Let's say you have a great idea for a company that could make you a lot of money and put you in early retirement. What now?
Unless you have a bundle of cash lying around, it's tough to start a new business, and even a bundle of cash won't guarantee success. But take heart: Tulsa has tons of people willing to help.
"There are so many free business development resources in this town, it's stupid," said entrepreneur Gerald Buckley, who meant "stupid" as a compliment. "Businesses fail ... but it shouldn't be for a lack of resources."
Buckley is launching comparative-shopping Web site Grocio.com, which will list prices for items at local grocery stores and match coupons to the items you need. He expects to launch locally in February, with aspirations to go nationwide by April 2010.
This month, Buckley's business model won Tulsa's annual Entrepreneurial Spirit Award, which came with a $30,000 prize from SpiritBank and an expected $30,000 match from i2e, a state nonprofit that aids technology-based start-ups. An infusion of $60,000 is an advantage for any small business, but 2007 third-place finisher Ned Bruha said the guidance he received during the process was more valuable than any monetary prize, and that guidance is available to all Tulsans.
"I will do everything but put on a cheerleading outfit for that whole [Spirit Award] team," said Bruha, co-owner of The Skunk Whisperer humane wildlife control services. "The contest [process] validated certain avenues of income and disproved the validity of other avenues of income and allowed us to shape our business to succeed."
More than 20 coaches and judges who volunteered their time to the Spirit Award have also committed to be part of the Collaboratorium, an "entrepreneurial accelerator" scheduled to open downtown early next year. The coaches have widely varying backgrounds and expertise, and an even wider range of contacts who also provide free services for entrepreneurs.
"If you're inclined to fess up and say, 'I'm really stupid on HR issues,' it's like Felix's bag of tricks: They say, 'Here you go. Expert in a bag,'" Buckley said. "The Collaboratorium is an unfair advantage."
The nonprofit Collaboratorium will occupy 8,000 square feet donated by Kanbar Properties in the Old Manhattan building at 111 W. 5th St. Offices there will be rented to fledgling entrepreneurs at a discounted rate to support the Collaboratorium's office staff, equipment and supplies, which are expected to cost about $250,000 a year, and the nonprofit is seeking sponsors. Tenants will rent office space for $5 a square foot or less, down from the $10 to $12 normally charged for a square foot in that building. As winner of the Spirit Award, Grocio will receive free rent for a year.
"The culture [in the Collaboratorium] will be centered around creativity and innovation. There will be a lot of energy there," said Jeff Horvath, a Collaboratorium coach and vice president of marketing for nonprofit FastTrac, a division of the Kauffman Foundation that works with entrepreneurs. "When you're rubbing shoulders with other entrepreneurs that have creativity and innovation and energy, it tends to rub off on you."
Horvath said the Collaboratorium, the Spirit Award and other entrepreneurial programs in Tulsa were sparked by a trip that he took to the Kauffman Foundation's headquarters in Kansas City with Mayor Kathy Taylor and several Tulsa business leaders and owners in 2006.
"Basically [the Kauffman Foundation] said 'You're doing a lot of things right, but you have to have a master plan or central focus on entrepreneurship in Tulsa,'" Horvath said. "The mayor caught that vision and came back and was very excited ... and the outgrowth of that is what's been taking place over the last two years."
In addition to announcing the Spirit Award winner and the launch of the Collaboratorium this month, Tulsa hosted a series of educational sessions and the Tulsey Awards, which recognized entrepreneurs in 10 categories.
"It's beautiful to be an entrepreneur in a city like Tulsa because of the support that our mayor and SpiritBank and that whole team gives us," Bruha said. "Not all cities are entrepreneur-friendly, but Tulsa is a good atmosphere to build a business in."
Horvath, who works with FastTrac providers in all 50 states and has been a frequent judge in competitions like the Spirit Award, said Tulsa is on its way to becoming one of the leading entrepreneurial cities in America.
"I've seen what a lot of different states and communities are doing and what they're offering to entrepreneurs, and I think we're really on the cutting edge," he said. "These are things a lot of communities want to do in the future, but we're doing it already."
Here's the Pitch
The next step for the Collaboratorium is to secure funding so it can invest in Tulsa start-ups, said Sean Griffin, a business consultant who is serving as interim executive director of the Collaboratorium.
"That is ultimately the grease and lubrication that helps businesses get off the ground," he said. "There's no question that without significant investment dollars available to the entrepreneurial community, we will not reach our full potential."
Griffin has spoken with several people who may provide funding for Collaboratorium investments, he said, but he could not predict when a deal might be finalized or how much money might be contributed.
Securing investor capital can be one of the toughest challenges facing a new business. In addition to the $60,000 Buckley won this month, for example, he is seeking $1.3 million in exchange for equity in Grocio. The Spirit Award coaches, therefore, focused much of their efforts on developing entrants' pitches.
"We need to know how much you're asking for, why you need it, what it will be used for [and] how this will benefit you in growing your company," Horvath said.
In the initial stages of the award process, entrepreneurs were given seven minutes to make their pitch, but then their time was whittled down to two minutes, making it much more difficult. David Kallweit, co-owner of Seeking Sitters, which won the 2007 Spirit Award, said learning how to make a good pitch was the most beneficial aspect of the competition.
"The best part for us is it made us realize how to present our business to where we can sell it to other people," he said, noting that Seeking Sitters, which provides babysitters with extensive experience and clean background checks, has grown from nine franchises to 23 franchises since it won the award.
Small businesses like those fostered through the Spirit Awards and the Collaboratorium are the backbone of the state and local economies, Taylor said, and she expects those firms to support 80 percent of American job growth in the coming years.
"We are creating an environment that supports entrepreneurs," Taylor said. "I am confident that they are going to take our economy and the city of Tulsa to even greater heights."
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