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How One Accelerator Fosters Entrepreneurial Success

How One Accelerator Fosters Entrepreneurial Success

by Bryant Ott
How One Accelerator Fosters Entrepreneurial Success

Note: This story depicts how one organization is changing the way it operates to incorporate Gallup's Builder Profile 10 assessment, formerly known as Entrepreneurial StrengthsFinder (and Entrepreneurial Profile 10). You can learn more about BP10 here.

David Arnold left New York City looking for answers.

The managing director for Straight Shot, a startup accelerator headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska, had just spent a few days with leaders of similar organizations. They were asking the same questions Arnold was: How do we get more good prospective companies to apply to our organization? How can we stand out among our growing field of competitors?

Arnold's trip came shortly after Straight Shot's second Demo Day, during which seven companies graduated from the 90-day accelerator and publicly waded into the next stage of their future. He returned to Straight Shot from New York knowing that his organization had to find new and effective ways to differentiate the experience they offer entrepreneurs from those promised by other accelerators, incubators and groups in similar sectors.

"I was struck that whether the other directors were at firms 10 years old, four years old or brand new, we were all worrying about the same thing. Namely, how do we compete by offering the best experiences for our founders," Arnold said. "This is an increasingly crowded space, and we've got a good challenge in that founders need to be pitched about why they need to apply and ultimately join your organization."

Arnold and Straight Shot are betting that their competitive advantage includes a heightened focus on the talents of the teams or individuals they're finding, developing and investing in.

Helping Startups Build Better Futures

Straight Shot calls the Wareham Building home. The five-story brick building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has served many purposes since it opened in 1917. For now, the building is equal parts offices for staff of nearby Creighton University and shared space for Arnold and some of the startups Straight Shot hopes to accelerate into a successful future.

"We're kind of a mix of venture capital and business consulting," Arnold says, referring to Straight Shot's position in the fluid ecosystem of entrepreneurship and startups. Started by Dundee Venture Capital founder Mark Hasebroock, Straight Shot brings nearly a dozen budding businesses into an intensive 90-day development program each year.

"We supply an investment, in exchange for a small percentage of equity. More important, we give them 90 days to learn, grow, prove themselves and ultimately be in a position to generate additional capital for their business or get to a point where they're ready to go it alone," Arnold says. Straight Shot's support extends from the physical surroundings offered in the Wareham Building to the mentorship and coaching from established business leaders in the community that are so vital to each participant's future success.

"We support their development, help them mitigate some of their mistakes and eventually help them navigate the startup process faster," Arnold said.

Straight Shot now has its sights set on the class of 2015. Armed with knowledge and experience gleaned during the previous two classes, Arnold and his staff are turning to talent capital management to answer the questions of how to differentiate and offer participants the best possible experience.

Managing Talent Starts With Understanding

Arnold leads with his strengths, literally and figuratively. A visit to his LinkedIn profile starts not with a biography, but rather with Arnold's CliftonStrengths and Builder Profile 10 assessment results. With the Strategic theme fourth in his CliftonStrengths results, it's not surprising that Arnold displays the information in such an important space.

"I really think those tests are an effective way to get an objective analysis of your own strengths," he says. "I've found the strengths science to be empowering, personally. But, maybe more importantly, as I've managed other people and hired people, focusing on strengths has allowed me to be objective in understanding why a person acts the way they do and how they can fit in the teams that I'm building and leading."

So as Straight Shot determines its next cohort of companies, Arnold and his staff will turn their attention partially to talent to achieve their goals.

"There's obviously a push in business to make decisions using data. I see strengths as a way to do so when it comes to talent capital management," Arnold says. Straight Shot will use Gallup's Entrepreneurial Profile 10 science during the selection of the 2015 class participants, in the pairing of these businesses with interns, and in the development and mentorship of everyone involved.

"All of these efforts address the sole desired outcome of more effectively getting participants from refined idea to functioning business," Arnold says.

Changing "Gut" Impressions With Data

Ahead of each cohort, Straight Shot -- and similar organizations elsewhere -- sift through dozens of finalists to choose the right participants for their programs. Because they are looking for entrepreneurs in which to make a sizeable investment, Straight Shot wants as much information about these businesses as possible.

In addition to their current interview process, Arnold and his team intend to give all finalists this spring the BP10 assessment.

"We're trying to change our gut impressions of some of these founders into a more objective analysis of them as applicants," Arnold says. To create a baseline understanding of what talent makeup Straight Shot should look for, Arnold invited some program alumni to take the assessment. He deliberately asked founders with different personalities, from companies that achieved varying levels of success in and out of the program.

Arnold says that qualitatively, based on the previous Straight Shot classes, the founders and teams that succeed share some very clear behavioral traits. Two that appear consistently are the ability to execute in environments where the time to get things done is constrained and the willingness and interest in seeking help, information and guidance from the hundreds of mentors Straight Shot partners with, people who have successfully done what they're trying to accomplish.

"During our interviews, we're certainly trying to get a sense of [the founder's] business. But we're also trying to learn more about them individually. Objectively, we're trying to find people who can execute under high pressure, and who actively seek out relationships with people who can help. That's where BP10 will allow us to get to the next level in our evaluation of founders," Arnold says.

Straight Shot wants to use a focus on entrepreneurial talents to align its program interns with the right teams, too. So Arnold plans to give these individuals, who are invaluable assets to the founders, the BP10 assessment and position them appropriately. "I think it will be a more rewarding relationship both for the intern, but also for the founder. It will give everyone the ability to add extra strengths in areas where the team might be lacking in its current makeup," he says.

Improving Efficiencies, Thanks to Talent Management

The crushing pressure of limited time Arnold mentions as a significant challenge for most founders is also a very real concern for the team at Straight Shot. With almost a dozen businesses seeking help and support from their accelerator during the 90 days, Arnold and the Straight Shot staff must be cognizant of how to best use the hours they do have with each founder and his or her team. They plan to use the BP10 results of participants, in conjunction with their own results, to help them more effectively use their time.

"We're outnumbered. We need to be efficient in everything we're doing," Arnold says about Straight Shot's daily efforts. "Using our strengths allows everyone involved to be more intentional about their actions. From founders to our staff, knowing and using our strengths can help us answer the important question 'Where should I spend my time?'"

Those who actively coach and develop people based on their strengths can understand very easily, based on experience, the story Arnold tells to depict this challenge of where to focus. During the most recent Straight Shot program, he had certain teams that weren't progressing as well but others that were going "gangbusters," as he put it. "The founders that sought me out for extra help were the people whose companies were making the most progress, not necessarily the ones that were suffering the biggest setbacks," Arnold says.

His decision about whether to "double down" on the former group or spend more time with the latter was clouded a bit by the nature of Arnold's employer. "The venture capital environment is definitely sink or swim; you go with the person who is most successful and is seeking you out," he says. "But Straight Shot is different. We're not just VC; we promise to mentor and to be there to help. We shoulder additional responsibilities.

"If we can use strengths science to more effectively work with and help both groups, it helps us deliver the most impact in the least amount of time."

Creating a Better Experience for Founders

Thinking about the impending application process and wrestling with the seemingly rhetorical questions shared among his fellow managing directors in New York, Arnold is confident that a focus on strengths can help him craft answers that will set Straight Shot and its participants up for success.

"I can turn to founders and say we're going to use a test developed by the world's leader in talent capital analysis to not only help select our participants, but to pair them with an employee they don't have to pay for that's tailored, talent-wise, to their team's make-up. And we're going to use the science to be more intentional in how we work with them and consult with them.

"That should be a very powerful position for us," he says.

Arnold adds that the use of talents and strengths to find and develop accelerator participants will also help businesses find additional funding and support.

"[BP10] gives our operation and process extra credibility; it's a data point that really hasn't existed in this sector before and one that's extremely critical when we think about execution and success," he says.

As Arnold gets ready to welcome the next wave of successful startups to the five-story brick building in North Downtown Omaha, he's crafting a strategy to set Straight Shot apart from its competitors, one that focuses on the importance of talent to entrepreneurial success.

"It's easier to talk about using BP10 in the application and selection process and with the interns," he says. "But what I get most excited about is using this as a managerial tool and a talent capital management tool within our accelerator."

Learn more about using CliftonStrengths to help yourself and others succeed:

Bryant Ott's Top 5 CliftonStrengths are Woo, Relator, Achiever, Responsibility and Positivity.

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