The unexpected entrepreneur

If you were asked to describe an entrepreneur, what words would you use?  Maybe terms like “bright, energetic, or magnetic.”  This 2004 article in the aptly named magazine Entrepreneur, gives a whole host of other terms, not all of them complimentary. 

Two descriptions of an entrepreneur that most people would not use are “ex-felon,” and “non-English speaking.”  However, it may just be these often overlooked sectors of your community could be an integral piece of your community’s economic restructuring.  In the classic Republic, Plato said, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”  If this is true, then those least able to obtain traditional employment should be those with the most entrepreneurial spirit.

Upholsterer and entrepreneur Troy Graves. Photo by Tara Bozick, Danville News.

Take Troy Graves.  This Danville resident spent a few years in prison, where he apprenticed as an upholsterer, eventually redoing a chair for the Governor’s office.  When he completed his incarceration, he had trouble finding steady work but was determined not to go back to his former ways.  With the help of a partnership with Virginia Enterprise Initiative, New Visions New Ventures and the Small Business Development Center, Troy was able to get business skills training, write a business plan, and obtain a microloan that allowed him to set up shop.   When this newspaper article hit the street, his phone rang off the hook and he has business lined up for the foreseeable future.  Troy is still building his credit, and hopes to own his building one day soon. 

And consider this positive story from National Public Radio from a place where positive stories have been few and far between.  It seems the one part of Detroit that is flourishing is the predominantly Latino neighborhood known as “Mexican Town.”  Many less developed economies have a strong entrepreneurial tradition; again, harkening back to Plato’s words about necessity.  The most entrepreneurial members of these societies often find a way to come to the United States and bring that spirit with them. 

Make sure you consider all aspects of your local business environment when planning your community’s future.  You just might find success in the most unexpected places.

Bright ideas for business

What is a good business proposition?  That is a tough question to answer. 

I am sure that many people thought that two old hippies were crazy when they started an ice cream company in Vermont, where summers last only a few months and the temperature can drop to near freezing in August.  But those that saw promise in a high-quality, extra-creamy, frozen-fun idea have been well rewarded for their investment in Ben & Jerry’s.

InteliTap is a young Virginia company that looks to have strong growth solving the eternal bar owner’s dilemma; where are all the profits going?  If the beer is too warm, the profits are literally going down the drain in the form of extra suds in the mug.  A common culprit is the bartender who pours a few extra for him or herself and his or her friends.  According to Dave Adams, the founder of InteliTap, it is not uncommon for a bar to have a loss rate of 20 percent on draft beer. 

In a keg that holds 125 beers, that’s 25 pints at $4 a pop for recaptured revenue of $100 a keg.

This company saw a problem, and through some technological innovation is providing a solution that can show immediate results on a bar and restaurant owner’s bottom line.

We bring up this company for two reasons.  Most immediately, you can share this information with your local beer slinger and hopefully help them become more profitable.  At the very least, the owner may have a few more dollars to spend locally, but this could be a way for the owner to become profitable or even increase payroll.

In a more long term sense, this company illustrates that we never really know who will have the next big idea or what it will be.  This is why it is important to have a system in place to foster these micro businesses in the start-up phase and have policies in place to encourage the businesses to stay local as they grow.

New approaches to business incubation

Business incubators can provide start-up enterprises with professional space for reasonable rents – but they can play a much larger role as well.

They can connect new entrepreneurs to the technical assistance and training that will provide them with a running start.  In addition, business incubators can provide a network of entrepreneurially minded cohorts in close proximity to foster the type of encouragement and support system that comes best from peers.

While incubators have been around since the 1960’s, they continue to shift their service delivery, tailoring the model. There are currently 29 small business incubators in Virginia, each with a different suite of resources and geographic service area.

For instance, Virginia Tech Knowledge Works Business Acceleration Center incorporates both incubation space and special programs like the Concept Camp for potential technology-based entrepreneurs. The reality check of this two day risk-education retreat can prevent premature launch of an effort. For those who are ready though, the Knowledge Center has a suite of support services.

The May 2009 Entrepreneur magazine article, “A New Take on Incubators,” gives a rundown of the specialized access to research and technology that some incubators are now taking. Most of these have close connections to university research centers and many are incorporated into regional economic development strategies in fields such as biotechnology and software development.

But anywhere there’s entrepreneurial energy and a base of knowledge, whether its high-tech, or longer standing traditions (textiles, culinary, the arts…) the combination of technical assistance, training, encouragement, and—when the time is right—incubation, can bring products to market and create jobs.