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SourceLink Virginia at Three - from Innovation to Infrastructure

Posted by Conaway Haskins on Oct 24, 2017
Launched in August 2014, SourceLink Virginia has emerged as one of the top online small business assistance information source in the Commonwealth. With access provided free-of-charge for both service providers and businesses, it is a tool for both economic and small business developers to better serve their clients.

The impetus for developing the SourceLink model in Virginia lies in the results of a 2013 survey of over 70 experienced community & economic development professionals from across the state conducted by what was then known as the Community Economic Development Alliance of Virginia (predecessor to the Virginia Community Economic Network). 

That survey gauged practitioners' interest levels in various programs and services designed to support entrepreneurship and placemaking as emerging strategies to enhance community economic opportunity and prosperity. Among the highest in-demand needs identified were "connecting resources" such as:  
- Creating a website where individuals could find business building resource organizations in Virginia, searchable by geography and services offered
- Creating a shared online calendar of training and community events, searchable by location
- Creating an online directory of organizations involved in community development initiatives, searchable by location and category

Additional inquiries and observations uncovered an array of dynamics in the support ecosystems available for Virginia entrepreneurs including:
- fragmentation in the small business support community
- unclear pathways for the business-owner or entrepreneur
- no one provider, or set of providers to help every client address every need, and
- uneven distribution of support resources by geography

VCEN decided to build on existing investments and raise their visibility, create a collaborative resource networks that include feedback, avoid a “one-size-fits-all” approach, and focus on connectivity for entrepreneurs to the resources they need to grow in a timely fashion. As a result, the VCEN stakeholder group determined that the SourceLink (then US SourceLink) model was the most effective approach to add value. After being designed and launched by VCEN in August 2014, management was transitioned to Virginia Cooperative Extension in December 2016. 

The searchable Resource Navigator database connects entrepreneurs to providers, the statewide and regional Central Calendar provides information on workshops & classes offered by partnering agencies, and the overarching SiteConnex platform that offers a Blog feature providing information and insight on resources and trends impacting Virginia’s entrepreneurship and small business economies. 

The core group of SourceLink Virginia's 308 Resource Partners are nonprofit, university and/or government organizations providing direct assistance to small businesses and entrepreneurs. Due to the realities of Virginia’s entrepreneurial ecosystems, the Resource Navigator directory also includes select (typically third-party regulated and/or accredited) for-profit companies who provide services primarily or exclusively to entrepreneurs (ex. venture capital, B Corps, startup accelerators, etc.). Care was taken to ensure that the site had a low-impact online or paper Intake process, a “clean” online interface that was free of banner ads, pop-ups, etc., and access to information on providers is searchable by geography, activity, industry, and company life-stage. SourceLink Virginia does not collect personally-identifiable or proprietary business information or send out unsolicited communications.

Along the way, SourceLink Virginia has benefited from a data-sharing partnership with Loudoun County’s SourceLink affiliate and the cultivation of 11 regional champions who have embedded website code to effectively replicate the SourceLink user experience into their own entrepreneur support initiative websites. These partner sites cover the vast majority of Virginia communities. 

SourceLink Virginia has now passed its three-year anniversary mark. Since that initial 2013 survey, SourceLink Virginia has grown into a virtual repository with information on over 300 organizations that assist entrepreneurs in the Commonwealth. After a sizable user growth from Year One to Year Two, the website matured and traffic effectively stabilized from Year Two to Year Three. According to the internal site data analytics, SourceLink Virginia has the following traffic flow: 
  
Year One (9/1/14-8/31/15)
• 2,100+ unique  visitors, 3,200+ sessions, 10,400+ page-views
• Average session: 3 ¼ minutes, 3 ¼ pages/session
• Traffic: 68% new users, 32% returning users
• Activity Sources: 37% Website Referrals, 36% Direct, 23% SEO, 3% Social Media

Year Two (9/1/15-8/31/16)
• 4,700+ unique visitors, 6,400 sessions, 15,200 page-views
• Average session: 2 ½ minutes, 3 pages/session
• Traffic: 73% new users, 27% returning users  
• Activity Sources: 58% Website Referrals, 22% SEO, 17% Direct, 3% Social Media

Year Three (9/1/15-8/31/17)
• 4,800+ unique visitors, 6,500+ sessions, 14,500 page-views
• Average session: 2 ¼ minutes, 2.2 pages/session 
• Traffic: 73% new users, 27% returning users
• Activity Sources: 57% Website Referrals, 21% SEO, 21% Direct, 1% Social Media

SourceLink Virginia is a truly statewide resource with the top-6 regional sources of traffic being (in order): Hampton Roads, Metro Richmond, Roanoke-Blacksburg, Charlottesville, Shenandoah Valley, Northern VA/DC. Over 85% of activity focuses on the Resource Directory with the remaining visits spread between the Workshops Calendar (10%) and the Business Blog (5%). The top-5 search topics are almost evenly distributed; they are: Financial Resources, Business Planning, Space, Starting a Business, Marketing & Sales. 

Over the past three years, a number of local, regional, and state efforts have focused attention on entrepreneurial development, blurring the lines that once existed between “traditional” economic development and small business development. The ecosystems for growth and prosperity are much more diverse around Virginia than just five years ago. Lingering challenges remain that may present ripe opportunities for creative solutions. As always, the team behind SourceLink Virginia will continue to monitor and adjust to the ever-shifting environment. 

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