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Q&A: Innovate Colorado Springs initiative seeks to foster an entrepreneurial spirit

April 11, 2014 Updated: April 11, 2014 at 7:28 pm

Creating an environment that fosters business innovation within a community no doubt takes longer than a few days.

But Colorado Springs-area business and civic leaders hope to lay the groundwork for economic growth next week when they engage in some serious brainstorming over four days.

Innovate Colorado Springs, a series of discussions, workshops and conferences designed to promote strategies on innovation and entrepreneurship, will take place Monday through Thursday at several locations around town.

The initiative will include sessions with executives from the Kansas City, Mo.-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation; an innovation lab with the Maryland-based Harwood Institute; a higher education panel with representatives from several local universities and colleges; open houses at area gathering places for entrepreneurs; and three opportunities for entrepreneurs to present their business ideas to other entrepreneurs and potential investors. A schedule of events can be found at

Several local and visiting speakers will make presentations during the four-day event. The Gazette asked three key presenters to discuss their ideas about innovation and entrepreneurship. Here are some of their thoughts. Responses have been edited for space and clarity:



Thom Ruhe, vice president of entrepreneurship at the Kauffman Foundation, where he directs programs that address entrepreneurial education, mentoring, access to capital and fostering entrepreneurial ecosystems

Question: We've now moved beyond the Great Recession. Is it tougher, easier or about the same for innovators and entrepreneurs to get off the ground?

Answer: The rate of startups is declining over the last several years to slightly more than 400,000 per year, down from more than 600,000 per year prior to 2008. This is concerning when you consider that new ventures are the single largest source of job creation in our economy. Interestingly, entrepreneurship activity is growing, however, in demographic groups spanning 40- to 65-year-olds. I think it has never been easier to launch a new venture. The advances in technology (online, in particular) have made it remarkably easier to be open for business.

Q: What are a few common traits that you've seen in successful innovators and entrepreneurs?

A: Having an entrepreneurial mindset. They understand and manage the uncertainty of starting new ventures. They anticipate that birthing something new typically requires overcoming a steady stream of obstacles. They are driven to solve problems and are rarely satisfied by the status quo.

Q: Are there ways to measure entrepreneurial success?

A: Success is a relative term. Not everyone measures success financially. We can certainly measure things like profits and jobs for the sake of economic development, but many successful entrepreneurs are intrinsically motivated to solve a problem, create something new and make the world better by way of their product or service. If they accomplish that, profits and jobs usually follow.

Q: Are there a few common mistakes that individuals and startup companies should avoid when they attempt to get their businesses or initiatives off the ground?

A: Underestimating the challenges they will face, the resolve that will be required to succeed, client adoption, lifestyle implications, etc..

Q: Is there a role that a local community should play when it comes to encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship?

A: Community is the new form of currency - at least for entrepreneurs. In communities around the country, resources and support are self-organizing to encourage the launch of new ventures and the support of nascent ones. Thankfully, most regions in the U.S. have figured out border wars and encouraging companies to move is worse than a zero sum game. They are realizing that investing in the birth and growth of new things holds significantly better promise for the communities that coalesce their resources to do so. Colorado Springs should be proud that they are coming together to do likewise.


Gary Schoeniger, founder and CEO of Entrepreneurship Learning Initiative in suburban Cleveland, and co-author of "Who Owns the Ice House? Eight Lessons from an Unlikely Entrepreneur"

Question: You like to talk about the goal of "democratizing entrepreneurship." What do you mean by that, and how does it foster and promote innovation?

Answer: Too often, our image of an entrepreneur is skewed by popular myths and common misconceptions of what it takes to become a successful entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship, at its essence, begins with a mindset - a fundamental logic that can empower anyone to succeed, regardless of their circumstance or chosen field.

Q: What are a few common traits of successful innovators and entrepreneurs?

A: We often look at successful entrepreneurs as rare individuals born with unique personality traits that enable them to succeed. Yet, it's important to understand that successful entrepreneurs develop certain attitudes, behaviors and skills over time as a result of their experiences rather than individual traits.

Q: How do you measure success as an entrepreneur?

A: Job creation and profitability are obvious metrics. Yet it's also important to remember that entrepreneurial success is driven by individuals who can think critically and solve problems within complex and uncertain circumstances. Perseverance and determination, creativity and critical thinking, communication and collaboration are skills that are a bit more difficult to measure.

Q: Are there a few common mistakes that individuals, startups and the like should avoid when they attempt to get their businesses or initiatives off the ground?

A: One of the most common reasons for failure is a build-it-and-they-will-come approach. Novice entrepreneurs often approach their endeavors with unbridled optimism that blinds them to unforeseen market realities. Sadly, many of these failures can be avoided by teaching an iterative, experimental approach.

Q: What role should a community, such as Colorado Springs, play to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship?

A: Healthy entrepreneurial economies build entrepreneurial capital - individual human capital and social capital. The more people that understand what entrepreneurship and innovation really entail, the better. Job No. 1 is to get as many people across a community to understand the importance of encouraging and supporting entrepreneurial activities at all levels of society.


Nate Olson, entrepreneurship specialist at the Kauffman Foundation and co-founder of the 1 Million Cups program

Question: What is 1 Million Cups and how does it promote entrepreneurship and innovation?

Answer: 1 Million Cups is a weekly educational program designed to engage, educate and accelerate local startups. By connecting entrepreneurs in a community over 1 Million Cups of coffee, we're helping businesses grow and solve common problems when starting up. We're operating in 32 cities across the United States (details at

Q: What are a few common traits of successful innovators and entrepreneurs?

A: When I think of the most successful entrepreneurs that have changed the world, I think of tenacity, grit and creativity.

Q: Are there ways to measure entrepreneurial success?

A: Sales and ultimately net profits are your basic benchmarks to know if you have customers and if you're making money.

Q: Are there a few common mistakes that individuals and startup companies should avoid when they attempt to get their businesses or initiatives off the ground?

A: There are tons of mistakes that founders commonly make. A great resource is "The Founder's Dilemmas: Anticipating and Avoiding the Pitfalls That Can Sink a Startup," by Noam Wasserman. He really breaks down the most common pitfalls that can sink a startup. A lot of founders think that they need to raise seed capital from angel investors to get started. However, most companies start with less than $10,000, and if they find customers first, they will be able to bootstrap the company. Moreover, many founders chase a solution before fully understanding the problem.

Q: What are some of the resources a community such as Colorado Springs should have in place to spur innovation?

A: Every community is different. I wish "spurring innovation" could be broken down into a formula, but it's not that easy. A good place to start is to let the entrepreneurs lead the activity in a community. First, identify who the entrepreneurial leaders are and ask them what we can do as a community to support them. You'll always get an answer. Next, create density of people and place; get lots of smart entrepreneurs in a room for one hour a week. The ripple effect is incredible. Also, be as inclusive as possible; get the entire community involved and make it super easy to engage.

Finally, develop a community tolerance for failure. If 90 percent of new companies fail within three to five years, that means the majority of new ventures aren't going to make it. The way a community deals with failure says a lot about the maturity of the entrepreneurial community.

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