Developing research insights to implement effective data-driven programs that support entrepreneurs and small businesses

EntryPoint is a 501(c)3 nonprofit research institution that delivers comprehensive research insights and implements effective data-driven programs to promote entrepreneurship across the Midwest. At a time when small businesses and startups are facing major challenges due to COVID-19, it is especially important to craft programs based on solid research. We regularly provide guidance on developing reliable annual research pieces, but we want to expand our offerings in response to the current global crisis.

Let’s take a look at a few reasons why Michiganders should be concerned about the health of small businesses and startups right now:

  • Michigan is the tenth largest state in the US both in terms of land mass and population.
  • In Michigan, 89% of the organizations employ fewer than 25 people.
  • The average number of employees at an organization in Michigan is 21.

While we are focusing on Michigan as an example, states across the Midwest are facing these same circumstances.

For foundations and other community-focused organizations, data means more than just numbers and graphs – it provides us with an understanding of our community so that we can easily determine what more we can do to change lives and strengthen communities. Using a measured approach to understanding our communities is key to developing effective programs that make a larger impact.

Watch this video and read below to learn more about how to use data and develop research insights to best support small businesses and startups:

What Data To Collect

Define what you are trying to achieve and how you will do it

You don’t know what you don’t know – but you should understand your organization’s strategic plan and how this research will support that plan.  This is the basis for determining what key questions you need to ask.  For example, if your organization is striving to support the entrepreneurial ecosystem and you have strategically decided that you want to do that by increasing access to capital, a few key questions would be how much capital do entrepreneurs need in your area of focus? how much do they currently have access to?  Make a list of key questions you need answered by this research.

What is the point of all of this?

When relying on your strategic plan, understanding your goals, and reviewing your list of key questions – what is the point of doing this research?  Articulate whether you are trying to design a program, develop a baseline to help measure impact, or determine a best strategy for doing something.  This will help you design questions, figure out a strategy for collecting that data, and will effect how you make meaning of the data you collect.

How to Collect Data

Identify your specific audience. You need to collect data from an accurate, consistent and complete audience.

Data tends to be less reliable if you survey an inconsistent set of organizations and people.   If you have multiple viewpoints, then you have multiple interpretations of the questions and multiple types of responses.  Also, figure out exactly who is in your audience.  For example, if you are analyzing the entrepreneurial community, decide whether to survey investors, founders, or CEOs.  Put together a list of 100% of that audience.  Then, tailor your questions to the specific audience and survey everyone.

Make sure your audience understands the scope of the report and the projected outcome.

Making sure everyone understands the objectives of a report is critical to receive a high response rate. If the people providing the data don’t value what you’re trying to create or how the end report will be utilized, then you’ll have low response rates and people will provide less accurate data.

You must get a high response rate.

I’m talking 85%+ response rate.  On average, internal surveys receive a 30-40% response rate, compared to an average 10-15% response rate for external surveys.  Surveys are a great way to collect data from a particular audience of people.  However, if you have only a 40% response rate, that data is NOT accurate.  A low response rate is the failing of MANY “data” pieces out there – a survey is thrown out there, followed up on a few times, and then whatever comes back is given a quick polish and is published.  If you want to publish a fluffy piece, you can write whatever you want and don’t need to waste people’s time by surveying.  If you are publishing an actual research piece that has legs and longevity to base your many strategic plans around – a 40% response rate won’t cut it.

Collect complete data by ANY. MEANS. NECESSARY.

Fill in the gaps – Are you missing some data?  Get it by any means necessary.  Library, call a company, city records, tax filings, etc.

Source the best in the industry.

Use outside data sources that are well-recognized and trusted.  Outside data is great for benchmarking and providing additional context.  However, if it’s not widely recognized and trusted, it weakens and dilutes your information versus bolstering it.

Making Meaning

Use both sides of your brain.

Once you have compiled a database of complete, accurate, consistent data – this is when the data artistry comes in.  Aggregate, sort, filter, and compare data in as many ways as you can.  You want to select the pieces of information that paint the most comprehensive, informative and understandable picture possible.  The team working on the piece also needs to understand the subject quantitatively and qualitatively.

Avoid cherry picking but don’t publish everything under the sun.

  • Cherry Picking: You can have complete, accurate data but paint an inaccurate picture.  Selectively showing only the best data erodes the accuracy and validity of your final product; it might make a great soundbite but will have very little value beyond that.  If there are negative trends, that’s useful too!
  • Kitchen Sink: A great report says just enough.  You can always publish a subsequent mini-report, blog post or byline that focuses on one area of the report and provides some additional findings.  It’s easy to throw everything into a report, but people won’t even open it.

Communicating Results

Great writing is the backbone of communicating your data to a broad audience.

Hire a great writer.  Once you’ve painted an amazing picture with the data, carefully craft the words to explain it to a broad audience.  We find it useful to have broad messaging on each page that’s highly understandable for the general public alongside tidbits on each page that are more technical for your core audience (aka your hardcore audience).  However, the storytelling aspect is critical in creating context, interest, and understanding.

Visual appeal is the heart of communicating your data to a broad audience.

Hire a great graphic designer.  If you want to reach audiences on digital and traditional media channels, graphic design is important.  Visual appeal is critical to creating a piece people want to read.  The design of the graphics and layout of the page enables readers to digest the data more easily.  At the most basic level, people simply enjoy pushing out pieces that look amazing – whether that’s digitally or in print format.  People will share it if it looks great.

A Quick PSA:

  • Don’t do a report that has already been done. If you’re covering the same ground that has already been covered, then nothing new is being learned, and you can (and should) skip it.
  • Don’t publish a report if you’re not going to do a great job. There’s nothing worse than researching something that has been poorly researched 100 times before.  Everyone has survey fatigue, and there’s a ton of conflicting information out there.  It’s just noise.

Crafting Programs

Watch this video and read below to learn more about how to implement data-driven programs to best support small businesses and startups:

Identify the gaps in your community.

In your research, what are weak spots that emerge?  These ought not be issues you ignore or hide; rather, they are the issues that form the foundation of what you plan to strengthen.  Some weak spots may point to areas where growth isn’t necessary; for example, while you might be weak in a certain sector of business, it may be due largely because that sector isn’t a core competency or need in your community.  However, highlighting other weak spots that are in areas for which you community has need can point to opportunities for improvement.

Talk to your audience.

THIS STEP IS ABSOLUTELY CRITICAL TO YOUR SUCCESS.  This is this the time for presenting the data to focus groups and individuals.  Talk to the community you serve.  Make sure you are speaking to the specific community – not everyone under the sun or self-proclaimed experts about the community – the actual people that make up the specific population you serve.  I like to seek out community leaders as well as larger subgroups.  Explain your strategic plan and goal, present the data to them, and ask them for their ideas on how gaps and challenges could be addressed, how successes could be celebrated, and how your organization could be better serving their community.

Think large AND small.

Try to use a holistic approach to addressing challenges and celebrating successes through programs.  A program could be simple, like a series of webinars or supporting monthly meetups.  It could also be large, including supporting infrastructure, the basics of business, and large-scale continued education programs.  Or it can be focused on advocacy or spotlighting successes.  Programming should be comprehensive to address gaps from every angle.

Learn more about what we do, who we are and contact us for more information.


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