STARTUP WEEK 2020: In order to build thriving businesses, we must focus on the entrepreneur

  • Entrepreneurs gather at the 2019 Path to Prosperity Boot Camp, where they spend three intensive days building relationships, connecting with mentors and working on their businesses.

The Techstars Alaska Startup Week op-ed series features entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial ecosystem builders sharing their thoughts and ideas on a variety of  topics related to startups and innovation. Techstars Alaska Startup Week is a week-long series of events hosted by entrepreneurs and business leaders from across the state. In 2020, all events are virtual, and you can find them here: Startup Week Schedule. All are welcome, please join us!

After a year that has rocked our communities and economies, small business owners across Southeast Alaska are gearing up for 2021 and the new challenges and opportunities it presents. 

Despite the uncertainties, entrepreneurs must go beyond survival and instead position themselves to thrive in the “new economy” that has formed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

At Spruce Root, we believe that in order to create thriving, resilient businesses, business owners must focus their energy on building themselves as entrepreneurs as well as building their businesses. 

But what exactly does it mean to build the entrepreneur? How are businesses doing this during the pandemic? And what can organizations and individuals supporting entrepreneurs do to assist in that growth?

Building the entrepreneur is about more than learning the concrete skills required to run a business. The challenge is learning how to question previously-held assumptions and beliefs in order to become adaptive and resilient. 

Entrepreneurship involves a lot of problem solving, and any entrepreneur knows time is the most valuable resource. To run business efficiently, entrepreneurs make quick decisions based on many assumptions, but in order to become adaptable, a good entrepreneur also knows when to question those assumptions. 

For example, assuming one knows their customer can both help an entrepreneur operate quickly and blind them at critical moments when they need to test new products or expand. When the environment in which they’re operating shifts, like it did in 2020, they must take inventory of these beliefs and let go of the ones that no longer serve them. 

This year, businesses and entrepreneurs were jolted by the pandemic and were forced to quickly adapt in order to survive. Suddenly they were left with little option but to navigate the CARES Act funding system, shifting their attention away from the normal day-to-day operations.

This was particularly true in Southeast Alaska, where the primary economic driver comes from cruise ship passengers, a revenue stream that was wiped out when the pandemic hit. 

Many businesses made changes: they shifted to online ordering systems, created new products and services targeting their local communities, and expanded their social media presence. 

For example, a business in Southeast Alaska that caters to locals believed that they did not need an online presence, since all of their sales come from word of mouth. 

However, when the economy shifted and sales plummeted, they were driven to create an online shop and have now expanded their reach and sales across Alaska. For so many businesses, these changes drove sales and led to success, putting businesses into a better position that will leverage them into and through the new economy. 

For others, disappearing revenues resulted in a kind of hibernation, awaiting the return of business as usual. And for another group of business owners, the pandemic has meant the end of their business entirely. Whether it's a shifting economy, climate change, or other, more personal upheavals, business owners will face change and uncertainty, but what sets them apart is their ability to adapt and pivot. 

“In the midst of a pandemic, how can entrepreneurs make these leaps and bounds that improve their businesses? Oftentimes, we find that their own limiting beliefs are holding the business back from making that big leap forward,” explains Alana Peterson, Executive Director of Spruce Root. 

Confronting these limiting beliefs often means unlearning. In school, we are encouraged to perform perfectly, ace every test, and prepare thoroughly for each assignment. But, there are no grades as an entrepreneur and failure is inevitable. What is most important as a business owner is to take calculated risks, be adaptable, and to be able to find value in failure. 

At Spruce Root’s recent Path to Prosperity business boot camp Anthony Mallot, CEO of Sealaska, explained the value of failure to the entrepreneurs in the workshop: “In business, failure can be every day. And how do you know that you’re going to fail, and still keep on going? Answering that question in key to being a small business owner. A lot of it goes along with knowing the vision of your business. When you hold your vision up, you’ll see that failures and challenges actually become opportunities.” 

By becoming aware of our limiting beliefs, we realize that we trap ourselves in negative thought patterns that can warp our perception and even create the realities that we fear in the first place. By working to interrupt these false narratives and shifting our mindsets to be more positive and affirming, the opportunity present in each failure will come to light. 

It may seem counterintuitive to step back from the day to day quandaries and puzzles of running a business and instead slowing down and focus on oneself as an entrepreneur, but in fact, by doing this internal work, entrepreneurs will be more resilient, adaptable, and better equipped to handle the challenges to come. 

This practice of building the entrepreneur is at the heart of Spruce Root’s new workshop, Master Class for the New Economy, which is being held virtually this week from Nov. 16 to 19. 

During Master Class, about 20 participants will develop a one-year recovery plan for their business, explore and dispel internal limiting beliefs, become familiar with the latest research on the new economy, learn tools for planning during uncertain times, build mental strength and resilience, and form valuable connections with a network of expert mentors and Alaskan business owners. 

While some of the dust has settled in the wake of the economic turbulence brought about by the pandemic, businesses across Alaska continue to need the support of their customers, communities, economic developers, and governments. At Spruce Root, we’ll continue to do this by challenging internal assumptions and limiting beliefs and pushing the clients we work with to grow.

Isabella Haywood is the Communications Specialist at Spruce Root, a Native-led Community Development Financial Institution. Spruce Root assists Southeast Alaska’s people and businesses to reach their full potential through loan capital and support services to promote economic, social, cultural, and environmental resiliency.

11/16/2020 - 2:03pm