Whether it's finding your customers or finding how best to articulate your voice as a new business, Venture School offers down-to-earth entrepreneurial training necessary to succeed.
The innovative, six-week startup accelerator focuses on real-world experimentation, customer discovery, and Lean LaunchPad methodologies. Venture School is available in the Quad Cities through a partnership between the University of Iowa John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center, Eastern Iowa Community Colleges, and the Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce.
“It's a constructive program to help somebody validate their business idea,” said Julie Forsythe, vice president of business services and entrepreneurship for the Quad Cities Chamber. “It lets them know there's actually enough customers there to support the business. Most businesses don't make it because they simply don't have enough customers.”
Venture School is available in separate cohorts throughout Iowa. Participants can work on their businesses independently or as part of a team.
So far, 39 teams have completed Venture School since it started in the Quad Cities in 2015, Forsythe said. Of those teams, 25 were new business ideas and 14 were existing businesses that used Venture School to go to market with new products or services or used it to refine and re-tool their current business models.
Local businesses Grateful Graze, BluJaket and Argrow's House of Healing and Hope all went through Venture School this spring. They will represent the Quad Cities at this week's EntreFEST pitch competition.
Can you trust grocery store labels anymore? Apparently, many don't, according to the founders of Grateful Graze, a family livestock farm in Cambridge, Illinois, after completing Venture School.
“We found through Venture School what customers' issues were, and one was being able to trust the label,” said Alyssa Bradley of Grateful Graze. “They go to the grocery store. They're overwhelmed, confused. They straight up don't trust the labels on the food.”
That wasn't the only take away from Venture School. They were trying to appeal to older generations as their target customers until Venture School showed them that actually millennials care greatly about where their food comes from.
“When we first started we had this idea to market to women in their 50s or older who maybe had a health scare and needed to change the way they're eating,” Bradley said. “After doing interviews for our project through Venture School, we realized millennials were more of our target. Venture School helped steer us the right way.”
On their 200-acre farm, Monte and Robyn Bottens raise cattle outside in fields and move them from pasture to pasture regularly to encourage the cows to eat a diversity of grasses that, Bradley says, improves the flavor and texture of the meat. The animals never eat grain and never get hormones, according to the company's website, Gratefulgraze.com.
The beef is sold directly to the customers via the company's website as well as at the Freight House Farmers Market in Davenport. Bradley said the company is adding farm tours so customers can have the opportunity to come and see the process for themselves.
For anyone sitting in a restaurant stuck paying more just because they weren't aware there were online deals, Michael Lawrence says he has the app for that.
BluJaket is a geo-targeted mobile coupon service connecting consumers with businesses in real time. Lawrence started the app in 2018 with a handlful of businesses in Davenport and has spread the service throughout the Quad Cities and to Dubuque, Iowa City and Des Moines.
Lawrence was in the customer's shoes when the idea came to him. He was in a restaurant on a date one day when he discovered, after the fact, there was an online coupon for an item he had just paid for. He vowed then to do whatever it took to not let that happen to another customer.
But even the greatest ideas don't automatically attract customers. Lawrence said he participated in Venture School to better explain the value of his service to prospective users.
“I knew how to help them,” Lawrence said. “But Venture School really helped me communicate my value to my customer.”
After finishing Venture School Lawrence set about to change the verbiage he uses in sales and marketing of the app.
“I was realizing we were selling only some customers by telling them about this cool new technology we have, but I'd sell a lot more if I could only understand their needs and communicate how we meet them.”
He said he wishes he would have done Venture School sooner and recommends it to anyone starting or refining a business.
“There's definitely value in this class,” he said.
Creating a safe environment for survivors of domestic abuse and giving them job skills necessary to thrive are keys to Argrow's House of Healing and Hope.
Services include domestic violence support, spiritual direction, art therapy and message therapy. It is also a bath and body business where women healing from violence and abuse create bath products that provides them a living wage. One hundred percent of the profits from selling the products goes back to supporting the women.
Founder Dr. Kit Evans-Ford felt called to give Quad City area domestic abuse survivors a combination of job training, mentorship and healing. She started Argrow's House in 2018.
“It's a means of income for them,” Dr. Evans-Ford said. “It's also a safe space where they become empowered, using their hands to create something beautiful.”
She said participating in Venture School helped her better understand her business plan and who her potential customers are.
“What customers want, need and desire – I needed to balance that with our mission to help survivors,” Dr. Evans-Ford said. “I met such awesome people that are small business owners as well through Venture School.”
Products are available at 11 retail locations throughout the Quad Cities. A list of locations is available at argrowshouse.org. Customers can also buy directly off the website.
“You're helping women literally get back on their feet and you're buying a great skin care product,” Dr. Evans-Ford said. “Our mission is good, and all the profits go back to the ladies.”