Melissa Roberts helps entrepreneurs find the resources they need to grow their businesses–whether that’s space, education, mentoring or connections to capital.
She serves as the VP of Strategy and Economic Development at the Enterprise Center in Johnson County, a Kansas City-based non-profit organization. There, she oversees the ECJC’s marketing and communications strategy, educational programs and public policy efforts.
Melissa has been honored as one of the “30 Under 30” to watch by Ink Magazine and a “Next-Gen Leader” by the Kansas City Business Journal.
To learn more about educational programs for entrepreneurs at the ECJC, visit www.ecjc.com.
And check out Melissa on Twitter:
Introduction to Melissa Roberts
Phil Singleton: This is awesome. We’re going to have fun. Give us a, just kind of a little bit of background, fill in the gaps on your bio there, how you got into the business world, those first steps out of college, what have you. What were you doing? Did you get right into business, did you try something else? Tell us what led you to the steps to your current position with ECJC today?
Melissa Roberts: Yeah, sure, Phil. So, I think if you had asked me the day that I graduated from college what I would be doing, I don’t know what I would’ve said but this would’ve been nowhere near my concept of what my future looked like. So, when I graduated from college, I actually was working in the campaign world a lot while I was in school. So, I went into managing political campaigns full time and that was really my first career and my first love. And in that world, I learned a lot about building healthy communities, online and offline and that passion really has carried through many different jobs in my career and today into the business world and working in a non-profit that supports entrepreneurs.
So, after I had spent some time running campaigns, I got the opportunity to start my own business in that political world and that’s really where I learned about entrepreneurship from the ground up and some days, in this job, I laugh because part of my role is to meet with entrepreneurs and hear about the challenges. And so often, there are things that I’ve faced personally that at the time, seemed so insurmountable. Like, “How do I do my taxes? I have no idea.” And today, it’s kind of just part of the entrepreneurial grind, that’s something that I can help people with. So, it’s fun to be on the other side of that table, giving the advice that I got from so many people.
And then I got involved right after I had started my business, in a program called 1 Million Cups at the Kauffman Foundation.
Phil Singleton: Sure, yeah.
The Enterprise Center of Johnson County
Melissa Roberts: And it … Yeah, so, in those days it was really early and I was part of that first volunteer group that helped organize the events and so I got to know a lot of people in the entrepreneurial community and this job at ECJC came out of that and so, I’m really lucky not only to have been an entrepreneur myself, so to speak often for experience, but also to have met a lot of really great people throughout the entrepreneurial community in Kansas City through 1 Million Cups and my work at ECJC. Getting to know some of the people personally that are really making things happen in Kansas City is fun.
Phil Singleton: That is really awesome. So, tell us some of the things … I mean, what’s ECJC about? I’ve been familiar with it for years. I know … I think you guys might have moved from … It used to be off of … Is it in the same location that it was before?
Melissa Roberts: Yeah, a lot of people know us from our old location on the 87th Street.
Phil Singleton: Right.
Melissa Roberts: But now we’re up in Fairway.
Phil Singleton: That’s right, that’s right.
Melissa Roberts: Right next to Stroud’s.
Phil Singleton: Exactly.
Melissa Roberts: So, if you get hungry for fried chicken, just stop by.
Phil Singleton: Awesome. What … Tell us all the great things that ECJC’s doing today and how it helps our community?
Melissa Roberts: Yeah, so, ECJC’s a 20 year old organization, so we’re kind of the dean of the delegation when it comes to entrepreneurship organizations in Kansas City, but today we provide some coworking space as we always have, but we really concentrate on entrepreneurial education activity. So, things like running an MIT-affiliated mentoring program or helping people learn how to pitch to investors and know exactly what investors are looking for in their pitches through a eight week boot camp called Pitch Perfect. Pun intended. Please don’t sue me.
And the latest and greatest is actually that we’re going to be taking a larger role in being a policy advocate for the entrepreneurial community in the state of Kansas, so you’re going to see us a lot more often in Topeka and for me, it’s really fulfilling, because I’ll be getting back to that first love of politics.
Phil Singleton: Yeah. And I was going to say as you were talking about this in the beginning, it almost seems like there’s … Whenever you get in this enterprise, economic development, I mean, there’s definitely some overlap. I mean, you’re clearly right at the heart of new entrepreneurial opportunities as they start in Kansas City, but you’re also connected in some ways to politics and the government, right? So, it’s a really interesting space to be in.
Melissa Roberts: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s a world where you can both have a really personal, micro-level impact on somebody’s life and help them get a level of success, but it’s also a world where you can have a macro-level impact and make a big change for the regional economy happen and so, that’s really exciting to me because you kind of get the best of both worlds, a big picture impact and small, immediate gratification.
Phil Singleton: Exactly. I mean, you talk about non-profit, too, and it’s almost all three. It’s non-profit, it’s a little bit into politics and government and it’s right in the heart of capitalism as well. So, in terms of … I was going to say, in terms of things that you guys are doing to get ECJC out there, like, your role is communications and marketing, what kind of things do you do to get the world out and let people know all the great things you’re doing?
Is it … I know you guys do some educational events and some of the things that you do I think, probably to further the cause, probably helps the marketing to some degree, too, because it helps to get the word out, but fill us in. What does a non-profit like this one that’s kind of unique do to get the marketing message out there?
Non-Profit Marketing Tips
Melissa Roberts: Yeah, absolutely. Well, Phil, I have to be honest, one of the things that’s kind of a tenet of our marketing strategy is something I really learned from you years ago, when we first sat down and had a conversation, and that’s that I really try to avoid investing dollars, like, ad dollars until I’ve exhausted all of the organic options for growth.
I really try to avoid investing dollars, like, ad dollars until I’ve exhausted all of the organic options for growth.
– Melissa Roberts
Phil Singleton: Nice.
Melissa Roberts: And so, yeah, thanks for that. But we really work a lot on amplifying our organic work here and the thing that I think is most important at the end of the day is that sometimes you don’t have in conversations about digital marketing is, especially for non-profits, at the end of the day, you have to deliver. Because no matter what kind of a online social community you manage, if at the end of the day you’re making a real impact on people’s lives, your marketing isn’t going to be successful because it’s all going to ring hollow. So, first is, we put our money where our mouth is and we run great programs.
Second is, most of our marketing happens through word of mouth and so I kept that close to mind when I’m thinking about our digital marketing efforts as well. So, I’m always trying to amplify tweets from other people or participants in the programs if I have an opportunity to, to show exactly what the people who are kind of experiencing ECJC get out of the equation. So, I would say those are the two tenets of our social media strategy and our marketing strategy.
Phil Singleton: And just out of curiosity, as a non-profit, does something like ECJC, is there any investment in traditional media … I mean, I know you guys obviously get great … You were in press recently, a lot of great things about your story and how you’re helping the organization grow and its cause and mission, but I mean, do non-profits like this … Is there print advertising, is there radio advertising? Is there TV? Is it really more kind of the organic stuff and then, like you say, promoting some of the successes that you’re having on social media and that kind of stuff? Because it’s interesting, from my perspective, we deal with companies that are led, especially in the marketing efforts, by people in lots of different generations. So, the ones that seem to have the marketing led by maybe an older generation seem to still cling on the traditional out-bound stuff, where the folks in the younger generation are like, “Well, that’s not how we get … Most of it’s organically through digital social media, SEO and that kind of stuff.”
And just out of curiosity, because you’re obviously in the mix there, right? You’ve got people with experience, newer people, it’s always kind of [inaudible 00:09:11] for me to see what kind of things and where, how does a non-profit invest its marketing dollars? Because I’m sure it’s not in some cases a big company that’s got lots of marketing dollars to invest and try everything. A non-profit might not have those kinds of resources for marketing and that kind of stuff. So, help us fill in the gaps there.
Melissa Roberts: Sure, yeah, so the first thing I always want people to understand about non-profit organizations is that non-profit organizations range from a small organization with no staff to international organizations like the Red Cross. So, there’s really … There’s no theme in non-profits. I would say a small non-profit like us, our budget is always constrained and the biggest thing for me is, every time I choose to spend money on an ad or social media advertising, it’s taking money away from our mission and so I have to have a really good reason as to why that money ought to be spent on advertising as opposed to mission-aligned activities like running a program or bringing another staffer in the door. So, for me, I … The only way that I can make that case to myself is to really look at the measurable impact of that advertising and the thing that I’m always challenged about print advertising is, the reason I’m always challenged about it is because there’s no measurable impact on the back end.
So, you kind of get subscription numbers or circulation numbers generally, but I don’t know how many people opened up that advertisement that day. I don’t know how many people visited my website as a result of it. And so, I really concentrate on trackable social media marketing to the extent that I have money to dedicate to that, but again, I kind of take the Phil Singleton strategy quite literally. I try not to spend money until we’ve invested all of our time, and so often I feel like we haven’t really hit that saturation point, because our biggest constraint, as with many non-profit organizations, is staff time. So, until I know we have some full time professional social media manager, which is unlikely to happen in the near future, I’ll still be spending most of my time and energy on organic means of growth.
Phil Singleton: That’s awesome and that’s really … A lot of insights. That’s one of the reasons I was so excited to talk to you, because we get a lot of insight from private companies and startups and that kind of stuff, but when you’re talking about directly with a non-profit, different challenges, different ways to get the message out there. But at the end of the day, I mean, you’re running a business like everybody else is, right? And you’ve got to get the biggest bang for the buck, so, it’s really interesting to see that, yeah, you’re looking for measurable returns and a lot of that is where you can invest what you have in digital, right? And where it can get the biggest bang for the buck, so.
I think of print advertising in much the same way as I think of yard signs.
– Melissa Roberts
Melissa Roberts: Yeah, the thing that I always said when I was working in politics was that there’s this pre-occupation with yard signs in politics. People always want more yard signs talking about their candidate, and they’re totally useless. You can’t track them, it doesn’t tell you about who’s going to vote for your candidate or not, so I think of print advertising in much the same way as I think of yard signs.
Phil Singleton: It’s really interesting, though, from my perspective…
Melissa Roberts: Comes full circle.
Phil Singleton: Right, yeah? Some of the … Because I talk about this all the time, with even folks that … I mean, there are magazines that still do well. Of course, a lot of the newspapers and larger magazines that are general are struggling, but niche magazines are doing okay and I do know a lot of our own clients still like to sample and play and every once in a while invest in print advertising. I think it’s just because it’s that physical thing they can hold in their hand, there might be a vanity or ego part attached to it, too, where they can see it or it’s out there and somebody’s actual, physical space, but it really is hard to prove how that kind of stuff helps.
But not even that, to my thing is, it’s okay to do some of that out-bound generation I think, to some extent, but the issue is, most of those people that see this stuff out in physical space, when they see print, when they see a yard sign or something, they’re going to go back through the internet to follow up on it.
Melissa Roberts: Exactly.
Phil Singleton: So, if you’re not there on social media or you’re not a good enough website to capture your own demand that you’re creating even in these old channels, then you kind of waste an opportunity and I still think a lot of people do it that way and don’t realize that they may not have that other side of the equation there where they’re capturing their own efforts. Really interesting.
Hey, one of the things I wanted to go back to on ECJC, in my mind, when I think about the types of businesses that you help, I guess and I know this is probably not true but it might be, so help me, correct me if I’m wrong, it feels like a lot of times you guys maybe are … Or organizations like this are trying to help out maybe just the high tech space or false? You’re really trying to help any kind of a scalable business in a traditional … What’s the mission that way?
Melissa Roberts: Yeah, so, so false, generally. But sometimes true for particular programs. So, one of the things that we’re really well known for running here at the Enterprise Center is the Mid-America Angels Investment Network, and so that is a network of high net worth individuals that invest their own money into early stage businesses. Think Shark Tank, but probably worse lighting.
Phil Singleton: That’s awesome.
Melissa Roberts: Yeah. Sorry, bad joke. But we run that network and that is really a program that is a unique opportunity for scalable businesses and what I mean by scalable, is a company that can grow without an additional investment in a high cost good, like staff time or a physical location. So, a service-based company like, say, a construction company, to grow, they hire more people. A restaurant, to grow, builds new locations, but an app to grow does nothing except maybe send an email. You don’t have to build it every time. So, companies like that are a great fit for equity investment, Shark Tank style funding. And that’s what we do through the Mid-America Angels Investment Network.
However, on the other side of the house, there are a lot of companies that are great, high growth companies can have a big impact on the regional economy that are not a great fit for equity investment. So, they would be looking for a partnership with a lending institution to help them grow or they might be looking for a microloan. For those companies, we actually work with the Women’s Business Center on the We Lend Microloan Fund, and so that’s an option to help them finance their business growth. But all of our educational programs, especially the mentoring program, are open to all different kinds of business.
So, it Kind of … It depends on which program you’re talking about.
Phil Singleton: Very interesting. Okay, thanks for clearing that up for me.
Melissa’s Favorite Place in Kansas City
Now, on … I want to shift to another part of the interview where I want to dive in a little bit more personal and ask about the things you like about Kansas City. Anything, restaurant, bars, places you like to go, museums, whatever it is. Somebody’s coming from out of town for a day and you’re just like, “I’ve got to take you here, show you the town,” type of thing. Where do you go, where would you take them?
Melissa Roberts: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, so, I’m lucky, I have friends from the east coast that get to come and visit every once in a while. So, I mean, the first place I take them is always the prototypical Kansas City postcard view from the top of the Liberty Memorial. I mean, you can’t get more Kansas City than that, but if I am just enjoying myself in Kansas City and maybe I don’t have somebody in from out of town, I’m a big fan of a good dive bar.
Phil Singleton: Yeah?
Melissa Roberts: I know you are too, Phil. You know, two of my favorite places in the city are, one in Westport called Harling’s Upstairs, and I’ll give a shout out to Brian the bartender. The thing I love about it is it’s got a great history and if you ask the bartender, he’ll bring out a one page, laminated history of Harling’s and what I want to know is what had to happen to that piece of paper before they finally decided to laminate it. But yeah, Harling’s is a great place for a night on the town. I will warn you to bring cash. So, that’s one of my favorites.
And then if you’re more of the Johnson County ilk but you still want an authentic dive bar experience, I really love the Keyhole Tavern in Mission. It is a club, so you have to have a membership, but usually there’s a friendly person who’s sitting at the bar who’s willing to sponsor you in exchange for a drink, so.
Phil Singleton: That’s awesome.
Melissa Roberts: Those are my top two.
Phil Singleton: I just love asking those questions. Those two places, I had really not heard of. Of course, I’m down kind of in the bat cave, in southern Johnson County, so I don’t get out much. But part of asking this question is so I will bust out of this shell and experience some of these cool places, so I really appreciate that.
Melissa Roberts: Well, you have to call me when you go to Harling’s Upstairs.
Phil Singleton: And the last question I have to ask … Yeah? That’s awesome. Brian, right?
Melissa Roberts: Yep.
The 10,000 Question
Phil Singleton: Brian’s the guy there? Yeah. The last question is, is the $10,000 question and that is, what would, and it’s really you can answer this however you like, but it’s, in order to maybe condense … Let’s put it in perspective of the ECJC, in order to condense the success that you’ve had there, and you have, to me, I’ve been following ECJC for a long time and I think since you’ve joined it, it seems to have a lot more energy than it did in the past. And I can say that, you can’t, but I’ve been following it so I know what’s going on there and I’m sure you would attribute it to the whole team and all that kind of stuff, but I think you’ve breathed new life into it because you’re there.
What would you have done, I guess maybe differently, to condense the success that you have now if you were to have to start over tomorrow and get to where you are faster? Is there things you wouldn’t try, would you jump on social media more? How would you get the word out there? What programs do you think you … Because I’m sure you’ve had … I mean, when you’re in a non-profit like yourself, and I’m … It’s a question I’m asking you and I’m doing most of the talking, but I am really interested in this part. You guys seem like you have programs and I’m sure you have some that are successful and then you launch some that might not be so successful, right? So, they maybe don’t get … And that’s part of, I think, the mission of an organization like yours is you have to keep figuring out ways to deliver value to people and educate them and stuff.
So, what would you to do condense it more, if you had to start all over again, day one at ECJC?
Melissa Roberts: Yeah, absolutely. Well, you’re right though, in that I do attribute it to the awesome team that we have here, so this is definitely not something that I do on my own or even that my team does on our own, it’s definitely a full team effort here. But I think if I could go back four years in time and do things differently, I think the one thing I didn’t realize at the time was how big of a catalyst our re-brand would be.
So, when I first started we had a legacy brand in place and it was something that clearly needed to change and I think everybody agreed that it was time for a new website and a new face for the organization and that happened about the same time that we were physically moving locations, so it was really good timing in that regard. But I had no idea the statement that that would make in the community as to having a fresh, new vision for the organization as well as a fresh, new logo, and so I think really sitting down and thinking critically about our brand attributes, connectivity being a brand value that’s really important to us, led us to some new programmatic ideas like mentoring programs, and out of that we’re really starting to live in to this fresh, new, connected brand and I think … That’s been really exciting for me.
So, if I could go back and do it over again, I would’ve put a lot more thought into not just redoing the website and the logo, but how are we going to have a fresh, new approach in all things that we do and how do I communicate that as part of this rebranding experience? Because it just took a little bit longer to live into some of those changes and because I didn’t realize it at the time that it was really all part of the same process, and it’s proven to be one long period of transition, today, looking back. Not a six month rebrand and then a website launch and you’re done.
So, it just speaks to the interconnectedness of online and offline marketing efforts in the non-profit world and when you’re an organization that’s programmatically driven and that lives or dies by the quality of your impact and the breadth of your impact, how important it is to have a strong brand that reflects that vision and have that carry through, not just to the website, but to the experiences people have interacting with you every day.
Phil Singleton: Wow, that’s awesome. That’s why I love asking those questions. Then, when you look back it’s like, hindsight’s 20/20 obviously sometimes and you can just see, here’s the path that went down, and looking back, what’s helped us become the success that we are today? So, really appreciate that insight.
Look, it’s been awesome. I’m so glad we had somebody like you of your caliber to come on our show today, kind of share your experience and what you guys are doing. Tell us where we can find you online, where ECJC and maybe where people can follow you, are you more active on LinkedIn or whatever social network you are on in terms of business stuff? And then anything else that you guys are promoting or doing right now that we could go and where we should go to check it out?
Melissa Roberts: Sure, yeah. So, ECJC.com and MidAmericaAngels.com are where you can find us online and learn more about our programs, our funding opportunities and such. We’re active on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter and I’ll say, if you follow ECJC on LinkedIn, that’s one of the best places to get some of that business related content to help you move your company forward as well. And then as for me personally, I’m probably a Twitter person. I’m a big fan of the snarky comeback.
Phil Singleton: Awesome.
Melissa Roberts: So, you can follow me at @msmeliss2024.
Phil Singleton: I’m going to attribute some of that to where your first love is in politics. The main channel is there, so that doesn’t surprise me. Thank you so much for spending this much time with us today and giving us some great insight on how you’ve helped ECJC and what the great things are doing for our community and for the business here in and around our region.