May 21, 2015

Volunteer group Krosslink adds to MetroWest startup support network

Courtesy of Krosslink
Krosslink hosts monthly meetings at area libraries, offering programming geared toward entrepreneurs just starting out. A meeting at the Shrewsbury Public Library in November is shown here.

There are a lot of exciting things about starting your own business, but the isolation many entrepreneurs feel when they start out can be debilitating, said Venkat Kolluri, the chief executive of Internet advertising firm Chitika in Westborough.

He remembers working alone in his home back in 2003 when he was trying to get Chitika off the ground. After the first few days, he said he started talking to himself because there was no one else to kick around ideas with.

"How well can you be motivated when you're alone?" Kolluri said.

The library a cure for loneliness?

Eventually, Kolluri ventured into local coffee shops as a way to feel connected during the workday. But it wasn't until years later, when he had established the company, that he stumbled upon another type of venue that could potentially help entrepreneurs avoid the loneliness trap: the public library. During a visit with his daughter to the Shrewsbury Public Library, Kolluri said he was kicking himself for not capitalizing on this free public space during his startup days.

That led him to found Krosslink, an organization that hosts networking events for people running startups, or those interested in going into business for themselves. Last summer, Krosslink kicked off at the Shrewsbury Public Library before expanding to the Westborough Public Library. Then last week, Krosslink arrived with its first event at the Sudbury Public Library.

The monthly events usually feature guest speakers who present on topics relevant to entrepreneurs, but Kolluri said it's also an opportunity for people to socialize and share ideas. There are so many components to getting a business off the ground, he said, from registering your business to designing a website, and people are much more likely to be successful if they try to do it as part of a community.

Krosslink events are posted through the group's Meetup pages (there is one for each library). Meetings include keynote speakers, bar-stool pitch sessions and mentoring programs with experts from the U.S. Small Business Administration. With an army of local volunteers, Kolluri said the goal is to expand Krosslink to 10 area libraries in 2015. But by 2025, he said, the goal is for Krosslink to be a fixture at 10,000 libraries across the country.

One local volunteer, Rafaat Zaini, a Ph.D. candidate at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said the program is effective because it harnesses local talent.

"In a town like Westborough, where there are so many people involved in different things … it is not always easy to get them under one roof and discover the local talent around them," Zaini said.

Pre-K for entrepreneurs

While Krosslink offers some of the same benefits of a business incubator, the organization is actually trying to build "greenhouses," which may act as a stepping stone to business incubators, according to Kolluri. He also describes it as "pre-kindergarten for entrepreneurs," which acts as a feeder for business incubators, such as TechSandBox in Hopkinton.

Barbara Finer, founder of TechSandBox, agreed with this assertion. While Krosslink serves startups in all industries and TechSandBox is more focused on the tech sector, she said she's excited that efforts to help early-stage companies are increasing in the MetroWest area. Framingham State University launched a small incubator on campus last year, and she said the Town of Framingham is interested in offering incubation space.

Finer and a colleague have each presented at Krosslink events. Finer said the Krosslink concept is "brilliant," and complementary to TechSandBox services.

"There's a place for all of these things," Finer said. "There's not enough of it out here, past (Route) 128."

More information on Krosslink events can be found on the organization's Meetup page.

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