If you start a business to develop an online, social media-based game or a new kind of sensor for medical probes, it's easy to know where to look for allies. You want to find a venture capital firm, or maybe an angel investor, to give you not just money but also guidance on business structure, go-to-market strategy and everything else that's on your mind.
But what if you're starting a restaurant, or a dry cleaning business? Hopkinton business consultant Jack Speranza doesn't see why it should be all that different. Speranza, founder of a multi-faceted business called Main Street Ventures, is trying to create what he calls “venture capital for Main Street.”
“Just like a venture capital fund, we're going to have a group of investors invest intellectual capital,” he said.
Sperenza's concept, “ZenCubate” provides a team of 10 experienced business owners, each with specialized knowledge of a topic like sales, marketing or human resources. Together, they plan to help a select group of early-stage businesses with growth potential. The idea is that, for new entrepreneurs, being part of the project will be less like getting occasional assistance from SCORE or another small-business support organization and more like being part of an intensive incubator. Speranza and his partners will develop a deep knowledge of the companies they work with so they can help guide their strategies and even think of new ideas to pursue, not just field a bunch of one-time questions.
Speranza said he's also trying to add a financial element to the mix, so that experienced companies can take a stake in the firms they're working with, then be repaid with a percentage of the startups' revenues for several years after they “graduate” from the program.
Speranza said the project is moving a bit more slowly than he'd originally hoped, but the team of experts is coming together and he's beginning to reach out to candidate startup companies.
One of the experts is Patricia Hunt Sinacole of First Beacon Group LLC, a Hopkinton consulting firm. Sinacole said she doesn't expect to get rich from the project, but she likes the idea of helping promising businesses, especially as they continue to weather economic trouble.
“I believe, eventually, there's sort of a ripple effect back to all of us,” she said.
Aside from any direct financial gain from taking part in the venture effort, Sinacole thinks it may help her get referrals for her business.
For Speranza, the venture concept is just one more variation on something he's been focused on for almost two decades: figuring out ways to improve businesses' efficiency. In 1994, Speranza, who's both a lawyer and a software engineer, joined a boutique law firm and quickly discovered that its technological resources weren't set up to help it grow.
“I sort of recognized that from a workflow/business flow standpoint we weren't going to be able to support business coming through the door,” he said. “They said 'OK, smarty-pants, you think you can make things happen? Make them happen.'”
So Speranza took charge of the firm's technology, streamlined the way it handled bills and documents, and helped bring the expertise of the various lawyers together so they could learn from each other's experiences instead of reinvent ways to handle particular sorts of cases.
Years later, after spending time in the technology startup world, Speranza began working as a small-business consultant. He said he likes the idea of helping traditional small businesses, even though quick-growing startups tend to attract more attention.
“They're the cool stories,” he said. “They're the exciting stories — from nothing to something huge. It makes for good entertainment … but the reality is that 80 percent of our economy is driven by much smaller businesses.”
Aside from the new venture capital effort, Main Street Ventures also encompasses “Zen Bungalow,” a co-working space in which around 10 very small businesses can meet with clients or share a little water-cooler talk, and “Zen Legal,” a low-cost way for companies to get consistent legal guidance rather than just go to a lawyer to write up a contract or deal with an emergency. Speranza also holds regular “lunch and learn” events with experts like Sinacole, and he's building an online community on his website where people can ask questions about their businesses and get guidance from some of those same experts.
The different elements all work together, Speranza said, to support the health of the small-business sector.
“It's the fabric of the communities in which we live,” he said. n