(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is final article for now in our series reviewing 2021 plans for the Entrepreneur Centers in our region that are also partners in the Launch Tennessee network. Today’s spotlight is on Sync Space, based in Kingsport and serving Northeast Tennessee. The format of today’s article is a Q&A with Heath Guinn, the organization’s President. We will spotlight CO.LAB in Chattanooga after its new Executive Director is named.)
QUESTION #1: COVID-19 upended lives, took out businesses, and called for new business plans and possibly models. How has it specifically impacted your Center and its operations – from greater use of virtual platforms to the other ways you stay abreast of your clients? Sync Space went virtual and converted to small-group workshops early in the pandemic as the world was adjusting to how to best protect our members and Founders. Most of our center’s services were envisioned around virtual sessions, more 1:1 office hours, and increasing availability of mentors. We also focused on building even stronger bridges between other regional partners, small business support organizations and with leaders in the community.
QUESTION #2: How would you characterize the overall health of the start-ups that are served by your Center as a group at the end of 2020 compared to the beginning of the year? What have been their biggest challenges and how have they been able to address them? The current status of our entrepreneurs is mixed, some start-ups saw record years in 2020, while many have experienced an unplanned pivot in their business or a pause of their growth plans all together. On top of the expected disruption in their business, a consistent factor was the disruption in a founder’s “everyday life.” Whether it be having to find other revenue sources, carrying more of the household responsibility or a combination, the pandemic created a double-whammy for a lot of entrepreneurs and their start-up companies.
QUESTION #3: One hopes that 2021 will be a better year with what we hope will now be at least two vaccines available for COVID-19. From several perspectives, how are you planning for the first one-third to one-half of 2021 and the second half of the year? We expect the first quarter of 2021 to be similar to what we experienced in 2020. We have planned more virtual sessions and one-on-one mentoring opportunities for companies to help as best we can in providing services in the early part of the year. We are hopeful that by spring and summer we will start to see a return to normal and the easing of restrictions amid the release of a vaccine and generally accepted policies to help keep people safe. As such, we have altered the schedule of our accelerator program and key bootcamps to adapt to this by extending the period in which they operate and how we schedule pilot opportunities with our many corporate partners.
QUESTION #4: Will you be adding any new programs or initiatives? If so, please describe them. As we have shifted to focus on smaller cohorts and more one-on-one sessions, we also have sharpened our focus on partnerships and how our programming integrates with our corporate partners, higher ed institutions and other community partners. In 2021, start-ups will have the opportunity to participate in a new “Founder’s Bootcamp” we’ll do with our partners at FoundersForge (see recent announcement here). In the Spring we’ll have a digital media focused series where we partner with Create Appalachia and East Tennessee State University to focus on digital media in Northeast Tennessee, and we’ll have a second cohort with our maker community and focus on Etsy and customizing their products with our partners at the Inventor Center and Northeast State Community College.
QUESTION #5: Are you planning to stop offering any programs or services that you had been offering? If so, which ones? We currently do not have any plans to stop any programming, just redistribute the responsibilities and the format. We do anticipate shrinking the cohort size to maintain as much planned opportunities that we have integrated such as corporate partners and pilot opportunities at the conclusion for selected start-ups. We will also be focusing on bolstering our efforts to bring access to capital. In 2020, we initiated the development of a regional fund, and we hope to continue this in 2021. We are also working on a micro-grant program and other alternative funding sources as to how we can bring their services into northeast Tennessee as we focus on helping start-ups stay and grow in our region.
QUESTION #6: Paraphrasing that famous line from the movie Jaws, will you be “going back into the water” (i.e., planning to do more in-person events) in the first part of 2021 or will you continue to offer services virtually for now? In Q1 2021, we will continue to work virtually and anticipate a slow ramping up of more in-person events with small groups. By Q2 and the second half of 2021, we are hopeful a version of normalcy will return, and we can realign with our strategic plan in that we will continue programming that focuses on our key areas of rural health technologies and a focus on connecting founders with opportunities in Northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia.
QUESTION #7: Do you have any additional insights you want to share? We believe 2020 shows us that supporting our start-up community takes a village, and community leadership plays a major role in continuing to provide opportunities for budding entrepreneurs and start-ups. Sync Space believes we are play a role in listening to our corporate partners and what they want to see from the innovation communities, our workforce development efforts and the goals of the region as we continue to support our Founders. It’s important that we focus on communication and inter-organizational support as we continue to build the fledgling ecosystem we are seeing develop in Northeast Tennessee.