Seasoned business pros support local startups through SAGE group

By: Katrina Pfannkuch Wednesday August 8, 2012 0 comments Tags: Ben Walker, Doug Johnson, Lawrence Drake, RMI, SAGE

By Katrina Pfannkuch

FORT COLLINS -- Making it as a startup company takes two key things: A good idea and a dependable, skilled support team.

So to help close the gap between entrepreneurs looking for guidance and experienced professionals searching to share their expertise, Doug Johnson started the Social and Advisory Group for Entrepreneurs (SAGE) in 2007.

Johnson, founder of Advanced MicroLabs LLC, said he saw a unique opportunity to bring together startup entrepreneurs with seasoned advisers. His overall goal was to create a way to connect entrepreneurs to the advice and insight they need most when starting out to become a sustainable business -- and to explore ways to make it more interactive and social through team work and hands-on experience.

That core concept rings true for the SAGE advisers as much as the companies they support.

"Being an adviser is personally rewarding for sharing and expanding a business owner's ideas," said Johnson. "Our caring, generous, experienced and highly-skilled volunteers truly enjoy contributing their specialized skills in a way that gives them meaning outside of a large company, and provides them with a sense of accomplishment.

"Just as rewarding is the connection these highly intelligent SAGE members have with each other once a month -- sharing stories, experiences and connecting with other like minds."

Last year, SAGE leadership transitioned to Ben Walker, current RMI executive director who also serves as a SAGE

Ben Walker
adviser. Walker said a clear, common thread connecting SAGE advisers is the true sense of pride and accomplishment they each get after helping business owners see the value they provide as well as the gaps they help close to get things moving in a positive direction.

"We hold up the mirror to potential startups and make sure they clearly understand their value proposition, clarify the type of business they want to create and the customers they want to connect with," Walker said. "This helps them look at the whole big picture -- something that's hard if you are not an experienced business person."

That's why SAGE advisers are also top-notch in their areas of specialty, with proven previous industry achievements.

"We have a set of expectations for our advisers regarding their expertise as well as their commitment," said Walker. "Once they are matched, we ask them to spend about 50 hours per team to help them get their pitch in shape."

Walker said that can mean really working closely with companies to get everything done in three months, or spreading it out over a full 12 months. Some advisers even work with two or three companies at a time, he noted.

So what's really in it for advisers?

Sharing hard-earned expertise while helping others succeed, Walker said, and knowing their skills and ideas still hold value outside of a traditional business environment. At the same time, SAGE advisers stay connected with other seasoned industry leaders through an organized community.

Some specific "wins" that were a direct result of input from SAGE advisors, according to Johnson, include:

  • Helping one company completely change its original focus, which led to great success.

  • Putting together a credible marketing program that added 50 percent improvement to the success of a business.

  • Assisting a company in making a big splash at its first tradeshow appearance.

  • Helping several CSU-oriented companies win grants.

  • One SAGE adviser was hired back as an employee of a company he previously sold.

Lawrence Drake, a Loveland innovator who recently launched a new connectable panel system to build custom campers, shelters and other structures, said his first meeting with SAGE was "a good experience."

"The group was very attentive and seemed to get the concept," he said. "They had a lot of comments and suggestions."

"The team they've put together is a pretty impressive team," Drake said.

That's the kind of feedback SAGE likes to hear.

"I think one of the most important things about SAGE is that we meet startups where they are right now and give them a boost to show them the possibilities," said Johnson. "Through their direct support as an adviser, they achieve a significant milestone -- and it makes you feel great!"

There are currently about 100 approved volunteer advisers involved with SAGE working with companies in five states.


Anyone interested in becoming a SAGE adviser can register on the Rocky Mountain Innosphere website at

Also click here to view a video interview with Ben Walker of the Sage Program 
Katrina Pfannkuch

About the Author: Katrina Pfannkuch

<b>Katrina Pfannkuch</b>  is a writer, creative consultant, content strategist and teacher. She has more than 14 years of experience with writing, editing and content strategy for a variety of companies and industries, and specializes in green business, health and wellness and metaphysical topics. Her blog, <a href="">CreativeKatrina</a>, explores ideas, tools and perspectives that tap into the creative seed present in every moment. She is also a contributor for BellaSpark Magazine and Yoga Connection Magazine, and teaches writing and blogging classes at Front Range Community College in Fort Collins. Katrina has an M.A. in Journalism from Northeastern University and a B. S. in Business Administration from Bryant University.