In August 2009, a startup sent me a promo gift that is still dropping leaves in my hallway.
While some new businesses print t-shirts, Sprouter decided to give away something that would keep on growing. The tiny plant they sent to my Liberty Village office in Toronto was my first introduction to the company that connects budding entrepreneurs to a pool of other professionals who share their experiences of launching new ventures.
The woman behind Sprouter is Sarah Prevette, the company's founder and CEO. While the service has evolved over the past couple of years, Sprouter's mandate has always been the same: to connect people seeking advice with experienced professionals who can give it.
When I log in to my account (where I, like many others, have donated time to give advice) I see an ongoing dialogue with Aaron Patzer, the founder of the financial tool Mint.com, and a lengthy Q&A with GetSatisfaction's Lane Becker, who uses humour to get his message across about how to deal with the investors. "VCs will always pay for meals. They have to. So make sure to order something expensive - but not the most expensive thing. That's just tacky."
As Prevette explains, she's been blown away by how many entrepreneurs have offered to help. From Becker to Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and tech evangelist Robert Scoble, there is no shortage of helpful information on Sprouter. While the vast majority of experts lending a hand are male, Prevette's role models include two very successful women. One is Flickr's Caterina Fake and the other is the founder of Ning, Gina Bianchini. Prevette calls these women "true pioneers on the web." However, she recognizes that in this male-dominated industry, there are still some challenges associated with being female.
"There's an underlying assumption from society that equality has been achieved and sexism is a thing of the past," says Prevette. "The fact is that sexism is alive and well; it's simply evolved into a new form. No longer is it blatant, it's subtle." Prevette talks about how there is still a significant lack of women in leadership roles, but it's something that few people want to talk openly about.
On Sarah's small team there is another woman who is making a name for herself in the digital world. Community Manager Erin Bury is a well-known face among the Twitterati in Toronto and beyond. Aside from the company's website, Bury says the Sprouter Weekly newsletter has been a big success. In a crowded sea of e-mail advice, Sprouter routinely gets famous faces such as marketing whiz Seth Godin to contribute to timely entrepreneurship content. Bury explains that Prevette is one of her mentors and agrees that Fake is a brilliant mind when it comes to building an online community.
In the process of running a startup that helps startups, Prevette reveals that she's learned a lot from her customers since they often face the same challenges she does - whether it's building a business or scaling technology. She explains that Sprouter has stayed strong as a result of evolving with the needs of their community and listening to users on the site. While the Sprouter vibe is warm and fuzzy, a recent tweet from Prevette provides some insight into what it's like building something from the ground up: "Don't be starry eyed about doing your own thing - realize with the highs it's also a grind."