RUNNING A 100-YEAR-OLD STARTUP:
HOW WE ARE LEARNING TO THINK LIKE ENTREPRENEURS
Article by Brittany Quick-Warner, CEO of Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce
The Eugene Chamber was founded in 1912 by a few business men who wanted to have an impact on the community. Given how much I witness my staff accomplish in a week, it’s remarkable to think about how much work our organization has gotten done over the last 100 years. But like many chambers and associations across the country, the existential threats to organizations like ours are mounting. I knew from day one in this role, if we want to see our organization succeed for 100 more years, there is no time for resting on our laurels and expecting the community to support us for accomplishments of the past. We can no longer act like a 100-year-old organization. We need to think and act more like entrepreneurs.
As I was imagining how to run the chamber like a 100-year-old startup, I knew there were a handful of lessons, both good and bad, I could take from the early years of starting a business with my husband and from witnessing successful businesses start and grow in Eugene.
OWNERSHIP OVER RESPONSIBILITY
One of the first and most important culture changes I knew I wanted to make to align us more with an entrepreneurial culture was to ensure that everyone on the staff was truly invested in the success of our organization, not just our Board of Directors or myself as the CEO. This meant shifting from a “responsibility” mindset to an “ownership” mindset among staff. Owners know that there will always be obstacles, but they work to find a way even when it’s hard.
By including the entire staff in visioning and identifying goals, and then over-communicating when we hit roadblocks or need to pivot on an idea, the staff feel more bought-in and connected to the mission of the organization despite what their individual role might be. We know we are all in this together and we create space for staff to incubate new ideas, tackle problems head on and to come up with creative solutions. Everyone can and should contribute ideas to improve how we do things.
CREATE VALUE AND CHASE GROWTH
As staff begin to think more like owners and have more freedom to be creative it is important to stay focused on creating value. As a creative and nimble organization, we are set up to better respond to member’s needs. We have to remember that it is not just about doing the work, it is about raising the value to a higher level with each project, program and customer interaction.
When tasked with “creating more value” as a small nonprofit, we often rule out ideas quickly because we just don’t have the staff or resources to make it happen. But when I had a nugget of wisdom passed along to me from another chamber CEO—that being a nonprofit is a tax status, not a business plan—I started thinking about the growth of our organization in a whole new way. Chasing growth and setting ambitious revenue or operational goals as a nonprofit is not a bad thing.
RECRUIT RESILIENT EMPLOYEES
When you know some of your goals can’t be achieved without significant changes, it is critical that you hire resilient employees capable of embracing change. There will be ups and downs as you pursue growth and innovation and employees may feel tension and anxiety through the process. Like entrepreneurs, they must be able to get back up when they are knocked down.
As with most startups and entrepreneurial ventures, we haven’t nailed all of these principles. But over the past two years our staff has become significantly more nimble, resilient and tight knit. Whether your business has been operating for a century or a handful of months, we can all overcome the challenge of proving our relevance and value to our customers and community by thinking a little bit more like entrepreneurs.
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