Are entrepreneurial learning programs valued in regional communities?

Meshpoints hosts fortnightly peer learning sessions for innovation facilitators from across regional Western Australia. Recently we discussed the benefits and challenges of facilitating learning programs for entrepreneurs in the regions. In a way, asking “Why would you, and is it worth, running them?”

On the call, facilitators in the Mid West, Great Southern, South West, Perth and Curtin University (Ignition Program) all contributed ideas. We hope sharing them here is useful and welcome your comments.

[This past was co-authored with Katie van den Brand and was first published by Meshpoints]

By learning programs we mean structured learning activities for entrepreneurs and startups. They are most commonly offered in-person at co-working spaces and incubators with some mixed online/offline deliver. Examples of programs include Hackathons (including Startup Weekend), design sprints, Q&A with experts in residence, specialist technical training, pre-accelerator and accelerator programs.

For the ventures the benefits include:

  • Increased confidence, skills and knowledge,

  • Accessing high-quality learning affordably by doing it groups,

  • Getting support that complements other services, such as one-on-one mentoring,

  • Learning and collaborating with peers, so feeling less isolated.

In addition, the wider community benefits from:

  • More ventures, and more successful ventures,

  • Brining new skills, ideas and support, so building local service providers capability,

  • Increased export income (increased sales) or income retention (reduce leakage)

  • Retaining people and ventures that otherwise might leave to access the learning.

In the context of deliberately growing a functional ‘ecosystem’ of support for ventures. Learning programs are “one leg of the tripod” of Space, Community and Learning.

Without structured learning the culture within the community won’t have the sense of upward momentum and vertical drive, nor the practical means for ventures to skill-up and step-up to realise their inspiring visions.

Constraints in actual delivery of this type of learning in the regions centred around attracting people to the opportunities, building momentum and difficulty engaging enough innovators, startups or entrepreneurs. Catering for diverse audiences is necessary when in regional areas and dealing with small numbers, yet makes it hard to find content and market it in ways that appeal to both, say, startup, digital social enterprises and scale-up manufacturing companies

In addition, using learning programs as a revenue stream for the sustainability of incubators themselves is difficult. The challenge with offering innovation style learning in an early (maturity) region can mean small cohorts, and a suspicion around impact and importance, from ventures themselves, and those that financially support the learning programs (Government, partners). Input from Curtin University was interesting, there is a focus on trying to improve the measurement of effectiveness, impact and benefits post-program, considering ‘stackable’ credentials (i.e. short, sharp, bite-size learning, a menu to pick from), and a pathway between different programs for ventures through stages in the ecosystem. Noting that Universities have had to innovate and respond to emerging trends in learning preferences, programs offered are similar in style and duration to traditional incubator offerings such as accelerator programs (Curtin Ignition), which although adds competition to the market, the benefits of working with Universities in the wider ecosystem means someone is looking strategically at outcomes and impact, which isn’t always possible as a resource poor incubator or coworking space.

Perhaps the most insightful point raised was that ventures in the regions are truly isolated, often low populations mean less startups and entrepreneurs, and the opportunity to learn with others is the seed of great community.

So, there are many benefits to learning programs and the outcomes generally outweigh the investment required.

But, this is really a context-specific question, hence the different forms and number of learning programs in each community and region. One way incubators can match programs to needs in their region is to have clear goals, outcomes and indicators and evaluate the impact of learning programs on ventures. They can do this is by collecting data, not just ‘bums on seats’ but qualitative data on impact to individuals, following the trajectory of ventures (finding success, earlier, or failing, quicker with less investment lost), feedback direct from ventures on how it has helped them scale, grow, or succeed, and feedback from the wider ecosystem about how the learning program may have contributed to the community.

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