In the world of entrepreneurship, there are stories of grand successes and bitter failures, tales of innovation, and visions of unicorn startups. But amid this ever-evolving landscape, there lies a hidden gem that believes in something different—a movement that seeks to empower not just the tech giants but every individual with a dream, a vision, and a passion. This is the story of Jose Alfaro, the CEO of CO.STARTERS, an organization that's changing the game for aspiring entrepreneurs and reshaping the very essence of entrepreneurship.
The Journey Begins
Jose's journey into entrepreneurship was not a straight line to success. He started with a catering business that he nurtured and eventually sold, tasting the sweetness of triumph. But then, he ventured into a staffing agency, which didn't pan out as expected. However, it was in those moments of setback that Jose discovered the importance of failure and how it's not just okay, but necessary for growth. Failure, he believes, is a crucial component of leadership. “It's the stumbling blocks that pave the way for success,” Jose shares.
Through the trials and failures, as he challenged the norms and traditional approaches to successful entrepreneurship, Jose also defied societal expectations within his Latino family. In a world where success was often measured by prestigious careers like doctor, lawyer, or architect, Jose charted his unique path and in doing so, he recognized a troubling pattern: the belief that starting a business requires substantial capital, often restricting opportunities for those from less affluent backgrounds. Now, through CO.STARTERS, Jose is breaking down these barriers and debunking the myth that financial privilege is a prerequisite for entrepreneurship.
CO.STARTERS: The Starting Point
With a vision to change the course of entrepreneurship, a group of local leaders that included Jose and other like-minded individuals set out on a mission. In 2008, CO.STARTERS was born as a private-public initiative in Chattanooga, Tennessee, backed by a few private donors. This organization was not your typical startup accelerator. It was, and still is, the starting point for entrepreneurial communities across the United States.
The early success of CO.STARTERS in Chattanooga caught the attention of other cities like Detroit and Memphis. They were eager to replicate the success and bring the CO.STARTERS model to their communities. In 2014, the movement expanded nationally, now serving over 100 cities across the U.S. But Jose humbly asserts that CO.STARTERS was founded by many civic, business, and community leaders in Chattanooga. He's just the steward sharing their vision with the rest of the world.
A Different Way to Do Things
CO.STARTERS doesn't just advocate for entrepreneurship; it champions all types of entrepreneurs. For the last three years, the organization has been particularly focused on "Main Street" businesses—those that are the backbone of communities. Jose and his team firmly believe that there are countless innovative ideas in these Main Street businesses, waiting to be discovered and nurtured.
The traditional model of attracting and retaining corporations through tax incentives doesn't always create a high-quality workforce or a thriving community. Small businesses are often overlooked, yet they account for more than 65% of job creation. CO.STARTERS' mission is to change the odds so that at least 50% of businesses survive beyond their first five years.
Breaking Down Barriers
One of the main barriers to entrepreneurship, according to Jose, is the emphasis on high tech and high growth. Not everyone has access to the funding required to start a tech unicorn. Moreover, not all cities have the resources or culture to attract such ventures. The essence of a city lies in its people, culture, food, arts, and creativity. Without investing in these aspects, tech businesses won't thrive, and communities won't prosper. CO.STARTERS is on a mission to level the playing field. They simplify the language around entrepreneurship and make resources accessible to everyone. Whether it's mentorship, capital, or guidance on the next steps, CO.STARTERS ensures that every aspiring entrepreneur has the support they need to succeed.
A Network of Success
CO.STARTERS brings together the diverse stakeholders of a city—civic leaders, community leaders, business leaders, and entrepreneurs—to not only address their specific challenges, but also tackle broader issues within the community. It's a network of success, where the growth of one entity benefits all. Their programs, resources, and initiatives are designed to empower everyone, making it possible for businesses to not just survive, but thrive. After going through the CO.STARTERS program, a remarkable 95% of entrepreneurs are still working on their ventures after one year, 70% have generated a profit, and 150% have increased their gross sales year over year.
For aspiring entrepreneurs, CO.STARTERS is the first step to achieving their goals because as Jose states, “Entrepreneurship is not a privilege reserved for the few, but a journey open to all.” By fostering innovation and nurturing the culture of cities, CO.STARTERS gives everyone the opportunity to succeed. The primary message of this novel organization? Don’t let barriers hold you back. CO.STARTERS is here to simplify your path to success. And for those who aren’t seeking entrepreneurship, supporting local businesses and entrepreneurs is not just about economic growth; it's about building stronger, more vibrant communities.
Unlocking Entrepreneurial Success: A Candid Conversation with Jose Alfaro
Jose, what is the most significant problem that exists in entrepreneurial ventures and how is CO.STARTERS changing the paradigm?
Small businesses play a vital role in the U.S. economy, contributing to 44% of economic activity. However, a staggering 80% of these small businesses fail within their first five years—an alarming statistic. This failure rate is unacceptable, especially considering that we understand the needs of small businesses. In the tech industry, businesses have access to exceptional programs like Techstars and Y Combinator, providing them with the tools to thrive. But the vast majority of small businesses, particularly local Main Street shops and lifestyle businesses, don't qualify for these accelerators. This discrepancy led us at CO.STARTERS to question: Can we help civic leaders boost their local economies by equipping their small businesses with the proven accelerator models that have been so successful for tech startups?
We developed a process to train civic, business, and community leaders to deliver the best tools from the startup world to local small businesses. These tools all share a common trait—they are highly effective at teaching entrepreneurs how to turn their ideas into action. Every entrepreneur who goes through a CO.STARTERS program learns how to test, validate, and iterate on their ideas until they have a viable business model. This process, which might take some businesses ten years to figure out, is condensed into just ten weeks. While many community organizations teach business concepts, our tools provide entrepreneurs with a structured path for taking action and growing their business.
CO.STARTERS has been the engine behind thousands of entrepreneurial success stories across more than 100 cities. Can you share just a few with us?
There are countless success stories to share, but let me briefly mention one. Felicia Jackson, a trained physical therapist, was living in Chattanooga, Tennessee, when her son almost choked to death. In that critical moment, she froze, despite being CPR certified. She vowed never to let this happen again and created an ingenious physical aid called CPR Wrap, simplifying CPR into four simple steps. To transform her invention into a business, she joined a local CO.STARTERS cohort, refined her business model, and scaled her venture with TechStars Austin, distributing CPR Wrap to hospitals, school systems, and colleges worldwide. While Felicia is exceptionally talented, we're proud to have been a part of her journey.
How does CO.STARTERS achieve such remarkable results? What makes your method so unique?
The primary reasons small businesses fail are a flawed business model, lack of research, and poor product-market fit. Our programs and tools are designed to combat these pitfalls. We teach entrepreneurs to conduct proper customer research and emphasize the importance of testing small solutions, failing quickly, and adapting swiftly; similar to beta-testing software or a new product. While the scale may differ, the concepts apply equally. Accessibility is another key aspect of our programs. We avoid jargon and complex language, ensuring that entrepreneurship is genuinely accessible to anyone by writing our materials at a 9th-grade reading level.
South Dakota is one shining example of an extraordinary revival of a community and the power of the collaboration between CO.STARTERS and its local partners. Can you share some of the highlights with us?
Our local partner, Startup Sioux Falls, has been a catalyst for change in Sioux Falls and South Dakota. In the three years since they joined CO.STARTERS, they've leveraged five strategic local partnerships to launch around 200 businesses and create an estimated 400 jobs in the community. These jobs, tied to sustainable small businesses rather than corporate conglomerates, provide greater stability and longevity.
How can civic leaders, community leaders, and corporations invest in their community to thrive through business?
Three immediate ways civic leaders can support their local business community include:
1. Be aware of challenges: Civic leaders should frequent local businesses to understand their obstacles. When mayors or economic development directors visit locally owned businesses and interact with customers and owners, it sends a powerful message of support.
2. Get to know business owners: Building relationships with local business owners is essential. Taking them out for coffee and genuinely listening to their concerns can lead to policies and initiatives that create meaningful change for the entire community.
3. Listen to the answers: Active listening allows civic leaders to advocate for policies that address real concerns. By fostering open communication, leaders can help businesses and communities thrive.
Jose, you are genuinely passionate about CO.STARTERS and what you are doing for entrepreneurs. What would you say drives you?
I firmly believe that my work isn't about me or the personal change I can affect. It's about empowering everyone to control their economic destiny and create meaningful change in their communities. This transformation requires the collective efforts of thousands of people who share this vision. We're making tangible changes every day, even if we may not see the full effects for another 5 or 10 years. In a decade, we envision 700 communities and 50,000 entrepreneurs working to transform their localities. This will profoundly reshape how society thinks about business, people, and places. Our programs are action-oriented, guiding entrepreneurs through a proven process that prompts them to move from idea to action rapidly. It's not just about teaching business concepts; it's about enabling entrepreneurs to test, build, and grow their ventures in real-time. CO.STARTERS is more than a program; it's a movement dedicated to unlocking the potential of small businesses, nurturing innovation, and revitalizing communities. Our approach is not just about changing the paradigm of entrepreneurship; it's about empowering individuals and communities to shape their own economic destinies, one business at a time.
After speaking with Jose, one easily discovers that he is not some C-suite executive who sits in an office analyzing revenue or barking orders at subordinates. He is a hands-on entrepreneur who has himself traversed the path of entrepreneurship and experienced the ups, the downs, and everything in between. He actively engages in his business and with everyone it involves; from community leaders and policymakers to staff, from members and clients to citizens—all with a goal to be a catalyst for change. His unwavering commitment to making entrepreneurship accessible to all, regardless of background or resources, has transformed the lives of countless aspiring entrepreneurs, revitalized communities, and reshaped the very essence of entrepreneurship. With a purpose dedicated to empowering others and a vision of a more inclusive and vibrant entrepreneurial landscape, his legacy will undoubtedly continue to inspire and drive positive change for years to come.
CEO and Co-Founder