Feeling isolated in your start-up venture? Have questions but have no one to turn to for answers? Sarah Prevette knows the feeling. When she started upinion.com, a pop culture website for teens and tweens back in 2007, Prevette could only get feedback from colleagues, friends, and family. 'While they were entirely supportive, they didn't identify with the same issues,' she says. To get the answers she needed, she picked up the phone and started cold calling people who had started similar ventures. Her success was limited.
'I would hit these entrepreneurs with 10 questions about how'd you do this, how'd you get the visibility and things,' Prevette says. 'And then I'd be sort of shocked and bothered when they wouldn't call me back.' In response, she started an online community of entrepreneurs to help her, and it was that group that led to her new venture, Sprouter, which launched online last November.
Using a Twitter-like format, Sprouter is a place online where entrepreneurs can socialize, share tips, and ask questions in a rapid-fire, short-attention-span fashion. Users leverage the site for a variety of needs, from getting peer feedback on their product ideas to learning the best practices for developing metrics for sales teams, to gleaning insight from other founders on pitching specific investors, and requesting introductions to media, potential corporate partners or investors. 'Users support one another, motivate each other and help with day-to-day questions or concerns,' Prevette says.
Fifteen thousands users had registered on the site as of February, the last time the company disclosed numbers, and two angel investors in Canada have invested in the business. Prevette plans to make money by selling ad space in its e-newsletter, Sprouter Weekly, and by making introductions between investors and start-ups. (The site will always be free for entrepreneurs, Prevette promises.)
Since Sprouter's goal is to the tap the expertise of entrepreneurs, it makes sense that the site solicits ongoing feedback from members via a 'Get Satisfaction' widget on every page. Users can request features, inquire about functionality or simply leave general comments. And Prevette also emails member to get suggestions for the site. 'Their ongoing feedback allows us to evolve our product in direct alignment with their needs and their referrals help us grow our membership.' For instance, the site will soon roll out a new feature where a network of seasoned Sprouter veterans will be available to answer questions from users. The experts will receive questions via text message on their cell phones and can then respond.
Reflecting back on those cold-calling days when mentors weren't just a text message away, Prevette recalls a time she finally got an entrepreneur on the phone with whom she had been dying to connect: 'He told me that the only advice I'd get from someone is if they were invested in my business and that was the only way I was going to get what I needed.' She adds, 'Hopefully he's checking out Sprouter today and realizing that's not the case.'