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November 13th, 2019

Elevate EIR and Executive Director of University Initiatives Jacob Schpok: “You can never underestimate the value of networking…”

Jacob Schpok serves as the Executive Director of University Initiatives and Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Elevate Ventures. His primary responsibilities include helping Indiana-based startups raise investment capital and supporting higher-education institutions with entrepreneurship-based programming. Before joining Elevate, Schpok co-founded two startups in the SaaS and logistics industries and worked in a senior leadership role for a telecommunications startup in Indianapolis. Schpok also has an extensive background in state government, where he served as the State Director of the Indiana Small Business Development Center and the Executive Director of the Indiana Office of Small Business and Entrepreneurship.

In your role as an EIR, what are the key areas you consistently work on with entrepreneurs?

The area that I work with entrepreneurs the most is in helping them understand how to structure their next capital raise. This includes working through how much they should raise based on the current stage of the business, putting together pitch decks, practicing pitching to make sure they hit the important components of the business model, and connecting them to investors.

In business, what have you learned the hard way? When could an EIR have helped you avoid a pitfall or see an opportunity?

An Entrepreneur-in-Residence would have been helpful when I was launching my own businesses. In particular, an EIR would have helped me to understand how important it is to aim at short-term inflection points or business milestones. All startups need to understand the short-term goals they need to accomplish with the use of each funding round. Early startups should be aiming at a target that is easily obtainable within a year or year and a half planning. Activities further away can cause confusion on what needs to be done tactically to accomplish goals.

You come from a strong entrepreneurial background – both in your family and in co-founding two startups. How do your background and experience help you as you work with entrepreneurs?

One of my favorite jokes about startup-life is that entrepreneurs have the luxury to pick the 80 hours a week they work. Launching a startup is a lifestyle. Entrepreneurs need to be ready to commit the hours necessary for it to be successful. The family business I grew up in would be considered a small- or medium-enterprise and not a high-growth venture, but it still required a significant time commitment from my parents. My brother and I also spent a good number of weekends during our childhood working for the family business as well.

“To get early investors excited, entrepreneurs need to prove they’re fully committed to their venture.”

When entrepreneurs come to me seeking advice, I certainly will help them the best I can on tactical problems they’re facing, but I like to spend time discussing their motivations and really make sure they understand the commitment they’ll need to make to be successful for themselves and investors. A number of startups come through our office not understanding the commitment and it comes across during their pitches. To get early investors excited, entrepreneurs need to prove they’re fully committed to their venture.

Which 1-2 resources in your region (or Indiana) do you consistently direct entrepreneurs to take advantage of and why?

Besides Elevate’s pitch guide, I really don’t direct entrepreneurs to one or two resources. There are quite a few fantastic books and blogs explaining entrepreneurship fundamentals, how to raise money, and all the nuances that go into starting and growing a business. These topics have been around so long that many have already surfaced as the highest-ranked books and websites on Amazon and Google. What I often stress to first-time entrepreneurs is the tremendous value of establishing a network of mentors or even formalizing an official advisory board. Book and online reading is great, but nothing comes close to direct mentorship and advice from business and industry experts who can speak to the exact situations a startup might be addressing.

Congratulations on your promotion to Executive Director of Elevate Nexus. What drew you to this initiative and why is it important for Indiana?

Thanks! I’m thrilled to be in a position that allows me to work directly with startups and the leadership within higher-education institutions that supports startups. There’s significant research that points to innovation and entrepreneurship activity gravitating around higher education institutions and their communities. Elevate Nexus is leveraging those existing entrepreneurship networks to surface and invest the startups found there. What’s most exciting to me is that Elevate Nexus will invest in startups much earlier than our traditional investments. We’ll likely be the first money in for a lot of the companies we select. This gives us a chance to shorten the length of time it might take for them to develop their business far enough along to attract larger investments. We’re also making serious investments into higher-education institutions to amplify their current startup support efforts.

Elevate Nexus is designed for higher education institutions of all sizes to be competitive in the process. Why do you think this aspect is important?

Regardless of the size of the institution, the community and the students that they serve look to these colleges and universities as thought leaders and as places for resources. Even the small ones are touching their community in impactful ways, and sometimes they might even be more integrated in with their community than the larger institutions. Their strategy towards supporting the cultivation of big ideas and entrepreneurial ventures matters more than the budget or the number of faculty or staff they have.

You’ve recently visited several higher education institutions across the state to introduce Elevate Nexus. What common needs of support did you notice?

For our purpose of supporting startups, we’re finding there are two different types of higher-education institutions. All the institutions we visited are supporting entrepreneurs in one degree or another. They all have some sort of entrepreneurship program. The difference is that some provide the exact same kind of resources for all entrepreneurs, regardless of their business model. So, if they’re working with a local restaurant or a platform software company, they’re treating them equally and walking them through the same steps to help further grow their business. While it is important for both types of business – small enterprises and innovation-driven enterprises – to know the fundamentals, the two models require different types of resources and mentorship to be successful in their respective markets. We are encouraging higher-education institutions to support innovation-driven business models and to build or leverage programming uniquely created for innovation-driven enterprises. This often circulates around building a scalable business model and raising capital.

What piece of advice would you give to college graduates who want to become entrepreneurs?

You can never underestimate the value of networking and putting yourself out there. It’s also tremendously easy to connect with business leaders. In Indiana and the Midwest, there is this huge affinity towards paying it forward. Just pick up the phone and call, email, or get on LinkedIn and reach out to those people who could provide you with meaningful advice. If you don’t know who those people might be, go to events and network.

The other piece of advice I would offer is to just start building your minimum viable product. Once you have the most minimum, and I mean minimum, viable product, try to sell it to see if people are willing to pull out their wallets. If they do, then it just became significantly easier to find product/market fit and to fundraise. Your business is no longer hypothetical.

What changes do you see coming for entrepreneurship in Indiana in the next five years? What are you most excited about?

Over the next five years, I’m expecting we’ll see a lot more activity across several verticals outside of the marketing-tech section which Indianapolis already has tremendous traction in supporting. I also believe the volume of quality startups will only continue to increase.

Do you believe there is some sort of pattern or formula to becoming a successful entrepreneur?
“Entrepreneurship is obviously hard work and all startups hit roadblocks. Successful entrepreneurs frankly don’t know when to quit.”

It’s been my experience that successful entrepreneurs continue to develop their network and continue to learn. They have this affinity towards meeting new people and understanding how their relationship could be leveraged to create. In addition, entrepreneurship is obviously hard work and all startups hit roadblocks. Successful entrepreneurs frankly don’t know when to quit. They continue to look for opportunities long after other less successful entrepreneurs would throw in the towel.

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