Driving towards action

This blog is the third in a series produced for a Harvard Kennedy School field class on innovation in government. Our team is working with the MassIT Digital Services team and the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. You can read about our project here and about our experience with learning about entrepreneurs in Massachusetts here.

Meeting Entrepreneurs

Over the past few weeks, the Commonwealth Team has been on the road meeting entrepreneurs of all types. As we discussed in our last blog post, our goal was to meet entrepreneurs and learn about the problems they face and the resources they need to start and operate their businesses. We wanted to meet with entrepreneurs like Carlos, the brewer we met in our first blog post. We were specifically looking for entrepreneurs that had recently opened their first business and whose business had a physical location that customers frequented, such as restaurants, stores, shops, etc. Our search yielded great results.

We met an inspiring group of entrepreneurs: a flower shop owner in Lexington, an aspiring energy efficiency advisor in Medford, someone looking to start the “Soulcycle for rowing” and, of course, a brewery in Cambridge. In just over a week’s time we met with six businesses, multiple leaders of small business organizations and even the former Administrator of the Small Business Administration (SBA) under President Obama.

After those conversations, we had hours of audio recordings and numerous spreadsheets filled with notes from our interview guides. We collected a lot of data that we are excited to turn into actionable insights.

What We Have Learned  

To help turn this large volume of data into useful trends, we turned to a tool that Mary Ann Brody from the US Digital Service  taught our team — the KJ Method. If you follow the link you can learn the specific details of what this involved, but the general principle is quite simple. Our team put all of the interesting findings from our interviews onto individual post it notes, grouped these into key themes and then voted on what we felt the highest impact insights were. We had our key themes.

 The Commonwealth Team synthesizing our insights in our ‘office’, with some of our KJ results pictured behind Julia

The Commonwealth Team synthesizing our insights in our ‘office’, with some of our KJ results pictured behind Julia

We grouped our insights into the following takeaways:

  1. Entrepreneurs invest significant time, energy and resources in learning: Entrepreneurs are highly motivated to be successful and will invest significant energy researching administrative tasks they are unfamiliar with.

  2. There is no single touchpoint that entrepreneurs get information from: There are many resources available to entrepreneurs, but entrepreneurs struggle to identify them and keep track of the ones that are helpful.

  3. Entrepreneurs rely on their networks for...everything: Entrepreneurs build formal and informal networks to help them gain access to advice, capital, customers, and relationships. Those who have strong networks have a competitive advantage over those that do not.

  4. The government isn’t an entrepreneur’s first call for help: When asked where they turn for help, the government isn’t a popular first response. Additionally, early stage businesses are likely to turn to government resources for advice as they  launch their businesses, but as they mature, the relationship becomes more transactional.

  5. Users fear penalties for breaking rules they don’t know about: Many entrepreneurs we spoke to don’t have a full understanding of the permits, licenses they need and regulations they have to adhere to. They constantly fear the ramifications of not being compliant.

Some of these insights were new to us while others confirmed existing suspicions. In addition to providing new information and confirming some old information, this process taught us something else: we might have a biased representation of businesses.

Additional User Research

As we discussed the issues faced by the entrepreneurs we met, we were surprised to see that many needed help at the same stage of the process, accessing capital. We had expected  there to be a range of bottlenecks. It was then that we realized there might be some selection bias in our sample because of the way we had found the entrepreneurs we interviewed. We found many of our interviewees through the University of Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network (MSBDC), which we learned is a resource that largely helps connect entrepreneurs to financing. Because some of the entrepreneurs we spoke to have come to MSBDC for help with building a business model and financing, we think our sample might be skewed toward businesses with that specific issue.

The only way for us to confirm this view is to meet more entrepreneurs, this time from different sources. We have arranged for meetings with businesses in the East Boston Merchant’s Association, a group made up of predominantly Hispanic and immigrant entrepreneurs, as well as some others. With a few more interviews, we will be able to refine (or confirm) our insights and move on to developing a solution.

In many ways it feels like we already know a lot about what could help entrepreneurs like Carlos, but we also know that we have a ways to go to figure out what could have the greatest impact.


-Artyom, Brian, Julia, Kate & Nisha