PubTalk may spill onto street

Popular networking events hope to add outreach to startups

By Libby Clark, Columbian Web Editor

Published:

 

Name that Nonprofit

What should The Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council name its new nonprofit? It wants your help. To submit your ideas and vote on others’ suggestions, post to Innovate Clark County’s Facebook wall. The winner will be featured in The Columbian.

Innovate Clark County is The Columbian’s online community to connect entrepreneurs and others interested in fostering business innovation and growth in Southwest Washington, join the conversation at www.columbian.com/innovate

If you go

• What: PubTalk, a networking event for entrepreneurs, with a business pitch from Vancouver-based Hour Glass Coffee. Guest speaker is Mark Paul, author of “The Entrepreneur’s Survival Guide” and the recently published “How to Attract Significantly More Customers … in good times & bad.”

• When: Sept. 15, 5:15-7:30 p.m.

• Where: AHA!, 415 W. 6th St., Suite 605, Vancouver

• Cost: $15 for Oregon Entrepreneurs Network members, $25 for nonmembers

• Information: Space is limited. Register online at http://www.swwdc.org/events.

PubTalk networking events have been so successful in Vancouver that Clark County economic development officials are using the momentum to form a nonprofit business accelerator for local entrepreneurs.

The drinking and networking will continue, but the nonprofit outfit — which does not yet have a name — will also offer customized service to selected companies that demonstrate the potential to grow quickly and create jobs. Ideal candidates will be well beyond the idea stage and already have some funding and a business plan, said Bonnie Moore, director of business services at the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council and the Columbia River Economic Development Council.

“We see it as a job-creation engine, a vehicle to retain our talent and a long-term economic development vehicle that will also expand our tax base,” she said.

The accelerator may also eventually expand to include an investment fund that would provide some startup capital to local businesses.

The Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council used a $15,000 federal work force development grant to staff and launch the bimonthly PubTalk networking events last December, modeling them on Oregon Entrepreneurs Network’s popular Portland PubTalk series.

All four Vancouver events sold out, with more than 100 entrepreneurs, investors and service providers attending each time to network and hear Clark County startups pitch their business ideas. By the fourth event in June, the events had attracted enough sponsors to break even financially, an indication that a nonprofit model could be sustainable, Moore said.

Now the grant has expired, and the events’ organizers want to continue the project’s mission by forming an independent nonprofit.

A new model

Beyond more networking events, the nonprofit will also offer a select group of early-stage Clark County companies free marketing, legal, and financial advice, as well as coaching on how to present a business plan to investors.

These changes will differentiate the new nonprofit from the Oregon Entrepreneurs Network’s model, said Kathy Sego, co-owner of Sego’s Herb Farm in La Center and a member of the Columbia River Economic Development Council’s advisory board and the PubTalk committee. “It’s a fabulous organization that puts on a lot of presentations and PubTalks, but they don’t fully surround (startups) in Clark County and bring public and private resources to help them grow organically.”

The organizers hope to raise enough money through grants and donations to hire an executive director and support staff within the first year. But most services would be supplied by volunteers, along with staff the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council and CREDC. To start, an eight-member advisory board, led by Sego and Portland-based international business consultant Richard Biggs, will invite 15 to 20 experienced executive-level consultants from the metro area to be business mentors for free or for a minimal fee.

Small-business focus

The new nonprofit is one of several recent local initiatives aiming to nurture and develop small businesses, a new focus for economic development groups that have historically focused on recruiting and growing large companies.

The city of Vancouver, for example, is working with Clark College to build an online small business portal — a one-stop shop for creating a business in Clark County.

The Clark County Board of Commissioners is debating a “fee holiday” to temporarily waive fees associated with land development and tenant improvements for businesses that create 10 or more jobs.

And the Port of Vancouver floated the idea of setting up a formal incubator program, with reduced rent for startups, to help nurture the region’s manufacturing industry cluster, including metals fabrication, wood products or plastics manufacturing.

The Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council and CREDC explored providing office space for their in-the-works accelerator, but have temporarily abandoned the idea in order to keep up-front costs at a minimum.

“The payback on an incubator is very long,” Sego said. “And there are funding issues that could hinder our ability to accelerate business growth in Clark County.”

The next PubTalk event will be Sept. 15 at 5:15 p.m. at the offices of AHA! in downtown Vancouver.

For more information or to get involved in the nonprofit accelerator, contact Shelley Parker at the Southwest Washington Workforce Development, 360-567-1062 or sparker@swwdc.org