Sparking entrepreneurial hopes

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Business incubators respond to rising demand for office space, consulting services

Story by Jessica La Plante-Wikgren

WITH THE HELP OF SMALL BUSINESS INCUBATORS and entrepreneur assistance centers, the timeline for transforming a business plan into an operational business can be as little as one week.

By keeping overhead costs low, providing access to shared resources and state-of-the-art facilities, and giving start-ups access to a networked knowledge base of like-minded professionals, small business incubators are helping northeast Wisconsin residents turn economic hardship into entrepreneurial hope.

Building a professional image

WHEN TODD HANSON LAUNCHED Catalyst Performance Group five years ago, he discovered first hand how difficult it is to build up a business from scratch, acquiring the capital and material resources necessary to set up a professional office space. Out of his passion for entrepreneurship and compassion for fellow entrepreneurs, Hanson founded the Entrepreneur Zone Business Accelerator in January 2009 in the same building that houses his consulting business.

Located at 536 N. Richmond St. in Appleton, the eZone business accelerator is a state-of-the-art facility that features 15 office suites, conference rooms, kitchenettes, Web kiosks, wired and wireless high-speed Internet, and a smorgasbord of amenities. Small businesses and start ups can rent office suites for as little as $275  a month.

A self-described “serial entrepreneur,” Hanson is well acquainted with the entrepreneurial journey. He worked in two family businesses in high school and college.

For a start-up, one of the biggest challenges “is finding appropriate office space and space in which to meet clients,” Hanson said. “You can only work out of your basement or spare bedrooms for so long.”

After running Catalyst for a few years, “we started to develop this idea to create a space that would allow start ups in any kind of small company that’s going to be expanding tap what we created in three years of blood, sweat, and tears,” Hanson said.

More than just giving new entrepreneurs a place they can call home, Hanson hopes the business accelerator serves as a sparkplug for economic growth.

“I think it’s going to be small business that pulls our economy through the current recession,” Hanson said. “Small business is where the most innovation is created and where the most jobs are going to come from.”

The business accelerator puts all the amenities of a high-tech office suite within the reach of small businesses and new start-ups who are operating on a shoestring budget. To stylize their office suites, tenants can rent furniture, including office chairs, credenzas, guest chairs, tables and artwork.

“We can literally furnish their suite or their office for them,” Hanson said.

From a technological standpoint, the office is a plug-and-play solution, wired and wireless, outfitted with a digital toolkit that includes phones, Internet access, copy and fax machines, postage meters and printers for high-quality output.

Hanson also offers a virtual office option starting at $79 per month, an option that is very attractive to small start-ups and home-based businesses. Virtual tenants have access to conference rooms, one of the building’s workspaces, and all the other resources shared by onsite tenants, such as the professional document center, parking space, professional green space, and other perks. For more information on rental rates and amenities, businesses can visit Hanson’s Web site at www.entrepreneurzone.net.

eZone tenants rent space on a month-to-month basis – a major perk for new start-ups still trying to get a handle on overhead costs.

If a business cannot pay in cash for office space, Hanson offers a “barter for rent” option, providing free office space in exchange for professional services, such as Web development, copywriting or graphic design.

In addition to exuding sophistication and professionalism, the atmosphere of the eZone center also helps motivate entrepreneurs by giving them access to camaraderie and a community of like-minded professionals with variegated backgrounds and business expertise.

Entrepreneurs are able “to get the encouragement (they) need from other people in a similar journey…the encouragement to persist when you’re about ready to give up,” Hanson said.

“When you’re isolated, sometimes you go down money trails that you really shouldn’t go down,” Hanson said, adding that entrepreneurs sometimes need a “compassionate head butt” to stop and take inventory of their goals and present direction.

Boosting home-based businesses 

A SOFTWARE ENGINEER and information technology consultant, 24-year-old John Moss of Freedom  is one example of an entrepreneur who has benefited from the eZone’s polished image, high-tech facilities, and esprit de corps.

Moss was operating his IT consulting business out of his home when a flyer advertising high-class, low-cost office suites caught his eye.

Within a week of contacting Hanson to inquire about rental space, “I was in an office suite,” Moss said. “At that point, I was just looking to improve the professional appearance of my business (and) have a place for all my equipment.”

For Moss, the benefits go beyond access to cutting-edge facilities and a professional ambiance.

“The other main benefit of being here is networking with other businesses like myself,” Moss said. In addition to sharing resources, “we share our strengths and help with each other’s weaknesses.”

For home-based entrepreneurs with children, access to a distraction-free environment can result in big productivity gains.

“(It’s) a professional setting where everyone in the building is doing work and not watching Sesame Street,” Moss said. “Plus, if I need businesses advice, I can talk to other entrepreneurs; I’m not isolated.”

Economic slump driving demand

HOUSED IN NORTHEAST WISCONSIN Technical College’s Business Assistance Center, the Advance business incubator is looking at new ways to accommodate the growing demand for office space, said Lisa Harmann, incubator program manager for Advance, a public-private partnership led by the Green Bay Area Chamber of Commerce. Harmann attributes the trend to the economic downturn.

“We have seen actually more interest in office space than anything else,” Harmann said. “We only have four vacant offices left, and it forces us to look at doing renovations to some of our light industrial space to convert them into office suites.”

Since the Advance Business Center launched in 1987, the incubator has helped more than 240 businesses take root and grow, ranging from engineering firms and renewable energy companies to non-profit organizations and creative professionals.

An increase in unemployment rates and the looming threat of layoffs has spurred many aspiring entrepreneurs to put their dreams into motion.

“It made them think maybe now’s the time that I should grab a hold of this dream and get started in a place where there isn’t much cost involved,” Harmann said. “Overhead is low, and there’s great resources (here) that can help build a successful business.”

The facility includes conference rooms, a smart classroom, copy and fax machines, a kitchen, mail delivery, high-speed wireless Internet, loading docks and a forklift, and other amenities. Tenants have the option of leasing dedicated office space or paying a small monthly fee, ranging from $45 to $75, to access the facilities as a virtual tenant. For an additional fee, a business can have signage added to the building’s exterior. Monthly rental rates for standard office suites start at $236. In addition, light industrial spaces are also available, starting at $493 per month.

Since the economic downturn, more businesses have expressed interest in Advance’s virtual tenant option.

“Most people are able to work from their homes,” Harmann said. “When they have to do a professional client meeting, they can come to our facility and use a professional board room or conference room to conduct (the meeting) and it really lends credibility to their business.”

In addition to providing state-of-the-art office suites, the incubator also functions as a spoke wheel that connects established and aspiring entrepreneurs to a myriad of business-assistance services.

Organizations housed within the business center include SCORE, Urban Hope Entrepreneur Hub, Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Network, Wisconsin Business Development Finance Corp., the NWTC Center for Entrepreneurship, and the Small Business Development Center.

The Business Assistance Center also provides a variety of training seminars and courses to prepare prospective business owners for entrepreneurship. Topics covered include business planning, business loans and financing, entrepreneurial training and leadership culture. For more information, go online to www.advancegreenbay.org.

Sharing intellectual capital

BUSINESS RESOURCE NETWORKS such as the Oshkosh-based Origin also provide a starting point and launch pad for helping entrepreneurs set their ideas into motion.

The Oshkosh Regional Innovation and Growth Incubator Network – known as Origin for short – is “a network of service providers that connect entrepreneurs to the right resources,” said Rob Kleman, executive director of the Oshkosh Area Economic Development Corp., which administers Origin’s activities.

Just as important as physical infrastructure is the ability to access shared intellectual capital. To that end, Origin leverages the expertise of 14 different organizations that provide a variety of business counseling and economic development services.

“While we don’t have physical incubator space at this point, that’s certainly a possibility down the road,” Kleman said.

The network gives small business owners access to private-sector services at a discounted rate. For example, business owners can obtain graphic design and marketing services from 44 Degrees North Advertising & Design in Oshkosh at a discounted price if the business owner is referred through Origin.

Like other business assistance centers and incubators throughout northeast Wisconsin, Origin has seen a definite surge in demand in the past year.

“We have certainly seen an up tick in entrepreneurial activity and individuals that are now looking at starting a business,” Kleman said. During the Nov. 17 E-Connect Event in Fond du Lac, Origin’s exhibitor booth received inquires from nearly two dozen prospective clients who were interested in receiving help with business start-up planning or financing, Kleman said.

“When you have a downturn in the economy, it’s an excellent time to start a business from a market perspective,” Kleman said. “The rents may be lower; goods and services are priced more competitively. There’s a lot of advantages to starting a business now.”

Prospective clients – either emerging or existing businesses – can contact Origin online by visiting www.originoshkosh.com.

Jessica La Plante-Wikgren is a freelance writer based out of Green Bay. She previously worked as a feature writer and staff reporter for The Door County Advocate and the Green Bay News-Chronicle. La Plante-Wikgren can be reached by email at jlaplante@centurytel.net.