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Sprouting successful entrepreneurship through social networking

JENNIFER ROBERTS/jennifer roberts The Globe and Mail

Sarah Prevette, founder and CEO of Sprouter, a free social networking site for entrepreneurs, is the only Canadian to be named by Inc. magazine as one of their Top 30 Under 30 in North America. Although she only launched the site last November, Sprouter has already been embraced by entrepreneurs in 170 countries looking to connect with others.

Ms. Prevette, 28, who works out of a cramped third floor Toronto walkup with three staff, spoke with Your Business about how her initial failure as an entrepreneur led her to found Sprouter and why entrepreneurs love it.

How does Sprouter work?

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The main service of Sprouter is a peer-to-peer community where entrepreneurs can come in, put up their hand and say, 'I'm starting this kind of business; here are the challenges I'm facing; can anyone help me?' There's often a 'pay it forward' mentality where maybe I can answer a question for you and you can make an introduction for me.

Why is Sprouter so hot?

Sprouter took off because there was a real need in the marketplace for a resource like this. Entrepreneurs are looking to overcome isolation in all parts of the world, trying to connect with other innovators, find partners for distribution and find customers. There's a unique set of problems entrepreneurs have that are similar in every endeavor.

How did you get the word out about Sprouter so quickly?

It's largely based on grass roots support from our users over the past several months. Members have acted on our behalf by referring us to other users and recommending us to entrepreneurial publications, so we owe it to our community. Since our launch, we've been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Inc. and many others.

What inspired you to start Sprouter?

When I started my first company, (a pop culture site for teens), I thought I'd be on the cover of Wired, but I struggled to find information and overcome isolation and frustration. I tried cold calling different owners of companies to get help, but no one would talk to me because I had no credibility. It failed, but I had this idea that there were other people like me, so I found some private Canadian angel investment and built a platform to plug in with people who were supportive. Sprouter evolved from there.

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What was your biggest challenge early on?

As soon as you have investors, there's an expectation that you're going to deliver. Growing a community was much more difficult than I'd anticipated. You have to make sure that there's a two-way dialogue and that the people you're building the product for are actually participating. You can't just build it and hope they'll come. You need to build based on need.

Is the Twitter format a boon or a limitation?

People are becoming increasingly appreciative of being succinct. It's amazing what you can accomplish in 140 characters. Being able to transport messages from Twitter to Sprouter and back and forth is an important aspect of the service and something we'll stay aligned with.

What's been the biggest criticism of Sprouter so far?

As the site was getting bigger and more people were coming on board, people posting their questions to the general community were getting lost. Not everything was being answered because it would go by too quickly and others wouldn't see it. So that's been the basis of our new free Q & A service we're launching on August 17th. While the peer-to-peer service is great, we wanted to provide another forum where successful business owners can offer direct advice to early stage entrepreneurs in a way that they can get immediate answers from people who have already been there. We'll direct the questions to somebody who is qualified and vetted by us so that those questions don't get lost in the noise.

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How does Sprouter make money?

We're not making money on the peer-to-peer community or the Q & A, but we have a variety of other services such as Sprouter Weekly, a news roundup, where we offer sponsorship. We also do Sprouter events with corporate sponsorship around the world - mainly in Toronto, New York, San Francisco and London, England - that brings what Sprouter is online offline.

What's in the pipeline for Sprouter's future?

We have two new services that we've been developing in the background. We realized that there was a huge disconnect between the unorganized angel investors in North America and start ups who were looking for funding. So we've taken the criteria that specific angel investors gave us and provided introduction services to some of the early stage businesses. We've monetized that through the investors as a subscription. We've also recognized a need within universities and their researchers, especially in the United States, that have research and innovation happening but need help in getting to the next level, so we want to link those people up to investors as well.

What's the best piece of advice for entrepreneurs that you've picked up from your own site?

What I see across the board with start ups from around the world is a desire to protect their idea and a tendency to isolate. People want to protect their initial idea, work on it and make sure it's perfect before they debut it to the world. I think that's absolutely the wrong thing to do. If you have an idea, you need to talk to as many people as you can about it, get them to poke holes in it and discuss it. Maybe it's going to take you down a completely different path and you find the real opportunity is elsewhere. So get feedback as early as possible and don't be afraid to share.

What's your personal goal?

I'd love for Sprouter to be for entrepreneurship and starting a business what YouTube is to video and Google is to search. And I still want to be on the cover of Wired.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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