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Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem 

What It’s Like Working with Entrepreneurs 

Jim Correll, director Fab Lab ICC at Independence Community College, Independence Kansas 

A few years ago, I saw something new coming onto the market. A sealed ecosystem of small plants and organisms. The cost was about $2,000. The idea was that if you get the right mix of animals, plants and organisms, life is sustained inside the globe. The only outside ingredient necessary is indirect light to provide for photosynthesis in the plants. The Internet defines ecosystem as “a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment.” Generally, a popular definition today is a complex network or interconnected system. 

I don’t see this particular type of ecosystem on the market today, however, I do see several varieties of aquatic ecosystems. Typically, they seem to consist of a sealed glass dome containing miniature shrimp, algae and micro-organisms. The waste that is produced by each organism is used by the others. It’s balanced so there’s no excess waste and the life cycle can go on without intervention. 

Early efforts at aiding entrepreneurs and small business start-ups were somewhat “controlled.” I can remember meetings where there was talk about some committee determining what kinds of businesses this community or that community needed. I’ve come to realize that it’s small business owners with the Entrepreneurial Mindset and the marketplace that should determine what’s needed, not some economic development committee. We’ve learned again and again that markets need to be free. A controlled market whether the controller is a government, or a local committee doesn’t work. It’s the entrepreneur, always empathetically looking for problems and the related solutions that make for a strong economy. 

We’re seeing the development and growth of an entrepreneurial ecosystem in our area. This is an ecosystem of entrepreneurs independently working with each other in a complex interconnected network. The ecosystem builds on itself. Other than a supportive environment, the ecosystem needs less and less help from outside forces. We do what we can help entrepreneurs enter the ecosystem. Once in the ecosystem, they start to grow. They consult with each other and start doing business with each other. We try to be there to continue to help by seeing that they get what they need. Some stay in touch. Some disappear from our radar screens and grow on their own. Sometimes when we see them in social settings, we find out they’ve expanded and maybe even started something else on their own without our help. 

On several occasions, we’ve worked with them on a daily basis as they’ve used our equipment to develop their products and promotional materials. At a certain point, their business grows enough they buy their own equipment. While these are certainly success stories, we have to get used to them not coming around as often. They have to spend their time satisfying customers and don’t visit the Lab as often as any of us would like. 

We work hard to instill this Entrepreneurial Mindset, that is a certain independence and self-sufficiency in searching for problems to solve, in everyone we work with at the Lab. This makes our entrepreneurs somewhat “cat” like, as in herding cats. They come around for a while on a regular basis and we get used to networking with them as we help them get what they need. Then, when that’s done, they disappear, sometimes for several months before coming back again for the next help we can provide. We miss them when they’re gone, but welcome them back when we see them. All in all, that’s the way an ecosystem should be, requiring limited help and attention. There’s nothing more fulfilling than seeing these independent and self-confident people thrive in the ecosystem while providing for the needs of the marketplace.  

Jim Correll is the director of Fab Lab ICC at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship on the campus of Independence Community College. He can be reached at (620) 252-5349, by email at jcorrell@indycc.edu or Twitter @jimcorrellks. Archive columns and podcast at jimcorrell.com. 

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