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Amy Cell joined Ann Arbor SPARK in 2006 and is currently Vice President, Talent Enhancement & Entrepreneurial Education, where she assists organizations with their talent needs, provides oversight for a variety of entrepreneurial education programs and manages the SPARK East incubator. Helping support economic and workforce growth in the region is her dream job, since she was born and raised in Michigan and earned a BBA and MBA from U-Michigan. In addition to working as a CPA for Plante & Moran, and launching an Office of Student Life for the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, she has spent 10 years in a variety of human resources roles at Ford Motor Company, the Stanford Research Institute, Applied Biosystems and co-founded the consulting partnership HR Drivers. Current and past board memberships include the Center for Entrepreneurship at the U-M College of Engineering, Women’s Council for Washtenaw Community College, Huron Musical Association, Women’s Exchange of Washtenaw, Ross School of Business SE Michigan Alumni Club, Kingcare, King PTO and the Junior League of Ann Arbor.
In an economy where many civil engineering firms are downsizing and laying people off, many civil engineers have no other option but to go into business for themselves…and many have been extremely successful as a result. Also, after many years of success working for a civil engineering firm many civil engineers voluntarily branch out to form their own corporations. So whether your goal is to be a one man band or to grow your business into an international civil engineering powerhouse, we felt this interview would be worth your while:
BTH: Amy, what does your position involve?
AC: I connect talent and opportunity for entrepreneurs in the Greater Ann Arbor area and throughout Michigan. Ann Arbor SPARK works with innovative businesses and start-ups to launch and grow. I provide the talent components as each venture identifies gaps or needs.
BTH: Just what exactly is “talent?”
AC: Talent is a very unique component to any entrepreneurial endeavor. We rarely recognize how important talent is at each phase of business development. For start-ups, I align entrepreneurs with consultants with expertise in various fields such as accounting, marketing, financial / business planning, lean / Six Sigma, sales, prototyping, etc. so that entrepreneurs can move forward from idea to implementation.
SPARK has a suite of everything an entrepreneur needs. We have physical space so that the inventors / entrepreneurs can come to a place to work that is separate from their existing workplace or home environment, for example. We provide educational space as well and have weekly seminars on how to start your own business, as well as other topics such as marketing roundtables, biotech roundtables, etc.
SPARK also is a business accelerator and is a funding resource for entrepreneurs. We have competitions for innovation and conduct a Business Boot Camp twice a year for entrepreneurs who are selected to participate. Really, when you think about it, we offer a complete toolkit for the entrepreneur and a venue in which to network and connect with the business community.
BTH: Many communities have some form of business incubator / accelerator. How does Ann Arbor SPARK compare / contrast, not only locally but with models used in other states?
AC: Every community does economic development in a different way. We focus on the three major areas (business attraction, business retention and entrepreneurship) rather than in one or two areas. One of my responsibilities involves working with startups, local companies, and companies from out of state who want to relocate or open a division elsewhere in the US. I promote the advantages of what Michigan brings to the table. We approach business development with a broad brush stroke.
BTH: What are the greatest obstacles to entrepreneurship facing engineers, IT professionals and other technical individuals?
AC: I work with about 500 entrepreneurial companies each year who are looking for talent to assist them in moving to the next level. Oftentimes, I am working with the technical founder who is looking for talented consultants and mentors with business skills. You can have a brilliant technical team that has a patent or patents. I put them together with an equally talented business team.
One person can’t grow a company themselves. If someone is the technical founder, they usually have difficulties communicating and selling their idea, product or service to investors. The Executive Team should be able to sell. If the Founder / Inventor / CEO can’t sell, that’s an issue. Often the inventor doesn’t have solid business acumen. If there is no business development side then they will have trouble developing sales. That’s why what happens at SPARK is so important in moving the technology out from the drawing board into the daylight.
Sometimes I do see serial entrepreneurs who are inventors. They have the complete toolkit. But that’s rare.
BTH: What are the major reasons start-up companies thrive or get stuck and fail?
AC: Investors won’t take a chance on an unproven idea. Investors will invest in a “B” idea with an “A” team vs. and “A” idea with a “B” team. If you want to get funding you need to do what will attract investors. If the inventor/CEO is unwilling to relinquish the reins or work with a team, things can derail.
Successful start-ups have an understanding of the market and their customers. They clearly understand pain points and develop a solution. They develop a painkiller instead of a vitamin. Some people think they are going to get a lot of money for an idea or have a great idea but have no customers. They haven’t done their homework. However, they feel people will intuitively understand their idea, embrace it, fund it and move it into the marketplace for them. That’s not how entrepreneurship works. Lots of inventors don’t get out to the customer. If you don’t know who your customer is, investors will perceive risk in your idea and potential failure.
BTH: If you had one piece of advice for any engineering, IT or other technical professional thinking of leaving their current place of employment and starting their own business, what would it be?
AC: Creating a compelling a business case for a product or service – growing your own business – requires persuasion and communication skills. I’ve seen many PhD’s who call themselves “former” introverts who have learned how to get out in a crowd and sell things. This can be learned if you really want to.
SPARK Boot Camp gives entrepreneurs the environment in which to practice how they communicate their business to others. Our mentors and consultants provide feedback on how to give a presentation as well as a pitch.
There are organizations such as Toastmasters International and various business organizations these entrepreneurs can join which will give them additional experience getting up in front of others and talking about who they are and what their company is all about. Consider this process improvement to changing one’s aversion to business communication. Practice. That’s really what’s at hand here.
BTH: Do technical professionals make good business people?
AC: Technical people really are business people. They understand the technical aspect of their product or service. Being an entrepreneur, or head of your own company, requires leadership skills. Leadership, requires a different set of skills and attributes from being an engineer or a sales person in someone else’s company.
Some of the best leaders I know are technical people. They have greater credibility with investors and the marketplace because they understand the technical side of their business. They understand their product. They know how to work in teams and how to select the teams. And their teams respect them.
BTH: What should entrepreneurs be doing to gain experience with the business community?
AC: There are a lot of resources out there within which to develop a network of support for your ideas. In Ann Arbor, we have the New Enterprise Forum which meets monthly. Entrepreneurs give business pitches to potential investors. There is an entrepreneurial panel which presents on a specific topic. There is networking and a warm, inviting community.
BTH: Thank you Amy for your insights. In wrapping up, I mentor at Ann Arbor SPARK judging business competitions and meeting with entrepreneurs on a volunteer basis each month. It’s a privilege working with Amy and the talented folks within this organization.
I find that many times, entrepreneurs have great ideas but don’t understand what’s involved in business development. They don’t understand what it takes to get customers. The toolkit Ann Arbor SPARK provides is invaluable in connecting these dots. As an entrepreneur, you need to talk to potential customers early in the idea or product development process to make sure you have a viable concept. And not just your family or friends or one or two customers. Sometimes entrepreneurs get shot down by this type of interaction and become discouraged . You need to reach out into the entrepreneurial community for support. You need to go out into your marketplace and get feedback. It’s those experiences which grow your passion and leadership for your innovation.