Ask an Innovator: How to Discover What Potential Customers Need

Drop in on conversations with students and entrepreneurial mentors who have connected through Ask an Innovator, a tool that up-and-coming entrepreneurs at UNC-Chapel Hill use to get online advice from a network of Carolina-affiliated innovators.

November 30, 2020
By Shellie Edge

As a growing entrepreneur, wouldn’t it be great to have access to experienced entrepreneurs from diverse industries around the globe to ask questions, get advice and foster new relationships? Ask an Innovator, a free, powerful online platform, offers a simple way to get advice from Carolina-connected innovators. Powered by Innovate Carolina in partnership with the Entrepreneurship Center at Kenan-Flagler Business School, Ask an Innovator finds the most-relevant experts in the community to assist with entrepreneurial questions and challenges facing UNC students, alumni, faculty and staff who have entrepreneurial aspirations.

Learn how this student entrepreneur and mentor pair used the Ask an Innovator tool to connect and collaborate.

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Tyrell Carter is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in business administration with a minor in entrepreneurship. He is founder of ANTE, a social venture startup that aims to use data analytics to help small businesses increase efficiency and decrease costs. ANTE is looking for business feedback in developing its business analytics dashboard for small businesses that will maximize revenue and reduce cost. Can you help? Fill out the survey today.

Morris Gelblum

Morris Gelblum is an alumnus of UNC-Chapel Hill and founder of Sweeps, a premier network that hires college students in need of jobs and connects them with community members who need help with everything from moving, cleaning and yard work to painting, tech help and odd jobs.

Tyrell and Morris, tell us about ANTE and Sweeps.

Tyrell: I got the idea for ANTE when I used to work at a Tiki bar. I noticed we had a lot of problems with inefficiency, and I was taking a data analytics class and thought, ’Why can’t I use what I learned in class to help small businesses?’ And that’s where the idea was formed, and I applied to be part of the Launch Chapel Hill accelerator and the CUBE , located at Campus Y, and was able to get into both. I signed up to be part of a customer discovery workshop, and as part of the workshop, I learned about using Ask an Innovator to get additional insight and advice from other entrepreneurs and small business owners.

Morris: I started Sweeps about 10 years ago with my mom when I was in high school. Sweeps is a way to hire college students and recent graduates to help with jobs, mainly around North Carolina.

Tyrell, what challenge were you facing with ANTE?

Tyrell: I was looking for entrepreneurs to talk with and get feedback from on how they run their businesses. What were their biggest challenges, and what did they need as far as running their business? So, getting advice from entrepreneurs is mainly my main focus.

Tell us about your experience using the Ask an Innovator tool?

Tyrell: It was pretty easy to use, and I got feedback very quickly. It was user friendly, and it didn’t take too long to submit my request. I was doing customer discovery and was figuring out the biggest needs for small businesses, which helped me create a survey.

Morris: Ask an Innovator is simple and easy to use, and it’s been a good experience. Tyrell and I were able to connect by email and then by phone. It was a simple and good scheduling solution. I appreciated that Tyrrell knew what he wanted to ask. It wasn’t just, ’Hey, I might do this and need help.’ It was an actual survey, and he needed specific feedback. He was prepared, and that shows. Ask an Innovator does a good job connecting the student and mentor.

What about Ask an Innovator surprised you?

Tyrell: At first, I didn’t think I’d use Ask an Innovator to help me find people to interview. So, the fact that I did was a surprise on my end.

Morris: For me, I remember reading briefly about Ask an Innovator and seeing what Tyrell wanted to do. I can totally relate to him concerning the inefficiencies of small businesses. As a mentor, I’m here to learn as well.

Morris, what does it mean to mentor aspiring student entrepreneurs? 

Morris: I hope to be helpful. I have been doing this for 10 years but at the same time, I feel like I’m just getting started, and I have so much to learn. I feel like anybody that reads this Q&A can probably relate as well. Ask an Innovator is a good tool where most alumni would say ‘Yes, I’d like to help out.’

Would you recommend Ask an Innovator to others?

Tyrell: I definitely recommend Ask an Innovator, especially if you have a specific problem that you don’t necessarily understand yet or you don’t have experience with as an entrepreneur. Being able to connect with other entrepreneurs is amazing, and I would recommend it.

Morris: Yeah, that’s a great answer, especially when you’re just starting. You know, whether it’s a tax question or insurance question, you might not know the answer or even know who to ask. I’ve been in business long enough and have a list of contacts, tax attorneys, etc. I’ve done the work to figure out who to ask and that can make it easier.

Why do you think it’s valuable to connect virtually for entrepreneurial advice?

Tyrell: From my experience, one of the few good things that has come out of the pandemic is being able to connect with more people through virtual meetings, having one-on-ones with different people and learning from their experiences. One of the best ways to grow is to learn from other people’s experiences and mistakes so that you can have a better path that allows you to grow faster.

Morris: I’m actually sitting here talking to you from Mexico, which is where I have lived for the past five years. Our team is obviously remote, and so the premise of having Zoom calls, remote tools and teams – Sweeps has already been doing this and it’s good the rest of the world has started embracing this too. Also, I was just thinking about the premise of Sweeps. What we do is find work for skilled college students and what they’re good at. And so in the last few days, for example, we’ve had nurses, neuroscientists, and even an MBA student who is active duty military who we are trying to connect with meaningful work. For me, Ask an Innovator is a good example to think about in terms of how I can apply this approach to our business and connect our workers with different customers or different alumni. It’s inspiring to see young people like you, Tyrell, especially how you are trying to help small businesses be more efficient. It has been fun for me to be able to engage.

ANTE is looking for business feedback in developing its business analytics dashboard for small businesses that will maximize revenue and reduce cost. Fill out the survey today. Sign up for the ANTE newsletter to stay in the loop.