“Libraries as Launchpads” Helps NM Entrepreneurs

On September 5 the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) awarded a $50,000 grant to the New Mexico State Library (NMSL) for “Libraries Lead: A Creative Economy Initiative.” The funding will advance “Libraries as Launchpads,” a multi-partner program designed to enable small, rural, and tribal libraries across the state to serve as economic development centers and help entrepreneurs bring their business ideas to fruition.

Libraries as Launchpads training event

 

On September 5 the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) awarded a $50,000 grant to the New Mexico State Library (NMSL) for “Libraries Lead: A Creative Economy Initiative.” The funding will  advance “Libraries as Launchpads,” a multi-partner program designed to enable small, rural, and tribal libraries across the state to serve as economic development centers and help entrepreneurs bring their business ideas to fruition. The IMLS money will fund an analysis of what libraries need in terms of entrepreneurial resources, new technology, and the development of an online education portal specifically for libraries.

Libraries as Launchpads is a partnership of NMSL; Creative Startups (CS), a Santa Fe–based business accelerator; Fab Lab Hub, a technology product prototype; and the newly-formed NMSL Foundation, which will help the State Library administer funding. It builds on NMSL’s 2015 Makerstate Initiative, which brought Maker space technologies to local libraries. Together, they are helping take potential entrepreneurs from concept to implementation.

“In New Mexico the creative economy is considered a huge asset,” noted New Mexico State Librarian Eli Guinnee. “We are extremely multicultural, and each of those cultures produces arts and creates. It's a big driver of the economy, and it's a big driver in tourism…. But there's still an identified need to help artists and artisans and craftspeople who maybe have the art skills, the skills of creation, but not the skills of an entrepreneur or a business person.”

MAKING A BUSINESS

The IMLS–funded Makerstate Initiative provided professional development opportunities to New Mexico librarians who wanted to host Maker spaces and workshops, with training provided by the Parachute Factory, a community Maker space in rural Las Vegas, NM. In addition, the initiative provided on-demand Maker kits, helped launch the Rural Bookmobile Pilot Program—a mobile Maker offering serving rural bookmobile stops—and funded Maker Hubs within libraries.

One of the Makerstate Initiative’s goals, Guinnee told LJ, was to “figure out for each library where the maker movement meets the needs of their communities.” Currently the initiative is providing libraries across the state with STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) kits that can work for a range of capacities when it comes to buildings and staff.

Libraries as Launchpads, explained Guinnee, takes those resources a step further to meet the needs of creators who want to turn their endeavors into a small business. "Filling in those gaps, or connecting those dots, is not particularly difficult and it's not particularly complicated,” he said. “With relatively small efforts we can make these huge impacts in our communities.”

CS’s accelerator program was well-established for small business owners who already had a company they wanted to grow or expand into new markets, said Ginny Sterpka, CS program manager for community based programs. But people were often turned down because their businesses weren’t yet ready. So CS developed a pre-accelerator program for earlier-stage applicants.

The organization already had a history of skill-building work in libraries, as well as a relationship with Michael Delello, deputy cabinet secretary at the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, which administers the state’s public libraries. “That's where the conversation started,” Sterpka told LJ. “We felt that this was a match between what the libraries were trying to do and what we were trying to do."

A SUCCESSFUL PILOT

The project launched last April at five pilot locations: Zuni Public Library; the Public Library of Albuquerque/Bernalillo County’s South Valley Branch; Santa Fe Public Library’s Southside branch; the Arthur Johnson Memorial Library, Raton; and the Thomas Branigan Memorial Library, Las Cruces. Potential participants applied online in February, and some 15 startups were accepted. Potential businesses ranged from candy making to dog accessories to ecotourism to a company that would authenticate Native American art using blockchain. Facilitators, drawn from local members of the creative and small business community, went through a two-day training in Santa Fe in March.

The boot camp–style program combined the pre-accelerator workshop developed by Creative Startups with mentorship and a peer-to-peer component. Six online modules streamed via Creative Startups’ LABS portal over a four-week period; each cohort sat down in person with a facilitator twice a week to discuss the course content and homework, and met in groups as well.

The libraries did much of their own marketing for the program, often with surprising results; the Raton library, which serves a population of 5,000, received more applicants then either Albuquerque or Santa Fe. “The educator and the librarian there both were just very excited about it,” recalled Sterpka. “They said, ‘We don't really get resources like this.’ They feel like they're generally locked out of these kinds of initiatives because they're such a small location.”

In addition, Raton educator Geoff Peterson, executive director of the city’s Center for Sustainable Community, said the program model worked well. “This process made a person really think about the fundamentals of their business,” he told LJ, encouraging them to ask, “Do I really have a valid business idea? Is this something that people will pay me for? They used this phrase in class—‘get out of the building.’ Too many times entrepreneurs have this great idea in their head, and maybe they talk to friends and family and everyone says, ‘oh yeah, that's a great idea.’ And this forces them to get out into the street and do some more research.”

CS conducted its own pre- and post-evaluations of each participant’s concept for its own internal assessment, and will follow up with them annually to see if the business is still in operation, whether it has grown or increased its revenue, and whether it has gotten investors. But there was no grading or certificate of completion at the course’s end. “If you're an entrepreneur, you really have to be a self-starter, self-motivated,” Sterpka told LJ. “Someone's not going to tell you ‘OK, you're ready to be an entrepreneur’ or ‘you're not’—that's for you to decide."

People come out of the program having made one of three decisions, said Peterson. “They'll decide, ‘Wow, this is a great idea, I need to move forward’; ‘Oh, this idea wasn't so great’; or ‘I'm not an entrepreneur, this was way too hard.’ And all of those are the right answer.... Even if you decide this entrepreneur stuff is really scary, we're glad you learned that before you just spent your $10,000 savings on your idea.”

Even deciding to move forward on their business “does not mean that they'll be a fully operating startup at that point,” noted Guinnee. “Once they finish the program they'll be ready…. Then we stick with them, and they've got their community educator in their library to help support them as they actually take what they've learned and turn it into a small business.”

GROWING THE PROGRAM

Although staff at the pilot libraries initially said they felt they didn’t have the necessary time and manpower to act as educators, in feedback offered afterward several expressed interest in becoming more closely involved.

The next version of Librarians as Launchpads will include training library staff, as well as creating library resources to support participating entrepreneurs. The program does not incorporate detailed legal, financial, or human resources information; instead, participants are connected with library and small business association resources for those aspects of their startups.

CS will also develop a multi-user version of its LABS portal for library use, rather than the current per-user–based platform.

“This is the capacity building piece of it,” Guinnee told LJ. “We want the libraries to become economic development centers, so that even after the official Libraries as Launchpads program is over, when a local resident walks in the library and says that they want to start a small business, or is looking for entrepreneurial support, [library staff will] be well positioned to help them.”

This will not only include offering access to resources, but developing what Guinnee terms an “entrepreneurial reference interview”—a series of questions to ask when someone who approaches the reference desk asking for help starting up a small business: “Do they need help finding and filing the legal paperwork? Do they need help designing a website? Do they need help finding a storefront? Do they need help with marketing materials, creating a business plan? Do they have basic financial literacy skills, or is that something they need to start with? Are they connected to other local artists in the area? Are they aware of regional art groups? Do they need investors? Do they need access to prototyping or manufacturing equipment? Are they aware of what their [intellectual property] rights are?”

NMSL hopes to have the next round of Libraries as Launchpads completed before summer 2019. A projected 60 participants will take part in the workshops at rural and tribal libraries. In addition to the project’s existing components, IMLS funding will help pay for more library staff and community educator training, improving library resources, the development of a LABS portal with multiple login capabilities specifically for libraries, access to the Fab Lab Hub for support in manufacturing and prototyping, and assessment at the project’s end.

CS has also received a Small Business Association Prime grant for the next round, through which it hopes to reach an additional 40 entrepreneurs through eight more libraries. It has licensed the both the accelerator and pre-accelerator programs across the country and internationally. SNLM hopes to secure funding from other sources to take the program statewide, and eventually national. In the meantime, Guinnee envisions Libraries as Launchpads as self-sustaining, and helping aspiring entrepreneurs of all types. “Even though this is specifically geared towards developing the creative economy, entrepreneurship involves much more,” he told LJ. “So by training the libraries, and providing libraries with ongoing resources, another thing that accomplishes is that they'll be to help other entrepreneurs in their community as well.”

New Mexico is home to a large number of geographically isolated small communities, where residents often don’t have easy access to the Internet or even phone service. Because of this, the state has a robust tradition of including its smallest, most remote libraries in forward-facing initiatives—often through grassroots efforts. Currently Northern New Mexico–based artist Shel Neymark is working to craft legislation that would create a $50 million state endowment to provide approximately $50,000 in annual funding for 40 rural and community libraries.

“The politicians, the legislators, the governor, [all] have a strong appreciation for libraries,” said Guinnee. “What I've found is that when I talk to anyone, whether a senator or just a local community member, they don't need much convincing that libraries are valuable. They already understand that, especially in a rural community that might be quite geographically isolated, the library plays an incredibly important role.”

And program like Libraries as Launchpads help bolster that reputation, noted Peterson. His work as a community educator “really deepened my relationship w the local library…. [That] was a wonderful outcome as well, the promotion of the library and its value to the community.”

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