Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Karen Barnes, CEO of Agile City, located in Winston Salem, NC, USA.
What's your organization, and who are your members?
Agile City is a non-profit innovation consultancy on a mission to increase the success rates of new products and new companies. Between 70% and 90% of new products and companies fail, and we're leveraging our 30+ years of hands-on experience to reduce risk, identify meaningful opportunities, and get new ideas into test markets faster. We specialize in consumer packaged goods and have worked with some of the country's leading brands and companies, including P&G, Kraft Heinz, General Mills, and ConAgra. We support startups through our grant competition, Venture Winston Grants, which provides $50,000 in non-equity investment and a 12-month residency in a Winston-Salem, NC based incubator where they partner with industry leaders and receive full surround services. Our first cohort of 9 companies is working in health tech, food and beverage, and the future of aviation.
Tell us about yourself
I'm a serial starter, having founded multiple innovations and entrepreneurial initiatives, including a boutique strategy and communications consultancy, an applied artificial intelligence startup, a minority and women's business center, an entrepreneurial ecosystem convening organization, and now a startups grants program and an innovation consultancy. I started Agile City in June 2020 after COVID forced our ecosystem convening organization, Venture Cafe Winston Salem, to take a hard pivot. I started by blowing up the traditional non-profit revenue model and creating what I call The Virtuous Circle, which captures the value we create by nurturing new products and startups instead of being dependent on philanthropy. We've built two fee-for-service consulting practices that work with companies and communities to drive innovation and partnered with a venture capital fund to provide deal flow. In exchange, we receive a portion of carried interest when there's an exit event from a portfolio company. In our first year, we tripled our revenues and team.
I love finding white spaces where there are problems and not yet solutions. Building new ideas and bringing them to life as products or companies is the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my career. Working with visionary people who are challenging the status quo, being part of them living out their dreams, and creating economic value is thrilling. It's the perfect combination of creativity, strategy, and dream-building. I honestly can't imagine doing any other kind of work.
What's your biggest accomplishment as a business owner?
While I'm proud of the organizations I've founded and their impact on my community and clients, creating a new business model, and seeing tremendous growth during a global pandemic, I'm most proud of how I led my team and the growth I've seen them experience. That's what will last - helping others build new skills, learn through new experiences, and pass along lessons learned.
What's one of the hardest things that come with being a business owner?
Managing through uncertainty is hands down the hardest thing about being a business owner. Whether it's staff, clients, cash flow, supply chain, new business, and most recently, the impacts of the pandemic, there's always a lot to navigate. Over the years, I've learned how to manage the stress that comes with uncertainty, maintain patience as you do the right things, and remember this is a long game.
What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow a business today?
- This is an unbreakable rule. Make sure you're solving a meaningful problem.
- Work with people that you genuinely like. This makes all the difference when times are tough, and you have to lean on each other to make it through.
- Understand that when you're building everything from the ground up - whether it's a product, team, process, or savings account - it's going to take a lot more time and money than you think, so set realistic goals.
Where can people find you and your business?
If you like what you've read here and have your own story as a solo or small business entrepreneur that you'd like to share, then please answer these interview questions. We'd love to feature your journey on these pages.
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