The idea of starting an incubator in the tri-county Lake area germinated with a regional entrepreneurship study funded by LOREDC a couple of years ago.
Tax abatements for large businesses considering locating at Lake of the Ozarks are well known and becoming more and more controversial. But now, business and community leaders are thinking about doing something for the little guy as well, following a national trend aimed at supporting small business.
Representatives from local Chambers of Commerce, Lake of the Ozarks Regional Economic Development Council (LOREDC), the cities of Osage Beach, Eldon and Sunrise Beach and School of the Osage took a day trip recently to Springfield and Ozark to visit business incubators operating in these cities.
I tagged along with the Lake area leaders studying these models as they consider starting up an incubator to help small businesses develop in this region.
The idea of starting an incubator in the tri-county Lake area germinated with a regional entrepreneurship study funded by LOREDC a couple of years ago. The assessment and strategies recommended by the group of doctorates and MBAs from the Institute for Regional Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Southeast Missouri State University laid out the argument that growth and regeneration after the recession of 2008-09 would come from small businesses.
It advised doing more to create a better climate for startups and to help small businesses grow and be more successful.
Typically designed to help startups, an incubator can offer various types of support from formation and beyond. Part of the purpose of the Lake contingent’s visits to The eFactory in the Robert W. Plaster Free Enterprise Center in Springfield and the Carl G. Hefner Enterprise Center in Ozark was to see how those incubators operate from funding to services.
Business incubators, often called enterprise centers, typically offer things like free or low-cost workspace, mentorship, expertise, access to investors, and in some cases, working capital in the form of a loan. Think shark tank without the teeth.
However, incubators all tend to do things a little differently to best fit the needs of their community and outlook.
The eFactory offers workspace but actually prices its offices above market value in order to not compete with private business and interfere with the real estate market. It offers much in the way of education, networking and collaboration opportunities however.
“Synergy” was among the terms used to describe the benefits of operating out of The eFactory. Synergy is just a fancy way of saying there’s an interaction and atmosphere among the people working in the building that can help them all produce something that is greater than the sum of their parts. “Creating a culture” was another term along these lines.
One of the ways The eFactory set out to accomplish this is by focusing on certain industry segments in order to put like-minded businesses together. Thirty-seven out of 40 businesses operating there were technology or IT related.
Health care, marine industry and service and hospitality would be three possible areas of focus for the Lake area.
A targeted focus based on regional strengths, a creative workspace and a place to gather for seminars and networking were some of the main takeaways from The eFactory.
The eFactory was indeed a large and modern facility with amazing local artwork on the walls and renovated with an airy feeling despite being located in a former turkey processing plant with few windows.
The enterprise center in Ozark was much smaller, but felt more relatable to what an initial incubator at Lake of the Ozarks might feel like.
Both were inspiring in different ways.
While the eFactory was an arm of Missouri State University and part of a larger business program, the Hefner enterprise center was conjoined with the Ozark Chamber of Commerce. The majority of the businesses working out of the lower-cost space were in the service industry from a nursing service to a builder.
The Ozark facility did not limit itself to those types, but rather it appeared those businesses ended up being the ones that their space was most useful to. Tech or IT startups that they had tried to attract had typically gone elsewhere, attributed in part to high speed internet limitations but also because they wanted to operate in a space with similar companies.
Beyond the physical office space, such as a conference room where the builder could meet clients, the Ozark center also offered virtual offices, providing a physical address for Google search purposes and a mail collection point. The Chamber office staff can also answer phones for the business.
Services for businesses that could also be included at an incubator location, and offered at both Springfield and Ozark centers, are mentorship and education through existing organizations. The big idea of an incubator is not necessarily offering something that didn’t exist, but placing all of these services under one roof so that entrepreneurs can more easily connect with them in the extremely busy day-to-day of a small business.
SCORE, Small Business Administration, University of Missouri Extension and the Chambers themselves all offer services for start-ups and small businesses.
The eFactory also formed community partnerships with law firms and CPAs who offered discounted services to startups in the program especially on basic services.
Of course, one of the biggest obstacles for the incubator concept at the Lake is essentially the same one that faces many small businesses here - capital.
Ozark’s solutions for funding included sponsorships and special partnerships, and there are also grants available to help the initial setup of the incubator.