New Invent Penn State resource gives rural entrepreneurs a boost


by Holly Riddle 

When thinking about the entrepreneurial landscape in central Pennsylvania, it can be easy to assume that, just because so many entrepreneur resources exist and live around Penn State’s University Park campus, that all the region’s entrepreneurs must also live and work in or around State College. However, that mindset unfortunately overlooks a very important piece of the regional entrepreneurial ecosystem: rural entrepreneurs.

Rural entrepreneurs throughout Pennsylvania contribute to the ecosystem just as much as entrepreneurs based in State College, but face challenges that urban-based entrepreneurs do not. Sometimes, they may not have easy access to a nearby Penn State campus where entrepreneur resources are available. Sometimes, they may not even have access to broadband internet.  

  Invent Penn State Website

A new, free, available-to-everyone resource from Invent Penn State hopes to alleviate some of these issues. Customer Discovery 101 is a digital, asynchronous curriculum that can be accessed via mobile, with no need for a profile or log-in, and that is ideal for any entrepreneur just looking to get started, or entrepreneurs who are looking to take their existing products or businesses in a new direction.  

De-risking business decisions  

The new offering is made possible in part thanks to a federal Industry 4.0 grant, said Invent Penn State LaunchBox & Innovation network statewide coordinator Annie Hughes. 

“We created the program particularly for rural entrepreneurs in Pennsylvania,” she described. “Rural entrepreneurs are a little bit more difficult to reach and, while we have 23 locations around Pennsylvania, there are parts of Pennsylvania where there isn’t a campus nearby …

"[The program] can be accessed by anyone, anywhere, and allows people to get started building their business without committing to working with a particular in-person program or signing up with the SBDC.” 

Customer Discovery 101 covers, of course, the customer discovery process, but also helps brand-new entrepreneurs learn some of the terms and processes related to entrepreneurship, and why customer discovery is even necessary in the first place. Hughes stressed that, while the program is accessible to newcomers, it’s also applicable to anyone who might need to conduct customer discovery, such as those with existing businesses who are building new products or services, or exploring moving into new markets. 

The program requires about four to eight weeks of work, if participants spend a few hours per week on the course (while participants can work at their own pace, Hughes estimated that the quickest someone could move through the course would be about four weeks). Additionally, beyond watching videos, completing activities and reading helpful materials, the course asks users to work with a coach or mentor, whether that’s an individual they’ve met through Invent Penn State, the SBDC, SCORE or any other organization, or just another entrepreneur who’s further along in the process. (And for those entrepreneurs who aren’t sure where to start with finding such a mentor, Invent Penn State will help connect program participants with potential options.)  

Throughout it all, participants learn not just what customer discovery is and how to do it, but then they actually do it. By the end of the program, they’ll have identified critical assumptions about their target customers, validated or invalidated those assumptions and essentially equipped themselves to then make important business and financial decisions accordingly. 

“It takes a lot of money to start a business. A lot of people have to bootstrap. They’re asking friends and family for help at the beginning, so every penny counts. Making good decisions with how you invest your time… and money…is really important for early-stage entrepreneurs,” said Hughes.

“What we’re trying to do is the de-risking — helping people make better decisions by enabling them to validate their assumptions.”   

After completing Customer Discovery 101, Invent Penn State encourages users to continue working with their chosen coach or mentor, and to expand their network, getting to know the other various resources throughout the region, from Invent Penn State to the SBDC to Ben Franklin Technology Partners. Hughes even points out that, in some cases, Customer Discovery 101 will better equip entrepreneurs to take advantage of area resources, like business bootcamps. 

She said, “For a lot of these programs, especially if they offer funding, you apply for them. You probably will have a stronger application for a Ben Franklin TechCelerator… if you pressure test your core assumptions early, and have real data that you can use to build your application.” 

Customer Discovery 101 launched in April and, since, has had nearly a thousand users view the program.  


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