Written by Carolyn Rodz, Founder and CEO, Alice (www.HelloAlice.com)

Alice is more than just a technology; it’s a movement designed to empower every small business owner — no matter who they are or where they come from — with the resources they need to grow businesses that matter. It just so happens that our team is made up of small business owners ourselves, tackling the same issues that many of our customers deal with: building a team, securing capital to fuel our growth, market outreach, and leveraging partnerships to help us scale faster. We are driven by our mission, to help New Majority small business owners find their own unique path to start and grow their company. It is because of this mission that our company-related decisions center around one simple question: what is in the best interest of New Majority business owners?

During a recent team retreat, we reflected on the progress of our product since our launch date, partially to get new team members up to speed on why we think about things the way we do, and partially to celebrate our progress. (As any entrepreneur knows, you have to celebrate the wins as fuel to survive the failures!) As we reflected back on how, and why, our product evolved, I thought some of those learnings might be helpful for you in your own entrepreneurial journey.

Lesson #1: Keep It Simple

Our feature set has evolved tremendously since our May 2017 launch. It’s hard to believe it’s only been 19 months since the world met Alice, and just over one month before that when Alice adopted her first line of code. There have been a lot of iterations in between, but we actually did a few things right all the way back then.

First homepage of www.HelloAlice.com on May 9, 2017

Notably, you all told us that it’s best to keep things simple. As we expanded the number of resources on Alice, the classification of those resources, the topics we cover (everything from cybersecurity to small business owner health and wellness), and the features we offer, we realized that we actually needed to boil it down to the basics. Now, instead of a conversational interface, you’ll see checklists and Alice voice boxes to help you find what you need, when you need it — but it’s moved back to that simple, easy-to-follow format (albeit with a whole lot more substance than that original, logo-less homepage). Anticipate a whole lot more of Alice’s thoughts in 2019, because, now that she has found her voice, she’s stepping up to make it heard and to help you navigate this ever-changing entrepreneurial world.

Current homepage of www.HelloAlice.com for logged in users as of December 19, 2018

Lesson 2: On the Ground is Where It’s At

Like many startups, we sought out easy-to-implement solutions offering the most value first. We implemented digital resources (lots of articles, templates and tools) that applied to all business owners. As we reviewed what you were clicking on though, it became quickly apparent that you are seeking opportunities and support right in your own backyard. That revelation led to the development of small business city guides, which essentially serve as the Lonely Planet for entrepreneurs. It’s a digital, access-anywhere resource that breaks down the best of what you need in your city, like where to pop in for a meeting with a mentor or who to talk to to secure a small business loan. It even tells you what events are coming up.

Alice Small Business City Guides offer a guide to small business resources in cities worldwide

We recognize that not every entrepreneur has what they need in their own physical community, though, which is why every business owner has access to all of the city guides. This is a feature I personally use quite often, as it allows me to fill in those travel gaps when I’m on the road, meeting other entrepreneurs, and learning about what makes a particular city’s environment unique. Which leads me to my next learning…

Learning 3: Disaster Happens

Since launching, our team has been hit with a series of natural disasters, from Hurricane Harvey in Houston (where I and a handful of our team are based), to the California wildfires (affecting our teams in Sonoma and San Francisco), to a Bomb Cyclone in Washington, DC, which forced us to shut down Day 2 of our last Circular Summit. All things considered, we are among the lucky ones, though, because many of the small businesses supported by Alice have been severely impacted.

Alice Small Business City Guides, such as this one in Santa Rosa, highlight local resources available to entrepreneurs. For areas impacted by local disaster, guides highlight go-to resources that can help business owners weather the storm.

It was our own first-hand experiences, and the stories of so many business owners we spoke to in our local environments, that inspired Alice’s disaster recovery toolkits, built right into our city guides. This also opened the door to us thinking about all of the unplanned aspects of running a business, like an employee terminating, parental or medical leave, shifts in the work/life juggle, and more, so expect to see lots of help from Alice in the future on how to deal when disaster strikes.

Learning 4: Test on the Desired Audience, not the Current Audience

From our start, the entire Alice team made a commitment to execute 100% of our user testing on New Majority business owners: women, people of color, veterans and veteran families, immigrants, LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, rural populations, and others who aren’t sufficiently served by the existing entrepreneur infrastructure. We didn’t want to build another technology open to all, but tailored to few, so we flipped the paradigm and decided that we would forever ensure that our features, tools and technologies were of benefit to the New Majority. I’m proud to say that this decision has resulted in over 93% of our registered users identifying as part of the New Majority. This disruption to the status quo becomes even more evident when you consider that most technology platforms geared toward the small business and startup communities are 70% or higher (often upwards of 90%) white and male. Buh-bye, pipeline myth.

Learning 5: Everyone is an Expert

Finding a mentor seems to be a mandatory step for business owners these days, but entrepreneurs registered on Alice indicate differently. More than an “expert” who achieved a goal years ago, owners want to talk to someone like them, in a similar situation, who achieved a desired goal just months earlier. Through these connections, the most tactical advice is being offered. It is that “peer + one level up” connection that Alice is focused on creating, because that’s where the real magic happens.

Alice User Profile: Entrepreneurs can choose to accept introductions via the “Alice, Introduce Me!” button, and also share expertise, making them easily found at relevant points along the small business journey.

Learning 6: We Are a Gateway to Humans, Not a Substitute for Them

Alice never set out to be a social network (nor do we consider ourselves one…Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter all do a great job at that). But we did learn that true success happens when we lead entrepreneurs to relationships that matter. Sometimes that happens through introducing them to a workshop, event or program where they meet someone who can open doors. Other times, it’s directly on HelloAlice.com. However it happens, we saw what a huge difference a sense of community makes to small business owners, which is why we initiated the evolution from a pure, but smart, resource directory, to the entrepreneur’s ultimate super-connector. It’s also why we launched the Communities feature on Alice — an opportunity for people to connect based on organizations, cities, affinity or other commonality. These are still in beta, but you’ll see tons of new changes coming around the corner.

Communities on Alice

When we built small business communities, we didn’t want to just create a networking opportunity; a goal was certainly to keep business owners in the loop on everything happening across their networks in one single place, but also to learn more about what catapults entrepreneurs forward. Are certain organizations outperforming others? If so, why? Are business owners who join three or more communities more likely to succeed? We are constantly looking to learn — and share — what works in this complex and ever-changing world of entrepreneurship.

We also learned that the burdens of organizational leaders — both at the community and government levels — are a massive barrier to serving entrepreneurs. As a result, we decided to lift a lot of those burdens. Alice automates email exchanges, recommends content to share, and more, for the community administrators she supports. Communities on Alice are open to all, so just contact us at Alice@HelloAlice.com to start one of your own.

So, there you have it…

As you can tell, Team Alice has been busy, and it’s all because of you. Nineteen months later, this movement is becoming unstoppable. Together, we are well on our way to broadening the support for small business owners and to showing the world that entrepreneurship comes in all shapes, colors and sizes. The New Majority has a seat at the table, and that’s good for everyone.

There is so much more for us to uncover, so if you have ideas on how Alice can better support New Majority entrepreneurs, we always are here to listen. Send them my way!