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Biz Incubators Helping Economy Grow

Filed by KOSU News in Business, Feature, Local News.
October 6, 2011

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In countless speeches from political leaders, you hear the words: the engine of America’s economy is small business. Whether it’s the dry cleaners down the road, or the high tech start up in the glass skyscraper, they all fill a role. To get some ideas off the ground, Oklahoma has put together an especially strong network of business incubators.

Dixie Agostino followed the traditional white collar track…graduate college, get a comfy job in the corporate world, and settle down. Then came The Forge, a business incubator in Tulsa, and she rushed off the beaten path.

“Just to be in there with other entrepreneurs who are going through the same thing, who are struggling to find the same talent that’s interested in a ground floor opportunity to just have somebody there that’s gone through what you’ve gone through and can just bounce ideas with you, it’s amazing,” said Agostino.

Agostino’s company helps employers find the best candidates for jobs. But it almost never existed.

“Without the Forge? No! We wouldn’t have. Maybe in five years? But no. It was I was looking and the space was available, it was cool, it was funky, it was cheap, it was fun. And this is a job that I do because I love it, not because I have to,” said Agostino.

The incubator’s like a backbone for Agostino’s company, and the other four tenants at The Forge. They get everything they need on the business side, from the basics (desks, chairs, internet, phone), to the extras, like business counseling, and networking opportunities. To Seth Cavin, one of the tenants at Oklahoma City incubator The Catbird Seat, that help is priceless.

“None of us have business degrees. So here we are trying to not only perform our job but figure out how to run a business.”

There’s a certain quality that an incubator provides too.

“You can only meet in Starbucks how many times before it just gets old. And so to have a professional place, an office, where you can go to work, where you’re not distracted by the house, you have a place where you can meet with your clients,” said Susan Erbach, regional director of the group that runs The Catbird Seat.

“We’re not your spouse, we’re not your friend, we’re not your family. We aren’t an investor, we have no stake in what it is that you do. And our consulting is always at no charge.”

Incubators aren’t a new idea; they’ve been around since the late 1980’s. They spiked in popularity around the dot com bubble, before settling into steady growth. Right now, Oklahoma’s near the top of the list in the country with more than 50 operating in the state. Brad Rickleman is part of the team running the Meridien Center in Stillwater.

“I mean they’re going to make mistakes. But if we can help them avoid some of those mistakes, the greater chance of them to be successful, the greater chance of them being able to survive and stay out in the community,” said Rickleman.

Incubators see an unusually high success rate for their tenants. They get to pick and choose who gets their help, putting together a portfolio of both risky ideas and more sure things. Even when they come across problems, there’s a built in support network.

“You’re not alone and you’re around people that are experiencing a similar issue,” said Erbach.

Agostino sees a certain psychological boost too.

“You can work from home and it’s free, use your own internet or whatever you want to do. But then you’re there by yourself. It’s just you, your cat and the laundry and how depressing is that.”

All of these perks come with a deadline. The clock starts ticking on tenants the moment they move in; by year three, they’re usually expected to be ready to leave, something Agostino’s coming to grips with.

“It’s not going to be for us forever. It’s not going to be for any of us forever. But that’s the great part about it is we got to be together and learn all of our lessons and jump out on our own.”

Dixie says she’s already expanded her business to two more full-time employees. And she’s looking to hire one more to meet the demand.


You can follow Ben Allen on Twitter: @BenAllenKOSU.

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