even harder. But when you've got a support system in place, your entrepreneurial journey can be a bit easier. At least that's what the 13 member companies of Starve Ups believe. A nonprofit Portland, Oregon-based organization formed in late 2000 to be a support and networking group, Starve Ups provides a forum for young entrepreneurs to share ideas and get solutions to common problems.

In this, the first of a two-part series, we caught up with three members to hear their take on the current state of entrepreneurship, how they're getting through the economic downturn and how Starve Ups is helping them through it all. The panelists: Leif Youngberg, 35, co-founder of CoolerEmail.com, an enhanced e-mail services provider; Mark Hutchinson, 32, founder of VisionSite, a Web portal for eye-care information and a directory of eye-care professionals; and Ryan Buchanan, 26, founder of GCmaterials, an e-services provider for construction companies and subcontractors. Here are their stories.

Entrepreneur.com: How has starting and being a part of the organization helped you?

Leif Youngberg: Portland is a phenomenal location for entrepreneurs in general. There are lots of networking organizations. [Most] bring service providers and technical people together on a weekly or monthly basis to share ideas. Starve Ups is different. [With this] organization, you've got a group of 15 or 16 companies all in very similar stages of growth, all with very aggressive growth patterns looking to share a higher level of information with each other. Not necessarily just looking for a service provider, but looking to network and get advice on how to get a company from X dollars in sales to 15 times that in a short amount of time.

Entrepreneur.com: It seems that you all have such varied backgrounds and bring so many different things to the table. How are you all sharing that knowledge?

Mark Hutchinson: Because we're all from a variety of backgrounds, we really get some different viewpoints. When you're your own company and you're the boss, people defer to you a lot. In the Starve Ups group, people will ask you, "Why? Why'd you do that? What are you going to do about this?" It really helps to keep your mind open as to what you need to be doing and why you need to be doing it. And also, these other people are in the same boat as you. They're facing the same challenges-maybe there's a different spin on them, but everyone's trying to overcome the same difficult economic environment, trying to expand their business, grow revenues, make good connections.

Ryan Buchanan: I think there's also more candidness because [we're not] direct competitors since we all have such varied backgrounds. So we can really help each other out going through these similar challenges.

Entrepreneur.com: What kind of meetings and gatherings do you have?

Buchanan: Recently we had an event called Starve Ups Square, where we had 300 to 400 people come in the center of Downtown Portland to learn more about what it takes to start a company and do it in the most cost-effective manner. So in that sense, we're not only sharing what we've learned with each other, but also trying to give back to the community.

Hutchinson: There was a lot of demand from other people who wanted to get into our group. [However,] one thing that we are really focused on is to keep it very intimate so that each of the member companies knows about all the other members. Starve Ups Square was a way that we could help all those people and share with them- we didn't feel that we could do it in our monthly meeting. That was an avenue for us to say, "Hey, come down. We'll all talk. We'll bring in some experts on every different subject and share with [people in all business stages] and help get them off the ground."

Entrepreneur.com: And you're committed to keeping it intimate, so you're not going to accept any more members?

Hutchinson: Well, the original idea was that as the member companies mature or die off, we would be able to bring in new people and new companies. So far, amazingly, I think, most of us are still here. I credit a lot of that to being in this group and getting that mental and emotional support from the group to keep going when there's no hope.

Buchanan: It's a survival mentality.

Hutchinson: Exactly.

Youngberg: OK, this is going to be a little bit tricky because I'm going to try to be diplomatic here with Mark. I need to be because I'm going to make him a business pitch after this interview [laughs]. I'm going to disagree just slightly with one of his assessments that it's kind of amazing that we're all here. I would suggest maybe that it's not as unusual as one might think to have all the companies alive in that it's kind of a competitive advantage for all the Starve Ups companies to have achieved their certain milestones before the dotcom crash. If you were to go down the list-and I think Mark's company would be in this category-most of them had already received some fairly important funding and had lots of the technology (both the software and the hardware) in place before the crash, and as a result, most of the Starve Ups companies have been able to push forward pretty steadily while it's been virtually impossible for any of their potential competitors to enter the marketplace.

Check back next month for part two of this series, where we'll talk more about the economy and the important issues facing young entrepreneurs today.

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