Mind the Gap

trepwise Founder Kevin Wilkins has spent the past five years guiding New Orleans companies from startup to multi-million-dollar success story.

In recent years, New Orleans has earned a justifiable reputation as a great place to start a business. What has been less certain is the sustainability and long-term growth of many of these fledgling enterprises and how the local environment is geared to support this.

Enter Kevin Wilkins, founder of trepwise, a firm dedicated to serving as a growth catalyst for entrepreneurial cities. A Boston native and successful businessman himself, Wilkins moved to New Orleans full time in 2011 and rapidly immersed himself in the nascent entrepreneurial culture, serving as entrepreneur in residence and COO of the Idea Village, sitting on the board of Propeller, consulting with the Goldman Sachs 10,000 small business program and helping to form the New Orleans Angel Network.

Since launching his own business, Wilkins has worked with over 500 area organizations on the systems, structures and practices they need in order to grow and become sustainable. Of these, about 40 percent are nonprofit organizations. On the startup to success spectrum, his clients have ranged from pre-launch ventures to $200-million-per-year businesses.

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Biz New Orleans recently sat down with Kevin Wilkins to get his views on what it takes for a business to realize its full potential and how New Orleans is faring as a breeding ground for larger-scale success.

Biz New Orleans: How do New Orleans businesses struggle with moving from startup to large, successful business, and what are you doing to help businesses overcome that gap?

Kevin Wilkins: I’m actually seeing a lot of traction with companies that are growing from the early stage to the more mature stage. When I came here seven years ago, you had a lot of great ideas, and New Orleans has a lot of great support systems to help new ideas and early-stage companies. Where there was a gap was once they’re off the ground, and once they don’t qualify for free services anymore, suddenly you ask, ‘Where is the support for those companies?’ At that point, companies perhaps need support with their marketing and branding … to evolve their organization … with performance management … with understanding capital and investments. I started trepwise to help fill that gap. Our work here is to help build capacity across both for-profit and nonprofit organizations that are growing and need support in terms of the systems and processes and structure.

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Biz: What are some of the main barriers to making that leap?

KW: I would argue that a lot of the barriers were historically here. New Orleans was an oil-and-gas city, a tourism city; there wasn’t a lot of industry here. I come from Boston, where there was a lot of industry. When you have a lot of industry you have a lot of management who has experience. With the influx of talent to New Orleans right now you are seeing more people with experience who are willing to help these organizations grow, whether it be through volunteerism with the accelerators or through mentorship.
 



LEFT: Trepwise’s nine person advisory team represents more than 50 years of business knowledge. RIGHT: Blue Oak BBQ owners Ronald Evans Jr. and Philip Moseley are among trepwise’s clients.

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The other issue historically was capital: You need capital to help grow companies. When I first moved here, there weren’t a lot of people locally who were investing in companies. We helped establish the New Orleans Angel Network; now people locally are investing in companies. The insight there is if you can’t get local people to invest, you’re not going to get national people to invest. But now there’s an established base of investors through this angel network. There are multiple networks of angel investors in New Orleans now who are willing to invest in these companies.

With experience and mentorship, and with the access to capital that is somewhat newer to the city, you are really seeing barriers being taken down in order for these companies to grow.

Biz: In terms of angel investors, don’t they typically say that they’re going to help a business grow, but then they want it to then be sold so they can get their return back? What can an entrepreneur do that wants to grow their company but maintain control?

KW: A lot of these angel investors are not looking for control of the company, they are looking to help grow the company [until] there would be an event that would allow them to recoup their gain on that investment. But in doing so, the entrepreneur can still maintain control in terms of making the decisions. It’s all about alignment of goals. You just have to find the right investor to align with the entrepreneur’s goals in terms of what growth looks like and what an exit looks like. I’ve seen angel investors [and] standard investors invest in companies for the long term, like you have a 7-to-10-year plan. Some investments might be a 3-to-5-year plan. There’s no set formula … of “When I invest, I expect a liquidity event.” And there are other sources of funding, so you might want to choose convertible debts, you might want to go to a bank, to get lines of credit.

Biz: Let’s say that I’ve reached that point where we’ve launched, we’re off the ground. What are a couple of key next steps I should be taking?

KW: I always focus on culture. No matter what stage the company is in, culture is so important. Making sure you always continue to focus on why you do what you do, what the vision is, making sure your mission’s really clear, making sure your value system’s really clear.
 


“Entrepreneurship is in the oxygen in New Orleans.”
 


I always say you’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with. We often focus on getting the right people in the right chairs doing the right jobs. And whether you’re a for-profit company or a nonprofit, you need to always understand the impact that you want to make and you always want to be measuring it. Get the organizational structure right and know how you need to evolve that structure in order to continue to grow.

Biz: You said that you feel that there is a good infrastructure for entrepreneurs right now. Can you describe that a little bit?

KW: I was so impressed when I first arrived here with the number of accelerator programs; they really help support the entrepreneurs. We’re very actively involved with Idea Village and their sector-based accelerator programs. We’re also very involved with Propeller, which is more of a social impact accelerator focusing on four key sectors. The premise is entrepreneurship as an agent of change, and that the city will be better if entrepreneurship continues to grow.

Entrepreneurship is in the oxygen in New Orleans. After Katrina, everyone needed to become an entrepreneur. If you decided to stay you had to do things differently— new ideas, new approaches. You also had to have a system around you to help support those new ideas, with curriculum and mentorship and advisory services to help you grow. If you have an idea in any sector in New Orleans there is support for you. You just need to go and find it.

Biz: Let’s talk a little more about that idea of agents of social change. How does that actually happen?
KW: How that happens is that we work with organizations that are established to help in the education space, and like every other organization, it’s the same questions: What is their culture? What is their structure? What is their impact? How do they structure themselves financially? What is their messaging? What is their branding? The same business acumen is used across all the sectors for these organizations
 



RIGHT: GrowDat


Whether you are Whetstone in the education space, trying to help manage performance management in schools; True School trying to do innovation within the school systems; GrowDat trying to provide food access to the underserved markets; Liberty’s Kitchen trying to educate youth in workforce development — these are organizations making a real difference in New Orleans right now. But they are also organizations that need to be managed, that need to grow, that need structure, goals, measurements, financial security … so that’s where we enter, to make sure they are sustainable.

Biz: What are your thoughts on how New Orleans can go from being a great place to start a business to being a great place to operate a business?

KW: When I first moved here, I was seeing a lot of activity, I was seeing a lot of ideas, but it wasn’t really mature, it was very early-stage companies across multiple sectors. It is a fantastic place to start a business if you have an idea and it’s well thought out and you have a vision for it. There’s a lot of support in New Orleans to help establish that idea. I now see New Orleans with the access to capital, with the access to mentorship, with the access to firms like trepwise to help grow and sustain. I see it as a city that’s welcoming, inclusive. I see it as a great city to help grow a business.
 


A Sampling of Trepwise Clients

• The Arts Council of New Orleans

• Bart’s Office Moving

• Broadmoor Improvement

• Association

• Gray Insurance

• Greater New Orleans Foundation

• Grow Dat

• Liberty’s Kitchen

• Sucre

• Tales of the Cocktail

 


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