Sprouter, a social networking site for entrepreneurs from Toronto-based RedWire Innovations Inc., has added a new section on its Web site called “Answers” that helps users connect with experts for answers to questions.
“We find that entrepreneurs that have questions about growing their businesses can especially benefit from the expertise of other entrepreneurs who have already ‘been there and done that,’” said Sarah Prevette, founder and CEO of Sprouter.
The Answers section allows users to submit anonymous questions to Sprouter, which then routes the question to the appropriate expert on behalf of the user and sends the user a notification when the expert answers. Sprouter is often compared to Twitter, with an entrepreneurial twist.
Users can also submit questions to experts directly, either during live Q&A sessions on the site or in their own time. A page in the new Answers section lists Sprouter’s panel of experts and when they are available to take questions.
Prevette disagreed with comparing the new Answers section on Sprouter to the Answers section of LinkedIn. “If you were to compare the new Answers section to anything it would probably be Aardvark – an Aardvark for entrepreneurs,” she said.
Sprouter’s panel currently includes 16 experts. Hootsuite Media Inc. CEO Ryan Holmes and Viigo Inc. CEO Mark Ruddock, whose company recently joined Research in Motion Ltd., are on the list. Other experts include Maggie Fox, founder and CEO of Social Media Group Inc., and new media journalist Amber Mac.
Areas of expertise currently range from lean product development, angel investment and startup finance to mobile trends, social media marketing and content and media strategies to analytics, measurement and e-commerce.
Sprouter will continue to add more experts over time and bring in celebrity experts like Howard Schultz, founder and CEO of Starbucks Corp., for one-time Q&A sessions, said Erin Bury, community manager at Sprouter.
The free Answers service isn’t restricted to Sprouter members. Non-members can submit a question on the site and opt to receive an e-mail notification when an answer is given. Members can save their questions and answers in their Sprouter profiles.
Since Sprouter’s launch in November 2009, the site has added Twitter integration and developed an iPhone app, but Answers is the biggest update to date, said Bury. Sprouter also hosts events in various cities so members can meet face-to-face.
“Sprouter is a really focused community where everybody is for start-up founders by start-up founders and people can leverage the site to ask specific questions about growing their business,” said Prevette.
Users are based in roughly 170 countries around the world, but the largest market is the U.S., followed by Canada and then Europe, she said.
Prevette said there were 15,000 to 20,000 active Sprouter users last February. “We’ve been continually growing since then and we are certainly expecting that some of the new features and functionality will draw a new group and give us visibility into new markets,” she said.
“If Twitter is a place where you can build a brand and connect with a wide variety of people and Facebook is a place to connect with friends and family … Sprouter is a place to connect with other start-up founders and really get that trusted advice that you need,” said Prevette.
Sprouter member Rachel Young, co-founder of Toronto-based Camaraderie Coworking Inc., said it’s worth adding Sprouter to your social networking repertoire because it eliminates “all of that noise you get” from sites like Twitter and Facebook.
Young, who was an active member of the RedWire community before the company re-branded itself in 2009, said what she liked about the re-branding was its emphasis on establishing a community for entrepreneurs. “This is not meant to be another Twitter. This is not meant to be just another social network with a general purpose –they really did make it a niche market,” she said.
Young recommends Sprouter to members of Camaraderie and encourages them to attend to the monthly events. “Having that face-to-face connection to the people you meet online really reinforces what Sprouter is all about,” she said.
“I’m looking forward to being able to see when the experts are available so I can ask questions and get the answers back right away or essentially within the hour. I think that would be really valuable,” said Young.
Sprouter members include a mix of first-time entrepreneurs, consultants that specialize in development for start-ups, students that want to become entrepreneurs and seasoned entrepreneurs that are looking to give back to the community, said Bury.
And many have backgrounds in Web development or new media marketing, she said. “We find that a lot of technical founders have a great product or idea, but what they really need help with are the communication aspects,” she said.
Those working in the IT field would find Sprouter useful for either offering their IT skills to those who need technical help, such as an entrepreneur with a tea shop or bakery, or for finding non-technical advice on how to market their own ideas successfully, said Bury.