After 13 years as a hairdresser, Johanna Miller felt the need to make a career change.
She wanted to open a yarn outlet, and she certainly had a passion for the field. But like many new entrepreneurs, she knew more about the details of her chosen vocation than about the business world she’d need to navigate in order to survive in a new business.
How did payroll work? Where could she find building insurance? What were the hidden costs?
“I knew it was going to be tricky opening a brick-and-mortar store in the age of the internet, but I didn’t really know how to figure out whether that was a good risk,” says Miller, 32, of Kansas City.
She ultimately discarded the storefront idea and chose to found Potion Yarns, for which she makes, dyes and sells her own material online and at craft shows.
But she did have one advantage.
“I had this really solid support structure set up already, so when I was ready to jump off and open my business, I felt like I had a good foundation,” she says.
That foundation came in part from a class Miller took via a unique initiative that has been helping budding entrepreneurs for more than 15 years. If Potion Yarns was its owner’s brainchild, the company owes at least part of its evolution and growth to KCSourceLink.
Started with funding from the Kansas City-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in 2003, this innovative UMKC program has been connecting nascent startups with the answers they need to succeed through a combination of live phone support and an online directory of groups that provide various services. The concept is augmented with classes, event calendars and guides that cover everything from growth strategies to capital formation.
“The goal was to help entrepreneurs to find the right resource at the right time,” says Jenny Miller (no relation to Johanna), a network builder with KCSourceLink.
Now the organization is gaining a larger audience.
In summer 2018, it spun off a larger, statewide version: MOSourceLink. The new service expands many of its progenitor’s features beyond the original 18-county region surrounding Kansas City so business startups in all parts of the Show-Me State can take advantage. Its website is still being tweaked, but its online resource list is up and its phone lines already are running.
While KCSourceLink had about 240 providers in its network, the statewide iteration will have more than double that number.
“As we are rolling out across Missouri, we’ve been forming relationships with all of the organizations across the state, figuring out who they are, what they do, the types of businesses they support,” Jenny Miller says. “I think that as we start talking about the resources that are available, you are going to have a lot more entrepreneurs coming out of the woodwork.”
The idea is to duplicate KCSourceLink’s model, which centers on what Miller terms the “triage center,” where businesses can be separated into four basic varieties. Some are microenterprises like that of Johanna Miller and her yarn-making operation. These are small operations centered on the talents or skills of their owner.
Others are classified as “main street businesses” with storefront operations, which usually need operations knowledge, business management, human resources and marketing connections.
There are “innovation-led” businesses introducing new technologies from university professors or serial entrepreneurs. These have many of the same requirements as other enterprises but also are frequently hungry for investment capital.
Finally, there are “second-stage” businesses which already are on their feet but are looking for a way to scale up their operations to the next level.
“Because we see so many of the service providers and we work with so many businesses, we’re able to identify gaps in services,” she says. “Then we can work with the organizations that are out there to form programs that will fill these gaps.”
Noviqu, a tech-focused enterprise, provides one example. Opened in May 2017, the small startup markets a software platform to digitize paper-based processes. CEO Anna Haney says she first became familiar with KCSourceLink while involved with the Techstars Accelerator.
“Everyone we interacted with was extremely helpful, extremely kind and really seemed to care about helping us,” she says, noting that KCSourceLink staff helped to smooth introductions to potential customers. “We also got a little feedback on how we present ourselves, which was great.”
The assistance Noviqu received in branching out to make contacts was vital because people behind tech startups may have determination and specialized knowledge but don’t necessarily possess as much know-how for such tasks as accounting and payroll. Nor are they likely to have an extensive contacts list to mine for clients, advice or service providers.
“I think that the best thing we can do as a community for entrepreneurs is to connect them in whatever way we can,” Haney says. “Customers. Mentors. Anyone who can help them because starting a business is difficult. Starting a business when you are small and there are not a lot of people in your company means you just don’t have as many resources as someone with a large network would.”
Main street businesses tell a similar story.
Brandon Simpson, owner of Jazzy B’s Diner, was great at serving up tasty entrees of pulled pork and smoke-fried chicken wings from his Lee’s Summit barbecue eatery, but he found he could benefit from more education in marketing and social media to promote his establishment. KCSourceLink was there to help.
“For any small business, they are a vital source of just getting resources for learning different business models,” he says.
Like Haney, he also notes the centrality of connections to other businesspeople it provides.
“I’ve met so many other entrepreneurs,” says Simpson, who operates both a physical location as well as the food truck where he began his business in 2011. “I’ve met so many other people [who] may not even be in my field. But when you are a business owner, there are things you can take from other fields and adapt them for what you are doing.”
Patricia McCreary, owner of Margaret’s Place Senior Recreation Center, was about a year into operating her adult day-care center when she discovered KCSourceLink. Because of that connection, she became involved in the Kauffman Foundation’s 1 Million Cups, a free program that aims to educate, engage and inspire entrepreneurs. Through the program, in turn, she obtained feedback that forced a sobering assessment of her business.
“What I realized is that we were in trouble if I didn’t change some things,” she says. “It just made me realize that if we kept going down that path, I probably would be closing my doors within a year.”
In response, McCreary used educational opportunities at ScaleUP!, a program that provides cohorts of business owners with intensive coaching and training. She worked to develop a leadership team, create a standard operating procedure and explore new franchise opportunities in Kansas.
“I could go on and on and on about what has come from our relationship with KCSourceLink and all the awesome programs I’ve been able to be a part of because they introduced me to them,” she says.
The SourceLink model works well because it casts a broad net, Jenny Miller says.
“A lot of organizations specialize in what they do,” she says. “Instead, we help any type of business at any stage of business. They can come into us and maybe they don’t even know what they need. A lot of people will call and say, ‘I think I want to start a business, but I don’t know what I’m doing.’”
Such clients can create personalized action plans and get hooked into resources that help them to see that blueprint through to completion. Miller says the Kansas City version of the organization has helped about 2,500 businesses each year, with roughly 60-75 percent of them being at the early stage.
“Some of those are repeats,” she notes. “That’s the nice thing about the SourceLink model. They can tap in at the very early stages and then come back as they need help.”
Heather Spalding contacted KCSourceLink in 2017 regarding Cambrian, a company she founded with her husband that uses augmented reality to help with home-renovation and -improvement projects.
“When I meet other new business owners, that’s the place I usually refer them to first,” she says, noting that the group keeps her informed of events and helped her to develop her network of contacts. “Anytime I feel we get stuck in a place with our business, I’m able to reach out to somebody there who can at least put me in contact with someone who knows how to help us.”
Spalding says SourceLink assisted in reviewing pitches for the company and helped Cambrian to win the $100,000 grand prize offered by LaunchKC, an initiative created to entice tech entrepreneurs and startups to Kansas City.
“I think they helped me a lot with how to put that together, how to present my business in a way that makes sense to people,” she says.
Mary Kay O’Connor, founder and CEO of PatientsVoices, a health care technology company that analyzes patient feedback, says she found KCSourceLink instrumental in acquiring funding that allowed the company to construct a prototype for its software. She also took a course on the best ways to create a PowerPoint pitch that impresses investors, and she says SourceLink even made introductions resulting in the company’s first client.
O’Connor says she met monthly with her contact at the program.
“She has been an unending source of encouragement and sound business advice,” she says. “The times that I’ve been really discouraged, she picked me up, dusted me off and [said], ‘Just go right back at it.’”
Back at Potion Yarns, Johanna Miller credited the initiative with helping her to reformulate her idea for her business. Her initial brick-and-mortar concept proved to be unrealistic when she ran the numbers, and she says the techniques and research methods she learned from KCSourceLink helped her to see that selling her own yarn online and at various events would be more viable.
“It was really cool that they encouraged us to look at ideas from different perspectives, try to think outside the box and figure out what was a fresh take on it that we hadn’t already thought of,” she says. “You could set up a meeting with a counselor and go into the office with your specific individual questions for your business idea, and they would help you figure out where to get the answers you were looking for or what your next step was.”
She says the organization is great at boosting her confidence.
“I think they were really key in setting a solid foundation and giving me the courage to do what I wanted to do,” she says. “I think that I probably would have stumbled into this anyway, but I wouldn’t have been prepared for it and would have struggled a lot more in setting up my business. I certainly don’t think I would have gotten as far in my first two years as I have.”
She adds: “I just wish more people knew about them.”