Friday, June 21, 2024

Connecting entrepreneurs to business resources across north Louisiana

by BIZ Magazine

Dave Smith | Special to BIZ. Magazine

When it comes to entrepreneurship, it is often said that there is no road map, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t help available along the way.  In 2014, it became clear that Caddo Parish needed an accelerator program, and from that need the Entrepreneur Accelerator Program (EAP)- a division of the BRF, was formed.  For four years, the accelerator program provided opportunities for entrepreneurs in Caddo Parish, but it quickly became apparent that there were entrepreneurs throughout North Louisiana who could also benefit from these resources.  “What happens in your parish is important across North Louisiana.  We wanted to make this inclusive,” said Dave Smith, Executive Director of EAP.  “We need to showcase the resources we have, and properly leverage them in North Louisiana to face some of the challenges that we’ve talked about for years.  Now is the time.  Let’s see what kind of benefit that we collectively can have.”

It was from this idea that the Launch Network was born.

In trying to determine the best way to assist entrepreneurs throughout North Louisiana, they quickly learned that there was no efficient way to hand off an entrepreneur asking for help to the right resource provider.  As part of BRF, the spirit of collaboration is always front of mind for EAP.  When presented with a problem, BRF tasks EAP with developing solutions that are forward thinking.  When it came to this particular problem, EAP was referred to Sourcelink by Dr. Michael Meeks, Professor of Entrepreneurship at LSUS.  With the assistance of an Economic Development Administration (EDA) grant and support from BRF, EAP was able to acquire a license for Sourcelink, which provided a Client Relationship Management (CRM) tool to support ecosystem building in entrepreneur communities.  This software is what today is known as the Launch Network.

Launch Network debuted in November 2020 in the middle of the pandemic, and since November 1, they have referred over 200 entrepreneurs to the right resource providers in the community.  One of the critical aspects of the Launch Network is that entrepreneurs are not just given a generic email address and never spoken to again.  Instead, there is the Launch Network Helpline, which has an intake process conducted either on the phone or by email with a Launch Network intake counselor.  Through this process, entrepreneurs are connected directly with the resources already available in the community; most of which are free through existing grants and local, state, and federal funding.  This might look like connecting an early-stage entrepreneur with Cohab to participate in BizTrax, or the Milam Street Kitchen Incubator and Community Kitchen when an entrepreneur is looking to launch a food truck, and is need of developing a menu, or obtaining necessary SafeServ certifications.

The website also provides an Events Calendar, where each of the Resource Partners publish their events that are geared toward the business community.  These can include everything from free trainings and webinars to free certifications, classes, networking events, and even grant informational meetings. The SiteConnex Blog®, provides a forum for industry experts to publish guest-authored articles in their expertise.  These topics range from marketing tips, legal entity overviews, how to research and apply for grants, and information about patents, trademarks, intellectual property, and more. With over 55% of Louisianians being employed by small businesses that started from a single idea, Launch Network exists not only to assist them with growing their business, but to also make it easier for the next entrepreneur to grow, plan, and launch their business.  

The biggest surprise to EAP in connecting entrepreneurs to community resources is how underused our public libraries were, particularly in light of the vast number of free resources available at the libraries.  Our local libraries were already providing access to professional and educational materials, however, many entrepreneurs were not aware that the resources existed. In Caddo, Bossier, and Webster parishes, Launch Network worked to create permanent entrepreneur centers at their main branches, to highlight small business support, and provided 10 entrepreneurial-themed books to display in their dedicated spaces. Did you know that you have access to free online learning courses and trainings through your local library? Visit your local library branch to sign up for a library card and gain access to hundreds of valuable resources like these, and more.

“Libraries have always been, and continue to be, in the knowledge business.  We are not a static institution but are constantly evolving to support our community by providing valuable resources, opportunities, and connections,” said Jessica McGrath, Director of the Natchitoches Parish Library. “We value our small business owners and entrepreneurs and want to act as a catalyst for their initial and continued success – providing space, support and resources.” This program was so successful that Launch Network has gone on to partner with several other parish libraries, including Natchitoches, Ouachita, and East Carroll Parishes, with more to come in the coming months. 

As EAP looks to the future with Launch Network, they know that the people of Louisiana are its strongest asset.  The connections that are made with the assistance of the Launch Network ensure long lasting collaboration between entrepreneurs and community resources. Louisiana Economic Development’s (LED) Small Business Services has been observing and learning from the implementation and successes of Launch Network and is exploring a statewide implementation to organize business assistance throughout all of Louisiana. This effort would allow all of Louisiana to have the same ease of access of resources, making it easier for all Louisianians to start, grow, plan, and launch their businesses in the state.  Ultimately, EAP isn’t looking to provide one single road map to entrepreneurs, but rather to give them the tools they need to create their own road map to success. 

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