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Culture

Small Town Business Incubator Says The Secret to Success Lies in Mentoring, Community

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The Ozarks Small Business Incubator, or OzSBI, provides mentoring and business education to potential entrepreneurs. (Photo:

http://ozarkspub.vo.llnwd.net/o37/KSMU/audio/mp3/small-town-business-incubator-says-secret-success-lies-mentoring-community_53472.mp3

On Washington Avenue, the street that heads north from the West Plains town square, there’s a renovated historic building with arched doorways. In the olden days, this building was a feed mill, and a hotel, and a transport company…those glorious arched doorways—they’re tall, because horse-pulled wagons used to drive through them.

This is OzSBI – the Ozarks Small Business Incubator. "Downtown West Plains," a 501(c)3  non-profit organization, bought the building with help from the City of West Plains on the down payment. Then, renovations began.  Toney Aid is the director.

He says it gave him and others here a jolt when, a few years ago, the national Small Business Administration—or SBA—did a study of entrepreneurship across the United States.  

Aid: “And we woke up one morning and read in the newspaper where Howell County was number one in the state of Missouri for producing entrepreneurs.”

Davidson:  “And, I’m guessing that’s per capita, right?”

Aid: “Right. More people in Howell County and the surrounding area wanted to start a new business then people in Springfield, St. Louis, Columbia…we’re number one. And that shocked us. And then we read down in the article, and we were number 42 in the US.  So, there was San Jose, California, Silicon Valley, Colorado Springs, Colorado, Greensboro, North Carolina, and Howell County, Missouri.”

Aid says research shows that if you go out and try to open a business, your chances of being in business after five years are twenty percent, he said.   But if you go through an incubator, he says, your chances rise to eighty percent. And in a small town economy, you can’t afford to lose opportunity.

In the past, West Plains has been an attractive place for large corporations to be based, or at least have a regional hub or factory.

“But looking into the future, we don’t see that many big companies coming to rural areas. We’re not giving up on them. It’s possible, but they’re going to be hard to get. So, the way to grow our economy in the future is to grow local businesses that will create jobs, that will raise income, and that will make the whole economy more vibrant,” Aid said.

The organizers at OzSBI try to attract companies with a service or product to market in south-central Missouri, but also well beyond. Aid said the group visited incubators elsewhere before launching – and saw good, and bad, examples.

“A lot of communities get an old, derelict building, or a factory. They fix it up, divide it into space, provide low rent—and that’s it. They put someone in there. They don’t give them a time frame to move out—they just provided more space in the community.   That wasn’t helping people gain the skills they need to be successful,” Aid said.  

The Ozarks Small Business Incubator is still in its infancy; it’s already created about 20 jobs.

Right now, there are 10 clients—some of them are here using the office space, others are off-site. One client is a technology repair company.  Another business works to place people with developmental disabilities with families. Another is a counselor.

Successful incubators, Aid said, provide more than four walls and a desk. They provide mentoring and educational programs, and micro-loans at low interest rates. They provide community, and oversight. And that’s what’s happening here. There are also resources like private offices, a shared professional lobby, printers, copiers, and conference and meeting rooms.

And, as of this week, there’s what’s called an “Idea Center.”  That’s where remote workers, freelancers, and people building new businesses can come to work in an open-design, shared office space—with wireless internet, furniture, and a snack room.

Heather Fisher is the coordinator of OzSBI.

“You know, when you’re sitting in your home and thinking through ideas, you’re kind of in a vacuum. And it’s so nice to get out and start bouncing your business idea off of other people, and getting some feedback, and getting some direction,” Fisher said.

Here at OzSBI, clients are assigned a personal business mentor, and they’re expected to have, and maintain, a specific business plan. OzSBI is also looking for volunteers to help mentor and teach budding entrepreneurs.  

The goal, organizers say, is to propel south-central Missouri into a new era of economic development, and to take a proactive approach in seeing this region prosper.

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Davidson.