Last year, when UrbanFaith talked to Brian Jenkins, president of Entrenuity, a national entrepreneusrship training organization, about race-based funding disparities in urban ministry, we had no idea Jenkins was writing a small business start-up guide for youth, and perhaps he had no idea it would inspire a move into for-profit business training and the development of a social media platform for aspiring entrepreneurs. So, we thought it was time to talk to this dynamic leader again, this time about his new social entrepreneurship project, StartingUp Now. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
UrbanFaith:You’ve been training young people to be entrepreneurs for a long time. Have people been starting more of their own businesses since the recession?
Brian Jenkins:Yes, many people have been coming to us and saying, “We need your help in getting our businesses going.” Part of that discussion led to me writing our new model, the book called StartingUp Now: 24 Steps to Launch Your Own Business, which is a great tool for what we call “new and aspiring entrepreneurs.” We believe we’re the first ones to offer a content/social networking tool with the integration of our business planning guide. We don’t know of anybody else that has that right now, but I’m sure there are others that will follow.
Is StartingUp Now an Entrenuity project?
No, this is entirely new. Entrenuity is my non-profit. StartingUp Now is a for-profit. As an entrepreneur, there’s this model we use called PSA. You state the problem, identify the solution, and create the action. What I have found is that we need less non-profit organizations in urban challenged communities. We need to build more for-profit businesses. One of my goals is to build for-profit businesses, to give people opportunities where they are. It always starts with a business plan to be very strategic.
So you’re not only sustaining your own work, but you’re modeling social entrepreneurship for other people?
Absolutely. I grew up in non-profit culture, but in 2008, when everything crashed, we had to figure out a new way. Many churches, ministries, and non-profits are still operating pre-2008. I’m saying to them, “Being entrepreneurial is about being able to pivot.” We’re still using strategies of going to donors and the donors are telling us, “We want new models. First of all, the money is not there as it was before and we’re just not going to continue to give a blank check towards operating expenses. We’d rather pay for skill development, but not for just general operating expenses.”
Don G. Soderquist, the retired vice chairman and COO of Walmart endorsed StartingUp Now. That’s quite an endorsement.
It’s been pretty powerful. The opportunities continue to open up. Just this week, we were selected to conduct a workshop at the Chicago Ideas Week in October, where leaders like President Clinton and Mark Zuckerberg have spoken. Because StartingUp Now is a tool for someone with no prior business training whatsoever and the book is less than 100 pages, people are picking it up and doing it. And, there is a range in the type of person using it. The youngest person that we’ve had work through it is in sixth grade. We also have some guys that I’m personally working with who have been incarcerated.
Why would someone use the StartingUp Now Skillcenter, which launched April 18, instead of Facebook or LinkedIn?
It’s like Facebook/LinkedIn for entrepreneurs. Let’s say you purchase our book and you want to work on your business plan online. You’re not familiar with Facebook; you’re not familiar with LinkedIn or some of the other tools that exist. In fact, those may overwhelm you. Some of the people we’re working with don’t even have email addresses. It provides one central location for them to be able to access content that we’ve either curated or developed on our own instead of someone who may not be familiar with business planning typing “income statement” into Google and coming up with 25 million hits. Where do they begin?
An executive from SCORE, the Service Corps Retired Executives, said, “This is so much easier than using our Business Plan Pro because it’s not overly filled with content that someone would never use.” That’s one of the strengths. You can start where you are, but you can become as sophisticated as you want, depending on the type of business that you’re in. Now, it does have its limitations. We’re not trying to be Business Plan Pro. We’re trying to be StartingUp Now and reach the first time or new entrepreneur.
Could the program help someone like me who has run a small business haphazardly for a decade?
You’re describing the exact customer that we’re starting to find. What’s happened is when I wrote the book, I wrote it because of my background in youth work, but when we were doing the focus groups with adults, we were finding that adults were saying, “I could use this right here, right now.” It’s for that customer just like yourself: I have a business, but I want to find ways to more effectively marketing my product or my service without being overwhelmed with content. We offer two levels of membership. First, it’s free for a basic membership, which gives somebody the ability to access the content. For the pro membership, we do charge a membership fee. That’s based on whether a person is a youth or an adult.
What does the paying subscriber get?
The pro user gets access to the StartingUp Now business plan online. They can work on their business plan from their computer, their tablet, or their smartphone with any internet connection. The free membership basically gives someone the ability to learn about the platform and find out if this is a model for them. You can curate your own custom profile. You can access those curated business topics and resources. We’ve identified about 1,500 different resources that fit within the categories that are there. It allows a person to market their business. It allows you to connect in 72 different languages. It also provides the ability to post resources and then share them with those that are in your network, similar to what you would do with Facebook. With your privacy settings, you can adjust those resources so that they are available just for yourself, your friends, or other members. That’s one of the things people really like.
On the site you have sections for entrepreneurs, facilitators, and the community, so the Skillcenter is designed for more than just individuals?
Chicago public schools are running two pilot programs right now. We trained their teachers. It’s for the individual user, but it’s also for the classroom. So we have a facilitator’s guide. All the content that’s in the facilitator guide is online as well. A teacher can use this in the classroom to teach entrepreneurship and also provide access to the Skillcenter for their students. There is content that’s facilitator specific as well.
We also just found out that a couple that we’ve been coaching and that has been using StartingUp Now as their guide are runners up in the city’s small business competition here in Chicago for their catering business plan. And, a group came to our March 1 launch party from Grove City, Pennsylvania. What’s unique about them is that they’re using the book with business owners who have never written a business plan. They were saying how easy it was to sit down with people who have never done it before. It’s really expanded our marketability beyond traditional under-sourced urban neighborhoods. Now we’re selling to adult training centers. We presented to Willow Creek Community and they thought it would be a great resource for their own members, not just their outreach ministries.
You’re working with both faith-based groups and public schools. Is there a Christian dimension to the program?
It’s values based. We do quote Scripture within the book, but it’s not strictly faith-based. We definitely have a strong appeal to ethics. Since it’s values based and character based, it’s gotten me into places that I couldn’t go with a faith-based model.
You’re not an engineer, so you had to partner with a developer to launch the site. What kind of advice would you give people about choosing partners?
Integrity, integrity, integrity. This is why it took me so long to get the platform up and running. Our initial developer was a Christian. We eventually found out that after paying him several tens of thousands of dollars, he was not doing anything as far as the development. In fact, he had deceived us by using shareware, something that you can get online for free.
When I first found out, I went directly back to our investor. I didn’t hold anything back. Our investor’s response to me was, “Now you’ve learned. Just don’t make the same mistakes again.” It was a very humbling experience, because he and his family have been behind my work for over ten years. To say that I made a decision, put this money with this guy, and then I had to go back and say, “I don’t even know if we’re going to get anything back.”
The Skillcenter was built on a platform called EntreOasis. We worked with a company called Media Spark to integrate the StartingUp Business Plan Template and customize the EntreOasis platform for StartingUp’s purposes. I don’t even know if the CEO of Media Spark is Christian, but he has become a great friend through this period. I let him know that this developer came and took our funding. He said, “Hey, I believe in what you’ve got. I want to impact the world.” That’s the phoenix story. That situation is what spurred StartingUp Now.