Have a business idea? Don’t forget to engage the people who matter 

Play On! Canada street hockey

Play On! Canada held annual street hockey tournaments in multiple Canadian cities, drawing thousands of participants (photo courtesy Play On! Canada).

Rob Mitchell’s research centers on the concept of imagination, but it is evident in the real-world benefits seen in one Canadian business.   

“The more we can go out and engage the world around the entrepreneurial ideas, the more we can make them better and more meaningful to the rest of the world, the better off we’ll be,” said Mitchell, an associate professor in Colorado State University’s College of Business whose research bridges entrepreneurship, strategic management and history.  

Mitchell is a co-author of a paper called “Stakeholder Identification as Entrepreneurial Action: The Social Process of Stakeholder Enrollment in New Venture Emergence.” Mitchell and his co-authors focus on what happens after an entrepreneur comes up with an idea, and who that person should communicate with as it becomes a reality.   

The theory is illustrated through the experiences of Scott Hill, the founder and executive director of Play On! Canada, a company that organizes annual street hockey tournaments in Canadian cities.    

Rob Mitchell headshot

Rob Mitchell, Trevor L. Israelsen , Ronald K. Mitchell, Dominic S.K. Lim
Journal of Business Venturing

1 University of Victoria, Canada
2 Texas Tech University, United States of America
3 Western University, Canada

For over a decade, Mitchell has used the Play On! case to illustrate principles of entrepreneurship in business classes. And each time the case has been taught at CSU, Hill has joined the class virtually to discuss his experience.

For his part, Hill has operated 170 street hockey events in 36 Canadian cities. Along the way, Hill had to find sponsors, get cities on board with closing busy streets to make way for the tournaments, and pivot to restructuring the business as a nonprofit after it closed in 2017 after losing a major sponsor when the hockey broadcast landscape changed in Canada.   

“Engaging with stakeholders is an iterative and recursive process where you’re going back and forth,” Mitchell said. “It’s about dialogue, where you’re engaging people, and you’re refining an idea beyond your starting point to the idea of what your stakeholders actually want.”  

Rob Mitchell chart

Rob Mitchell used this chart to sum up the stakeholder engagement process.

Those stakeholders are more than just investors, and also include potential sponsors, employees, customers and even the family members of entrepreneurs. For Mitchell, it boils down to taking an idea that first exists in someone’s mind and soliciting outside ideas to turn it into something that other people can buy into.   

Mitchell summed up this process in his latest paper via a diagram that outlines how communicating a business idea begins with refining and justifying it, leads to probing and positioning, and finally ends with enrolling and engaging.  

“It’s a huge assumption to go from thinking ‘what I value is what they actually value’ to having a common idea of what you’re selling that people will want, and that it’s actually feasible,” Mitchell said.   

Scott Hill headshot
Scott Hill is the founder of the street hockey tournament Play On! Canada.

Hill said he’s in regular contact with Mitchell about what he can do to better adapt his business to the changing times and find partners who can help it continue to evolve.   

“The research really helps our organization streamline our efforts to focus on the stakeholders that matter the most, and we use the research even to help those potential stakeholders understand what it is that we are doing, and why we are doing it,” Hill said. “There’s often a gap between the academic and private sector, and while sometimes the two worlds collide, most people run their organizations day to day without the lens of the macro impacts that those who work in academia are so good at identifying.”  

The students have also benefited as Hill’s case study has been used in Mitchell’s classes and Hill has joined as a guest speaker to discuss his successes and failures with CSU students.  One CSU student has even found a career opportunity in Play On!  

Connecting with students 

Street Hockey goalie

A goalie in a previous Play On! Canada tournament (photo courtesy Play On! Canada).

The mission of Play On! Canada and Hill’s efforts to communicate with stakeholders resonated with Corbett Tate, who graduated from CSU in 2021 with a degree in business administration with a minor in sports management.  

Tate first reached out to Hill after seeing him speak in a class in May 2020, and is now working with Play On! Canada to help with a future reboot of their street hockey events.   

“This has given me real world experience to see what putting on a sporting event is really like, which has been valuable since the COVID-19 pandemic took away a lot of internships,” Tate said. “It just turned into a unique learning experience with a lot of opportunity, and it’s something I’m really passionate about.”  

Hill explained Tate was the first student from that class to get involved. 

“He was enthusiastic,” Hill said. “I think Corbett’s actually going to come up to Canada to get involved in one of those events, and he’s going to do whatever he can to assist me in the process.”   

Mitchell said he’s hopeful that other businesses will also benefit from his research.  

“When I was in a startup, I would have loved to have a clear articulation of here’s what you should be doing, here’s who you should be talking to, and here’s what you should be talking about,” Mitchell said.  

He said it all boils down to ensuring that entrepreneurs don’t blindly invest in an area without engaging the people who will make it a success.  

“It’s really about having an open-minded willingness to engage the world and learn,” he said. “You can take your idea and start changing it and iterating it and manipulating it so as it emerges, it becomes an even better idea as a result of enrolling and engaging stakeholders.”  

About CSU’s College of Business

Business for a Better World
The College of Business at Colorado State University is an AACSB-accredited business school focused on using business to create a better world.

The College provides programs and career support services to more than 2,500 undergraduate and 1,300 graduate students in top-ranked on-campus and online programs. College faculty impart students with the values, knowledge, and skills to navigate rapidly evolving markets and address global challenges with sustainable business models and practices. Our students are known for their creativity and resilience—resulting in a job offer and placement rate of over 90% within 90 days of graduation and readiness to make a difference locally, nationally, and globally.

The College’s highly ranked programs include its Online MBA degree that is among the 10 largest in the nation and its Impact MBA program recently recognized by Corporate Knights as a top 20 worldwide “Better World MBA” program.