Virtual business plan competitions overcome digital hurdles

  • Icebreaking activities like this string rope game at the Spruce Root’s 2018 Path to Prosperity business plan competition were traded for virtual activities over the past year as regional “boot camps” went online. (Photo/Courtesy/Spruce Root)

Despite a year marred by lockdowns, travel bans, job losses and business closures, Alaska’s regional business plan competitions did not miss a beat. Entrepreneurs showed up to connect, learn, and hustle, and organizers got creative to adapt their programs to run in a virtual format.

For the typical regional business plan competition, the training workshops take place in person in one of the regional hub communities. Participants learn about critical business topics like customer discovery, sustainable business models, and financial analysis. However, over the last eighteen months, public health restrictions have prevented traveling and gathering in person, so organizers of business plan competitions ran their interactive workshops in a virtual format.

One organization that successfully transitioned its program online is Spruce Root. Spruce Root is a Native Community Development Financial Institution, or CDFI, in Southeast Alaska, which runs an annual business plan competition and training program called Path to Prosperity, or P2P.

According to its Programs Manager, Ashley Snookes, “it’s so much more than just a business plan competition. It’s an opportunity to connect and get to know other entrepreneurs and to utilize one another’s shared knowledge and experiences to build better, more resilient businesses.”

P2P’s “Business Boot Camp” was historically held in person in Juneau, with participants traveling from all around Southeast Alaska for an intensive, 3-day training, networking, and mentorship curriculum. Since gatherings were not possible last year, P2P organizers had to innovate to overcome challenges of creating the same collaborative environment in an online format.

“I think one of the big challenges (with online training) was figuring out how we could create meaningful connections between individuals in a virtual setting,” Snookes said, “And we solved that by trying to have a really dynamic virtual experience.”

Instead of long hours just on Zoom, organizers engaged participants in a variety of ways. Sometimes entrepreneurs would go for a walk and take a one-on-one phone call with another participant. Other times they would do virtual yoga together or tell funny stories.

“I think we really stretched Zoom and virtual connecting to its limits,” added Snookes. “I think we really saw people connect because of it.”

Building community online requires a lot of creativity, innovation, and willingness to connect in new ways. In Alaska, it also has the added challenge of operating in regions that are chronically underserved by the telecommunications industry.

With prohibitively high internet costs for unreliable service, the virtual format was difficult for many participants, especially those who live in communities outside of regional hubs.

Cindy Mittlestadt, who partnered with Spruce Root to launch the Path to Prosperity program in Bristol Bay through Bristol Bay Native Corp., cited internet connectivity as one of the major challenges to running a virtual Business Boot Camp.

“Internet connectivity is always top of mind, and the biggest fear in hosting any events when we’re trying to connect businesses from all communities across Bristol Bay, so that was very much a challenge” Mittlestadt said.

“I can tell you one business, (based outside a hub community) probably experienced a dropped line no less than 20 times an hour and very rarely could sustain the video component of boot camp.”

Despite the hurdles, entrepreneurs persevered through every dropped line, lagged connection, and technology failure. They worked with competition organizers to come up with creative ways to participate in training and activities, even if the internet was down.

Mittlestadt noted that being prepared in advance was key to overcoming connectivity challenges during business boot camp. Her advice to others organizing similar meetings is to “have good communication behind the scenes, create more space and pause for conversation or questions throughout the process, and be available pretty much ‘round the clock during the boot camp to really increase the level of support that you can do offline, in addition to what you can offer online.”

Despite the drawbacks, the virtual format offered some advantages to participants. Both Snookes and Mittlestadt listed participants remaining with their families as a big advantage to virtual boot camp over in person.

“People were able to (attend boot camp) and still have breakfast with their kids in the morning or be around their family and talk about what they were learning in the evening, and so I think that that was a real advantage,” Snookes said.

Mittlestadt echoed her statement by saying “that connection to family, and knowing that they didn’t have to travel or have to leave their family for an extended period of time I think, is always a plus.”

The remote format allowed for a much wider variety of guest speakers, mentors, and instructors, to participate in training sessions. For instance, Best in the West, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region’s business plan competition, was able to host experts from across the state and beyond throughout its programming because of the virtual format.

Participants learned about business lending from a loan expert in Anchorage, connected with a tech company in San Francisco to discuss affordable options for point-of-sales systems, and heard from a panel of entrepreneurs who built successful e-commerce businesses in Alaska and Hawaii.

Ashleigh Delgado, one of the awardees of Best in the West this year, connected virtually with a mentor based almost 400 miles away. She recently opened Studio 1, a rejuvenating day spa offering a variety of beauty services in Bethel. Through the program, Delgado met virtually with a mentor, who is a longtime beauty professional and entrepreneur in Anchorage.

“I connected with her and she really helped me with building my brand.” Delgado said. “She told me to describe my brand, and I told her it was a classy, sophisticated, salon. Very open, very trendy, very modern. And she told me that was my brand. That was a huge takeaway with what I got with my mentor.”

The strengths and weaknesses of virtual gathering make the future of business boot camp a tough decision for organizers. For 2021, Spruce Root plans to once again offer its programs virtually, with hopes for in-person events in 2022. Best in the West is considering a hybrid option for workshops to keep both the social benefits of in person interaction and the networking opportunities outside of the region available online.

However they proceed, Alaska’s regional business plan competitions have adapted, created, and innovated to facilitate the best experience they could for their regions’ entrepreneurs.

“We have our largest number of applications that we’ve ever had to the program this year” said Snookes, “and I really attribute that to a lot of the changes that have happened in the economy and a readiness now for people to either launch or expand a business.”

Julie Gardella is the Analyst and Program Specialist at the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development. She was the lead program partner for Best in the West 2021 and serves on the organizing committee of 1 Million Cups Anchorage. Gardella is passionate about equity and justice in businesses at any stage and size, and loves to work with entrepreneurs and see them succeed. Gardella is originally from Massachusetts, and moved to Alaska as part of the Alaska Fellows Program.

Updated: 
08/19/2021 - 4:41pm