If you didn’t already know that coronavirus was a thing, you might not even have noticed that the Atlanta Founders Academy had switched plans.
Not long ago, Google for Startups announced the Atlanta Founders Academy, which would assist 40 startup founders through an 8-month series of programming and workshops intended to help get businesses off the ground.
Not only is the Atlanta Founders Academy the first offering of its kind for U.S. startups (previously it had been offered in Europe), but it was intentionally set up to reflect and support diversity. Founders were selected based on certain criteria, including that they be based in Georgia and represent African-American, LatinX, and veteran communities.
It is also one of the first projects led by Jewel Burks Solomon, who was named head of Google for Startups in the U.S., as Hype first reported in January.
Solomon invited Hype to observe the first day of the Academy. After logging on to a kickoff meeting on Google Hangouts (naturally), the program began in earnest. First there was a welcome from Solomon, sharing excitement with those who had been chosen to join the cohort, then came an explanation of the GfS WFH kits they each received (JBL headphones, Nest Wi-Fi routers, air plants, coffee, tea, a mug and a French press), and plans for what was to be expected during the day.
The Academy will have four workshops, ranging from customer acquisition and sales to fundraising and hiring. Wednesday started with the first workshop: sales strategy. Originally planned as a single-day, in-person event, the format turned into 90-minute digital sessions to be held in three parts, continuing on April 8 and April 15.
There was plenty of optimism to go around. Participants spoke about being grateful — not just to be included but for various things, from personal health to ability to take time and evaluate business, from challenges to opportunities.
In a follow-up call, Solomon admitted that it was an emotional experience.
“The whole day I was holding back tears because I was happy they were getting something out of the experience,” she said, adding that it gave founders the chance to improve their skills, even in the middle of much uncertainty and possible discomfort.
Solomon says being an entrepreneur herself, and having a tech business where software could be delivered, helps her provide guidance on seeing through problems and getting to potential advantages. And when asked how she might feel if she were in the shoes of one of the Academy’s participants, she didn’t dodge.
“What would I do right now if I were still in the position of a founder? I would feel a lot of emotions. I’d be concerned about myself, my family, and my team, then, how my business can see this time through.”
She advises all founders to be cognizant of their teams’ situations, providing resources as needed and taking advantage of available support, such as the CARES Act, which is providing $350 billion to help small businesses. She also says entrepreneurs need to be proactive in applying for these funds quickly, because there are real challenges ahead.
“Use this time to focus on the fundamentals of your business,” she says. “Founders are going to have to make difficult decisions to stay open: cutting back on staff, pivoting business models to be responsive to customer needs, and changing course on how they’ve done business in the past.”
It’s advice that Academy participants like Christian Zimmerman have taken to heart. As the co-founder and CEO of Qoins, which helps borrowers pay off student loans through automated micro-payments, he’s reevaluating the strategies upon which he and co-founder Nate Washington have built their business.
“For me, it is most important to make payroll,” Zimmerman says. “My team comes first.”
He says he’s looking at Qoins’ P&Ls and creating “what if” scenarios that could help the company cut costs where need be, without severing ties they might need later, because of worry or fear. Still, he says he’s asking himself necessary questions.
“Do I really need this? Is it really going to impact the business? How lean can I keep it to cut costs and save money?”
Zimmerman also sees ways that Qoins can serve what he hopes will be a continually growing customer base. He wants to help users create emergency savings funds and help employers who’ve cut business or employees build out plans on what to expect in next quarter.
He also hopes that by this time in 2021, the company will be helping at least 50,000 customers pay down their debts, adding that $11 million in loan repayment has occurred since Qoins launched.
“The more we increase that, the better. Even from yesterday’s session, I learned a lot around sales strategies,” he says.
With so much covered, and a virtual happy hour at which participants proposed toasts and celebrated a successful start, the Atlanta Founders Academy could be a beacon of hope in which a new generation of startup entrepreneurs could make a big statement on what’s possible when you take individuals from traditionally underserved communities and give them the training, mentorship and access they need — even at the onset of a global pandemic and possible recession.
Either way, Solomon counsels that these things take time, and that learning doesn’t stop after an 8-month cohort.
“Pause and think about priorities. Use this time to focus on the fundamentals of your business. Take stock in what changes you should make in the long term, but also spend more time with family, catch up with old friends, and really dial into things that matter.”
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