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One of the many intimidating things about moving to a new place is finding the people you depend on get you through the week. The hairstylist you trust with your split ends; the bartender that makes you feel at home in a new neighborhood; the mechanic who assures you that, no, the scary whirring sound coming your engine belt does not mean your car is about to explode.

Myself being a Denverite for a solid 13 months now, the sense of relief that came over me when I met Dave Mika, owner of Automotive Revival, could only mean one thing: I found my car dude. At that time, I was unaware that he is a successful graduate of Rocky Mountain Microfinance Institute’s boot camp, a class that teaches participants how to start, maintain and continually grow a small business.

Speaking with Mika and Rob Smith, the program’s executive director, it became clear why working with an RMMFI grad is so different from other small business owners: It all comes down to relationships.

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Innovators Peak: Every graduate of the program that I’ve met or been a customer of seemed incredibly reliable, concerned about my experience, and passionate about being the best at what they do. Does the program focus on teaching the grads to build long-term business relationships, or do you think that’s a side effect of what they learn?

Rob Smith: RMMFI is incredibly intentional about building positive relationships with its program participants. From the simple fact that the majority of our entrepreneurs cannot access funding from traditional sources, RMMFI has had to think differently about how it builds its program to ensure “access” to lending services. At the core of how we get to a “yes” is the positive relationship we have built with our entrepreneurs. The commitment to self, RMMFI, and the business starts day one with our outreach programming and flows through every aspect of how we support our clients.

Our entrepreneurs are exposed to an incredibly positive, supportive, yet challenge-based interaction from RMMFI’s staff and community of mentors. They witness firsthand the value that’s created from a positive relationship.

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IP: What are the most important lessons that you want your grads to take away from the program?

RS: I think the single biggest factor to anyone’s success in business and in life is building a supportive network. This is the crux of our programming and is really what flows into your first question about relationships. Our entrepreneurs are successful because we surround themselves with incredibly supportive and smart people. Looking back at our most successful clients, it’s those who know how to leverage their networks that see a tangible path to success. We choose our clients because we see the potential they can create for themselves. We also choose them based on the fact that we think they can get out of their own way and explore new and different ways of thinking.

IP: There’s a lot of focus on simplicity and planning. Most small businesses fail—do you think it’s because it’s so difficult to independently formulate a clear plan and keep that front and center?

RS: Yes, but this is only a part of it. Don’t get me wrong, the planning aspect is critical. A plan forces you to think about the things that will enable or derail your success and sets up an immediate action plan that would have just been shot from the hip and from a place of unknowns. Rarely does a business ever go entirely as planned, but the planning process builds a mindset of how to adapt and flex, which is probably the most important component of the planning process. This ability to really adapt and flex in a way that creates incredible on-the-fly decision making is really the ultimate goal any entrepreneur should shoot for.  This defines you as a business owner. We often say that we build business owners who, in turn, create successful businesses. We don’t launch businesses—they do.  

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Business can be incredibly complicated if you allow it to be. If you focus on the basics, you can simplify the business complexity a little and see incremental successes. From there, you build on the success and learn from the challenges, and repeat to another incremental success. On top of a simple plan is everything else I’ve described in the questions above. The willingness to open up to a supportive network, will help you think differently to get through the blockages and will also expand your exposure to others who now understand what you have to offer. You also can’t have this conversation without talking about financial resources. A simple plan gives you the tool to understand how much you need and when. Without understanding the numbers and flow of cash (and being able to adapt and replan when things don’t play out as expected), the business won’t last long—no cash, no business.

After speaking with Smith, Innovators Peak sat down with Dave Mika to get perspective on what going through the program is like.

IP: For those who don’t know, the Boot Camp is a 12-week, intensive course that begins with eight weeks of learning and ends with four weeks of coaching and mentoring. What was the day-to-day experience like?

Dave Mika: A lot of bonding, a lot of getting to know RMMFI in particular and understanding what they do, to try to grasp the full scope of what they offer. It’s not just basically a loan outfit by any means, and what they’re really about and what I really got from that is total community support.

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IP: What was the most valuable thing you learned during your time at the institute?

DM: Growing up and living in communities, I never realized the impact of my immediate actions. I didn’t really take much stock in that. They taught me how to live in the community, be with it, and support it in a very reciprocal way. Community support is what it’s all about. They didn’t necessarily say, “Hey, we’re going to teach you about community support!” But it’s what they did. At the same time, they didn’t necessarily say that opening your own business is hard, because that’s not the hard part. It’s actually keeping it open, which of course comes back to community support. It’s so important to remain in constant contact with everyone in a positive way, to build those relationships.

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IP: How much more prepared did you feel at the end of the program versus your first day at the Exploring Business Ownership class?

DM: Quite a lot, because whenever we have graduations or Sunday Funday meetings, or whatever time there is for everyone to get together, you realize that they have a tremendous following of people. You feel like Sally Fields, you know? “You really like me!” I really did have a lot of people that attended our meetings, and especially the graduation where they were either past members or mentors, or friends alike, that were interested in what I do. That was largely due to Rocky Mountain. I gained quite a few customers right out of the gate just because of that, and I still have them. Just the referrals I’ve received aren’t going to run my business for me, but it certainly helps a lot.

IP: What were some of the other business ideas that your classmates had?

DM: Well there were 10 [people] initially, and I think we lost three through the by and by. I was always jazzed by one woman who opened a baking company, whose car I actually work on. We’ve become really good, close-knit friends and can really say anything to each other. There was another woman who started a landscaping company, and another that stuck out that now runs a catering operation. A lot of us remain in contact because of that sense of community, and they all come here for repairs. And sometimes I get the occasional carrot cake out of it.

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By Kerry Gallagher