Jacksonville Community of Entrepreneurs accelerates businesses with 'Exceleration' program

Saturday, Aug 29, 2015

By Drew Dixon

Jacksonville TImes-Union

JaxCoE's "Launch" team meets to discuss methods of developing an entrepreneurial business. From left, Phillip O'Donnell, Irina Finkler, Kate Stewart, Nik Fusilero and Alex McCaffrey.

JaxCoE's "Launch" team meets to discuss methods of developing an entrepreneurial business. From left, Phillip O'Donnell, Irina Finkler, Kate Stewart, Nik Fusilero and Alex McCaffrey.

It’s starting up the startups, literally. The Jacksonville Community of Entrepreneurs — an organization designed to help startup businesses — was created within the past year as a response to Jacksonville’s One Spark crowdfunding festival and now finds itself in a critical evolutionary state.

The organization is developing a permanent networking system — or ecosystem — for entrepreneurs so they can help each other build stronger associations with the ultimate objective of building stronger businesses. It’s is in the middle of a three month program where 16 entrepreneurs are coming together in three groups designed to provide structure for fledgling businesses in different phases of development. The teams are broken down to “ideation,” “launch” and “growth” groups.

Rajesh Verma is in the ideation team with two other members who have now been meeting on a regular basis for several weeks. Verma is in the very beginning process of establishing a business that sells wrist bands that warn those who wear them through small vibrations when they’re about to touch their faces. The idea is to help people avoid spreading germs and illnesses and he’s working on getting the bracelet patented.

For Verma, the JaxCoE involvement has been a big help in working out where to take his business concept next in Jacksonville.

“Mostly we’re working on how to get our ‘elevator’ pitch done,” Verma said, which is a way of thinking of a pitch for a potential investor or supporter as if they’re on the same elevator ride and there’s only a limited time to present your idea.

“We try to help each other,” Verma said, adding his “ideation” group has been meeting for about two months as they sketch out small business plans. “It’s a starting point for potential investors. …

Verma said one of the biggest benefits of the JaxCoE program is just having budding entrepreneurs around other entrepreneurs.

That’s a key objective for JaxCoE, which was formally established as a nonprofit in late 2014. Initially meant as a networking consortium for technology entrepreneurs, it branched out to help all entrepreneurs in the area. Co-founder and JaxCoE President Kate Stewart quickly realized the need for more permanent elements and increased interaction among entrepreneurs. So in July JaxCoE initiated the “Exceleration Team” (an amalgam of the words excellence and acceleration). The three subgroups are its divisions.

“It’s evolved like a normal startup evolves,” Stewart said. “We’re getting results that are expected from that model.

“We’re really determining what’s working and what’s not working. … We’ve discovered that the group process is very popular,” Stewart said.

Alex McCaffrey is in the “launch team” of the Exceleration program. Her group involves entrepreneurs who are a little more along in their businesses, like hers, which is called Growin’GEERS, an engineering curriculum program designed to introduce engineering concepts to students in elementary schools.

McCaffrey said she’s been negotiating with school districts to consider implementing her curriculum and it’s been difficult. But participating in JaxCoE’s Exceleration program has built up her confidence.

“It’s helpful because within my group we’re all in the same place [developmentally] within the specific businesses that we’re talking about. But it’s also nice because the people in the group have a vast array of experience as entrepreneurs themselves,” McCaffrey said.

Her launch group goes beyond pitches, McCaffrey said. The group of five entrepreneurs is advancing to price structures, establishing initial business agreements and other fundamental approaches for a company seeking to gain traction that takes it beyond the idea phase.

“There are a lot of gory details behind the scenes from what you actually need to do to truly launch and get your company off the ground and moving,” McCaffrey said.

She added she’s quickly learned through her fellow launch group members that entrepreneurs can’t be lazy. It will take countless hours to run such a business. It will involve passion to get through pitfalls and celebrate advances. And one of the most important aspects is to understand how a fledgling business becomes profitable.

Stewart said they had one entrepreneur drop out because they actually realized their business concept simply won’t make money. That’s just as important as those seeking success, because they learn to stop wasting more money or effort.

McCaffrey said the Exceleration program, which is provided free by JaxCoE, is experimental and the current participants are aware the outcome and benefit of the program hasn’t been determined yet.

“I think that we’re kind of the guinea pigs in that process,” McCaffrey said. “As entrepreneurs we kind of like being in that process because we get to provide feedback to make it better in the future and to grow it.”

Stewart said that’s what JaxCoE expected when they launched the Exceleration program. The fact that entrepreneurs are strengthening their connections to other like-minded business people and gaining mentors and structure from JaxCoE is an accomplishment, she said.

“Meeting in teams with other people in a safe environment works, it helps accelerate the process of starting a business,” Stewart said. “It helps them emotionally, they don’t feel alone.”

Stewart said JaxCoE is still collecting data even though the Exceleration program won’t end for several weeks. But the foundation is there and the entrepreneurial network is spreading.

“The greater purpose from a JaxCoE perspective is that every person who participates in this project… they’re building a strong network of people that they’re not just working with in a three-month period, but they can call on them at any time in the future,” Stewart said. “We envision hundreds of these teams all over the region, all over Northeast Florida. They’re going to know each other over time.”

 

Drew Dixon: (904) 359-4098