HOW DO YOU PLAN YOUR JOURNEY?
I. WHERE DO YOU WANT TO GO?
When we started planning our first summer, the four of us sat in an empty classroom with a Google Map of the US pulled up on the projector and started naming places we wanted to consider going. We came away with a list of 50 cities and assigned each of us some of those cities to research and search for entrepreneurs in.
Location First. We recommend the same process to our teams. Start the search by choosing the cities you want to go to, educate yourselves on that community’s issues, and then reach out to those individual entrepreneurs who are bridging the gaps. Whether your team chooses to prioritize your search by location, industry or a particular issue, do not begin without a plan. Create a clear set of goals and agree on a schedule for all team members to work together.
Here’s a list of our 50 target cities and where MBAx teams have gone so far.
II. WHO DO YOU WANT TO WORK WITH?
Entrepreneurs and their potential for impact in their communities are the central element of your experience. Finding and building relationships with them is the most critical step in planning your journey and setting it up for success. Overall we recommend collaborating with the businesses that exhibit each of these key traits:
a. A positive social impact: MBAx entrepreneurs solve real problems and change lives in their communities every day, expanding what it means to be a “social enterprise.” This could mean they hire, employ, and empower an otherwise marginalized group of people, source or manufacture their products in a particularly forward-thinking and sustainable way, or otherwise change lives and create jobs in their communities. A great question to ask yourselves is, “What happens to this entrepreneur’s community if this business succeeds?”
b. A place with a story to tell: MBAx teams go off the beaten path to work with entrepreneurs in cities that are surviving & thriving against the odds and without the hype — whether in a hard-hit city, a Heartland hub, or a tiny rural town.
c. A business poised for growth: Our teams have worked with manufacturers, tech startups, creative agencies, and even barbershops, but our entrepreneurs all have one thing in common: they are creating jobs and want to grow their impact.
d. An entrepreneur committed to collaboration: At the heart of every business is the entrepreneur. Building a relationship with the entrepreneur is more important than any business model, and will create the most critical and rewarding moments of your journey. Choose to work with the entrepreneurs who you are excited to meet and who are committed to collaborating with you and your team.
— “I have a cardinal rule – select the entrepreneur, not the organization or project. Ultimately, the entrepreneur will have a significant role in whether the experience is a positive or a challenging one. Choosing an entrepreneur is like vetting a manager – if it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.” – MBAx1 Fellow
e. A business where what you bring to the table is uniquely additive: Maximize your impact by working with entrepreneurs whose backgrounds, skills, and strengths do not overlap with yours but whose challenges and opportunities do. In general, we recommend avoiding working with entrepreneurs who are venture-backed or are MBAs themselves, as they typically have access to a lot of support. Target the limited resources of your team to where they will be most needed and most impactful.
III. HOW DO YOU FIND THEM?
There is no set order of operations for finding entrepreneurs. In general, start big, get familiar with the lay of the land, then hone in. Read up on the communities you are interested in and do a few broad searches for “visionary” and “social impact” entrepreneurs and small business owners there. Do not discount newspapers and journals you have never heard of, local entrepreneurial blogs, even Facebook groups. You will almost certainly have to go off the beaten search-engine-optimized path to find the most local and community-minded businesses.
Here are a few resources and types of connectors we use to find entrepreneurs:
• National Search Tools
• Local News Articles. Learn about the community’s issues and who is addressing them. Check out local entrepreneurship blogs and write down the names of people and organizations you want to talk to.
• Social Impact Centers. Sometimes it is helpful to search specifically for “social impact” and “nonprofits” in the community to learn about primary issues and see what type of businesses and jobs are most needed. Many nonprofits will be linked to businesses, and some will even have their own spin-off for profit arms and projects.
• Incubators, Accelerators & Co-Working Spaces. These kinds of spaces are the heartbeat of entrepreneurial activity, especially in mid-sized cities, and speaking with their organizers will connect you with close-knit networks. Be wary of incubators and accelerators that are exclusively tech or “idea-phase” focused. Ask for recommendations for graduates of their programs, and just people they know in their community, rather than only learning about businesses and start ups currently housed there.
• Facebook Groups & Social Media. Small businesses usually start their social media presence (if they do at all) with a Facebook page. Search for enterprise centers, incubators, and other networks you have learned about and scroll through these pages for posts about local businesses or links to other business pages.
• Referrals. Ask friends! Everybody you know has a hometown, so reach out to your own community for recommendations of awesome businesses they love from home or have heard about some other way.
• Community Connectors. Community connectors exist in every city and they are usually individuals who deeply love their city or town and are happy to tell you about all the good that is happening there – including the individual entrepreneurs and businesses that are making the most impact. Do not be afraid to reach out to the names and contacts you find personally and explain to them what you are doing. In our experience, the sooner you can get a real person on the line, whether they hold any official title or not, the sooner you will get to know the heart of a community and learn where to go next.
—“Sourcing entrepreneurs was part of the fun for me and was an interesting challenge in itself. It also allowed us to feel a deeper connection to the people we were working with, as well as their businesses.” – MBAx1 Fellow
IV. DIVIDE THE WORKLOAD
We spent three months sourcing the entrepreneurs we would work with our first summer. We divided the work evenly with each of us responsible for a share of our team’s target cities. Each week, we would meet and present what we had learned about a community, the primary issues and challenges affecting it, and suggest several individual businesses and entrepreneurs we found or were recommended to us.
This works well for our teams, and we encourage you and your team to do the same. The team member presenting the entrepreneur makes their best case that the they are making a positive social impact, located in a place with a story to tell, poised for growth, and that they lack access to some critical support that the team is uniquely positioned to give them access to. These questions are difficult and the answers are often not clear, so be ready to wade into the messiness and challenge each other. Structure your entrepreneur search as a productive debate – it’s not a competition!
Be sure to keep a record of all of the regional contacts and entrepreneurs you find as well. A shared Google Sheet should do the trick.
— “City leads – for each city, we designated a city lead, who was responsible for selecting entrepreneurs to present to the group, managing the project, and determining the social activities for that week and the weekend after. This was a great leadership opportunity and allowed for a manageable work load prior to starting the trip.” – MBAx1 Fellow
V. HOW DO YOU MAKE A CONNECTION?
Once you’ve found an entrepreneur who seems interesting, you will need to reach out to them to learn more about their business and to explain what you are doing with your summer to see if they could be a good fit for your team and vice versa.
We often reach out first over email to try to schedule a call. Be thoughtful about how you present yourself, your team, and your project to the entrepreneur and mindful of the stereotypes (often deserved) of MBA students. Think back to your team mission statement and remember that an entrepreneur will not care how much you know, or where you go to school, or how many years of experience you have, etc. until they know that you care, and specifically why you care.
Here’s a bad place to start: “We are four MBAs from XYZ MBA Program who want to come help you with your business. We are experts in A, B, and C with over D years of experience and think we can solve any challenge you have.”
Here is a better place to start: “I’m Michael – I’m a business student and was researching entrepreneurship in your city and came across your business. I think what you are doing is incredible. What got you into this work in the first place?”
Remember that you are not a savior, you are not selling anything, the entrepreneur knows more about their business than you do, and there will be plenty of time to talk about business questions. The first priority is to make an authentic human connection, show genuine interest in their story, and earn the opportunity to share your own story and why you are hitting the road.
Feel free to use our entrepreneur email introduction template as a starting point, and check out these communication tips we give to our teams:
|An MBAx team avoids saying things like…||An MBAx team says things like…|
|• We will teach you||• We want to learn from you|
|• We are four elite MBAs||• We are four curious, passionate people|
|• We have a lot of expertise||• We have a lot of questions|
|• We want to work in your office for a week||• We want to build a relationship with you|
|• Help me scope our project||• What is keeping you up at night?|
|• We want to work for you||• We want to work with you|
|• Think of us as free consultants||• Think of us as thought and action partners, and hopefully by the end of the week as friends|
|• What is your professional background?||• What is your personal story? What motivates you to pour yourself into your work?|
|• Here is my resume||• Here is my personal story. This is why your story and business excite me|
|• We will take your business to the next level||• We will work alongside you as thought and action partners on your biggest challenge or opportunity|
|• We specialize in 5 year strategic plans, complex financial models, and fifty page powerpoint decks||• We want to be helpful however we can. We have a bias for action and want to get our hands dirty|
|• “disintermediate an intermediary” (Unnecessarily impenetrable jargon)||• “cut out the middle man” (no jargon)|
VI. HOW DO YOU PREPARE FOR THE PROJECT?
Scope the Project & Create a Plan:
As you introduce each entrepreneur to your team and the concept of how you are spending your summer, start to ask them open ended questions about their business like “What is the biggest challenge or opportunity you are facing right now? The next 6 months? This year?” or “What is keeping you up at night?” Also don’t forget to ask “why?” until you feel you understand the entrepreneur’s challenge at its most basic level. As you get deeper into this line of questioning, ideas for projects that are manageable within the scope of a week or two should emerge. Only once you’ve gotten them to trust you will they likely be willing to be vulnerable enough to talk with you openly about the business challenges and opportunities facing them that give them the most anxiety. Use our Project Plan Template to confirm and share the details of the work you plan to do with your team and the entrepreneur.
It can be easy to lose sight of the human aspect of the journey, but as you think through scoping a project or projects to work on with each entrepreneur, remember that the best deliverable you can give them at the end of your time with them is not a Power Point, a model, a SWOT analysis, a strategic plan, or a content calendar. It’s four friends who they are now deeply connected to and on whom they can continue to rely for friendship and support far beyond the summer.
MBAx teams have worked on all kinds of projects, including a pricing analysis for a family-owned bakery in Detroit, a social media plan for a cafe in Little Rock, and a cash-flow analysis and crowdfunding campaign recommendation for an organic grocer in Kansas City. Teams often find they uncover and tackle multiple mini-projects while on the ground. Read more on our blog straight from our teams about the projects they’ve worked on.
Harness the power of the network:
MBAx teams often find that they are like primary care physicians doing a house call, and that entrepreneurs would benefit from additional attention from a specialist. Before you hit the road, ask yourself who those specialists might be in your own network and enlist them as volunteers who can assist remotely during your journey. MBAx teams have had great success calling on former co-workers, classmates, professors, friends, and family and enlisting them in supporting their entrepreneurs. We encourage you to also consider other teams participating in MBAx and Open road as a resource and hope you use the Open Road Facebook Group to share access to expert resources who can amplify teams’ impact with their entrepreneurs.
VII. PLAN YOUR ROUTE
How many recommended hours of driving? Our first summer, we spent 8 weeks on the road and from start to finish drove almost 7,000 miles. Last year, teams spent 6 weeks on the road and their routes ranged from 2,000 to 4,500 miles. By the end of the summer, teams that drove 4,500 wished they had driven less and teams that drove 2,000 were glad they did.
We recommend sequencing your stops to be able to get from one to the next in no more than one day of driving (anything over an average of 8 hours/week is too much!). Making your route shorter allows you to knock out all of your driving on Friday afternoon and/or Saturday and get to your next destination with enough time to relax, enjoy yourself, and recharge before the next week’s sprint. Check out some previous MBAx Team Routes for inspiration.
Journey Length: Our first summer, we were in between our first and second years of our MBA program and each did another internship for six weeks and then were on the road for eight weeks, from July 6th to August 30th. We cut down the length of the trip to six weeks for our Inaugural Class of Fellows last summer to make it easier for them to fit a longer internship in prior to hitting the road, but we have heard from teams who would want to be on the road for only a few weeks all the way to teams who would want to be on the road all summer. We encourage you and your team to do what works for you, but if you go beyond 6 weeks we recommend building in either a few days of rest in the middle, or more rest days along the way, so you don’t burn out.
How long should a team work with each entrepreneur? We have been told from the beginning that you can’t create business impact for an entrepreneur in a week, and we feel that with each team that hits the road, we continue to see that the opposite is true. This summer we are going to test a two week model with one entrepreneur for each team, but we believe strongly that if four thoughtful, committed people can’t create business impact in a week after having months to prepare, then they ought to go back to the dean of their MBA program and demand a refund. Creating impact in a week is difficult, but possible with the right team, entrepreneur, and preparation.