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January 09, 2014 | Tom Ballard

CO.STARTERS is rolling-out across the nation

CO.STARTERS2By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.

They’ve spent five years developing and testing the model, and now the team at Chattanooga’s CO.LAB is taking its business model development program to other locations in Tennessee and beyond.

The idea had its roots in the “Springboard” program, but it has since been redeveloped as CO.STARTERS, according to Enoch Elwell, its developer and Program Director.

“We want to equip communities with the tools they need to better support new entrepreneurs and small businesses,” he explained. CO.LAB is talking with more than 50 communities across the country that are interested in licensing the concept.

“We are helping individuals or organizations adopt CO.STARTERS,” Elwell said. “We help them identify facilitators and then train them.”

CO.STARTERS launched in a total of 15 locations this month. They range from cities like Cincinnati and Phoenix to places like Crossville, Cookeville and McMinnville where several organizations are collaborating on the program. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Click here to register for one of these locations.)

There is also interest from other Tennessee cities as well as communities in Florida, Michigan, and Indiana.

The annual licensing fee includes training and program support structures as well as access to the most up-to-date materials that support the nine-week program.

For Elwell, it’s the latest phase in a journey that began when the New Jersey native came to Chattanooga to attend Covenant College. He connected with CO.LAB’s Sheldon Grizzle and has been part of the community’s entrepreneurial support system for about four years.

CO.STARTERS is based on a foundation of knowledge gained over the last five years as 1,350 people participated in the “Springboard” program, along with the CO.LAB’s more recent experience as one of the state’s nine regional accelerators.

Of the 1,350 participants, Elwell cites some very positive statistics. A total of 73 percent are either in business or working full-time to start their company, and 53 percent are female. More than 2,700 jobs have been created with an economic impact of $160 million.

As conceived, CO.STARTERS, which Elwell described as “very flexible,” will allow would be entrepreneurs to identify assumptions about their business and test those with the help of 10 to 15 others.

“Our focus is on people who are early stage but not as savvy as entrepreneurs participating in the high-growth accelerators,” he explained.

More important, perhaps, is the fact that Elwell wants to “take MBA speak” out of the process. A key tool is the “CO.STARTERS Canvas,” the CO.LAB’s variation on the popular “Business Model Canvas” approach.

“It is difficult to figure out how to use the (Business Model Canvas) tool well,” he says in explaining the decision to develop a variation.

Two of the differences in the CO.STARTERS program are the learning component and a pushback from developing a traditional business plan.

“Our approach to developing a viable business model is through getting customer feedback to determine if your vision is right or wrong, rather than just using a detailed business plan to build a case around your vision,” he says. Then, he wants participants to learn from the experience rather than simply getting an acceptance or a rejection from an investor.

“If you don’t learn what makes a business model work, you don’t know what is right or wrong,” Elwell says of the traditional business planning approach.

Prior to this month’s rollout, CO.LAB tested the concept with about 120 people who participated in the pilot classes.

Why a national CO.STARTERS launch?

Elwell explains the program provides a structure for communities to celebrate their existing entrepreneurial spirit, creates a way for people to collaborate, and aligns the existing resources for successful entrepreneurial support.

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