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Cover Story

Getting a Boost

Lisa Papademetriou, founder of Bookflow

The name tells a good part of the story. Launch413, one of the latest additions to the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, exists to help developing companies get to the proverbial next level. It does so by linking entrepreneurs with seasoned experts in everything from marketing to supply-chain dynamics, thus enabling them to soar higher — and, hopefully, within the 413.

Lisa Papademetriou is a wordsmith.

She’s a novelist specializing in young-adult fiction — she’s written, among other things, the New York Times bestseller Middle School: My Brother is a Big, Fat Liar — but she’s also been an editor at Harper Collins, teaches writing, and is a sought-after public speaker.

But she also knows how to use numbers effectively, especially when it comes to the business she’s trying to take to the next level.

She knows, for example, that publishing is a $77 billion business. Further, she knows that something like 1.2 million different books are published each year, many of them self-published. And perhaps most importantly, especially when it comes to her venture, she knows that perhaps one in 10 people who start writing a book will actually finish it.

With all these numbers in mind, Papademetriou created Bookflow, a cloud-based tool for writers that helps them become more creative — and more productive.

“It helps writers build skills, with a framework that’s built out to support specifically long-form fiction,” she explained. “It provides information on structure and checklists to help people keep their scenes on track and accomplish what they want to do.

“It helps build motivation with Fitbit-style trackers on both a daily and a project level so that you have a certain amount of accountability,” she went on. “And it also offers rewards.”

Those aforementioned numbers also help explain why she enlisted the help of Launch413, an initiative, but also a business itself, that has become an intriguing addition to the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

In a nutshell, Launch413 helps take startups to their first $10 million in revenue, said Paul Silva, co-founder along with Rick Plaut. Silva is perhaps best known for his work to create Valley Venture Mentors, but he now wears many hats, as we’ll see, including president of River Valley Investors, an angel-investor network.

Paul Silva says Launch413 was created to address a gap in the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem — specifically companies ready for venture funding.

When wearing his Launch413 hat, he and other members of the team help people like Papademetriou take an existing venture to that proverbial next level through guidance and consultation on matters ranging from sales to technology to supply chain.

This consultation is provided in exchange for what amounts to royalties in the business — not an equity stake — payable down the road.

That’s how Launch 413 does what it does. As for the why, that’s summed up in this simple line from its website: “we believe there is no better way to create prosperity than to help entrepreneurs turn their crazy dreams into innovation and jobs for the future.”

For Papademetriou, her crazy dream is what she calls “the world’s first online writing mentor,” which provides an organizational framework for helping writers stay on point, on target, and finish what they start.

She told BusinessWest she clearly understood what the market wanted and needed, but she didn’t know everything she needed to know to convert the service, currently available for free, into a successful business.

So, with some urging from Silva, she enlisted help from Launch413 — specifically, from people like Eric Ashman, CFO of the Huffington Post and serial entrepreneur; Meghan Fitzgerald Henshon, global brand manager for Procter & Gamble; and Randy Krotowski, CIO of a Fortune 100 company with vast experience in negotiating joint ventures and acquisitions.

Consultation from such individuals would otherwise be prohibitively expensive, if you actually get them on the phone, said Papademetriou, adding that Launch 413 provides such access, and she is taking full advantage.

Thus, her story — that’s an industry term — provides a perfect example of how Launch413 is becoming an important addition to the entrepreneurial landscape. And there are many others, such as Wooftrax, maker of the Walk for a Dog app, and a company with this marketing slogan: “Don’t just take your dog for a walk … take your walk for a dog.”

Indeed, this venture, launched by Doug Hexter, enables users to raise funds for an animal organization every time they take their dog for a walk.

Revenues are generated from advertisements, said Hexter, adding that some 50 million walks have been taken since it was launched two years ago, benefiting 9,000 animal charities.

“Launch413 is helping take things to the next level,” Hexter told BusinessWest. “They’ve been great in, well, helping us focus on what makes sense to focus on.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an indepth look at Launch413 and how it is becoming an exciting new plot line in ongoing efforts to foster entrepreneurship in the region and create more jobs and vibrancy in the process.

A Real Page Turner

When she was teaching, Papademetriou said, she was struck by just how many students had a good idea for a story and the motivation to write it, but had trouble organizing it into a cohesive manuscript and identifying the objectives they were supposed to accomplish with their work.

“On the sentence level, their stuff was great,” she told BusinessWest. “On the big-picture level, on the strategy level … not so much. They had no trouble with descriptions or even creating vibrant characters, but they couldn’t make a whole story, and they couldn’t get to the end.”

Bookflow was created to help them get to the end, and in that respect, it is much like Launch413 itself; both concepts are focused on the big picture, strategy, and putting the pieces together — for a specific venture, but also the region itself.

“We believe there is no better way to create prosperity than to help entrepreneurs turn their crazy dreams into innovation and jobs for the future.”

As Silva explained, River Valley Investors (RVI) has long been interested in investing in more local companies, but it has struggled to identify enough local ventures that were far enough along for investors to feel comfortable taking on the risk.

“When VVM took off, we had hope that we could invest in VVM graduates,” he went on, referring to the agency’s accelerator program. “And we invested in one or two of them, but VVM has graduated some 200 companies. So there was a gap between what VVM was graduating and what RVI could comfortably invest in.”

Launch413 was created to help close that gap.

Elaborating, Silva said most of the companies VVM has been graduating are led by first-time founders.

“And these first-time founders have to make all the first-timer mistakes — those are the rules,” he explained. “And we don’t want to invest in someone who we know is going to make all those first-timer mistakes, because they’re going to make them on our dime.”

Meanwhile, such first-time founders generally don’t have the money needed to hire people have essentially been there and done that, he went on, thus creating a frustrating catch-22 — one that needed to be addressed.

Launch413 was born from that frustration, said Silva, adding that it provides entrepreneurs with access to people who have been there and done that and are willing to share their wealth of knowledge for a share of the profits down the road.

Doug Hexter, founder of Wooftrax, is one of many entrepreneurs who have received consultation from those behind Launch413.

“I realized that I knew a bunch of crazy-smart people who don’t need to get paid today,” Silva said. “They can take a risk and help the companies, and thus help solve the chicken-and-egg problem.”

The operating model for Launch413, he went on, is to invest in a company by providing ongoing consultative support in the crafting of a strategic plan, focusing on the areas where the entrepreneur or group needs technical assistance to get from here to there.

“We’ll say, ‘OK, what are your biggest challenges?’” he explained. “‘Do you need to redo your branding or build a robust marketing strategy? The former global brand manager for Procter & Gamble is going to meet with you every two weeks to get that done. You need to get your financials straightened out before you meet with venture capitalists? This is the founding CFO of the Huffington Post; he’s going to meet with you every two weeks until you’re done and ready, and if you impress him, he’ll introduce you to his VC friends.’

“And so on and so forth,” he continued, adding that Launch413 has more than dozen such consultants ready to assist. And when companies being helped then come to RVI and other groups in search of capital, that team behind them certainly helps eliminate some of the risk that might be involved.

This support comes in exchange for royalties, or a percentage of top-line revenue, a few years down the road and until the company reaches $10 million in revenues, said Silva, adding that this overall model is somewhat unique. He’s seen it done with one-offs and unicorn companies (revenues in excess of $1 billion) but not in a structured format like this.

As for that royalties structure, he believes it works more effectively than taking an equity stake, something most entrepreneurs don’t want to do anyway.

“Our incentive is not to encourage the entrepreneur to sell the company,” he said, adding that ‘413’ exists in the name as a nod toward the goal of creating more businesses for this region. “By taking a royalty, our only incentive is to help the entrepreneur earn money. If the entrepreneur wants to sell the company, they can certainly do that, and we’ll get paid then. But they know our only incentive is to make the company more successful.”

The Plot Thickens

Returning to the many motivations for Bookflow, Papademetriou noted that, when she encountered students who had trouble getting to the finish line, she would usually recommend that they read books on writing to find some inspiration and a roadmap.

“Invariably, they would try to apply everything all at once and get frustrated,” she said. “And I kept thinking, ‘if I can just be there with them as they’re trying to compose, encouraging them or reminding them gently that this scene needs to have an emotional transition, or some technical thing, it would be a lot easier.’”

Through Bookflow, that’s essentially what she does — she’s there with the writer as he or she continues their journey to the final page. “You can’t always be sitting next to someone as they’re composing,” she explained, “but you can offer a piece of software that serves as that kind of mentor.”

In a way, Launch413 provides a similar service to the entrepreneur — helping that individual or team get to where they want to go.

“As someone who has been in publishing and has been a novelist, I didn’t necessarily have contacts with the kind of business background that one needs if one wants to launch a product and create a business,” said Papademetriou. “I knew what the consumer needed, but I didn’t know how to conceive a business strategy. I didn’t know how to craft an investor pitch, and I didn’t even really know how to create a cohesive marketing plan. And Launch 413 has been instrumental in helping me with all of those things.”

Hexter tells a similar story with Wooftrax, adding that the company was already established when it became involved with Launch413, which has been instrumental in helping it scale up.

“It’s a process,” he said. “They’ve been helping us in identifying strategies to get to that next step, partnerships, helping us in the decision process, and more.

“They have expertise in the areas that we need help in, without actually having those people on staff, which we couldn’t afford to do,” he went on. “And they’ve helped us make connections — connections in the community, connections to other entrepreneurs, connections to venture-capital people, and other people doing interesting startup activity — and all those connections become useful in the short term and the medium term.”

“On the sentence level, their stuff was great. On the big-picture level, on the strategy level … not so much. They had no trouble with descriptions or even creating vibrant characters, but they couldn’t make a whole story, and they couldn’t get to the end.”

As for the consultants working with the entrepreneurs, each one brings vast levels of experience and success to the equation. In Fitzgerald Henshon’s case, that experience comes in the realms of marketing and brand building, areas she said many business owners don’t fully understand.

“I do a lot of educating entrepreneurs on just what marketing is strategically,” she explained. “I think people think of marketing as websites and ads, but it’s what goes into that — that knowledge of the consumer and the benefits the business is trying to bring to the consumer — and then how to communicate it in a way that’s really authentic to the brand that they’re creating.”

She said there are many types of consumers, obviously, and ventures like those now being assisted by Launch413 must identify their specific consumers and craft a message intended specifically for them.

For that reason, the work she does with these entrepreneurs is very hands-on, it involves imparting decades of acquired knowledge, and it’s quite rewarding on a number of levels.

“I really love it,” she said. “I’m impressed with the quality of the entrepreneurs and the ideas. And I think that this [Launch413] is a marriage that works very well. You’re helping meet specific needs, so it seems like every time you meet, something concrete is being tackled.

“It’s not advice and then ‘take it or leave it,’” she went on. “It’s something really tangible to be worked on, and then we roll up our sleeves and get it done. We don’t offer a few ideas in a presentation, for example; we go through it slide by slide.”

By the Book

Papademetriou isn’t sure how her latest work — meaning Bookflow, not the next young-adult novel to hit the shelves — will end or even how the next chapter will develop.

She’s confident, though, that this will be the story of a new and intriguing product that will meet a critical need — helping all those writers who start a book and never finish it, for example — in a meaningful and profitable way.

It’s a story with an intriguing cast of characters and several potential plot twists, all resulting from the help of Launch413.

And, as all those who spoke with BusinessWest noted, it’s a story that needs to be written many more times as the region seeks to grow and add more jobs.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Hampshire County

World Changers

Phil Weilerstein

Phil Weilerstein wants to help innovators move their ideas into practice — and perhaps change the world.

Katya Cherukumilli has a big idea with potentially bigger impact.

Her nonprofit startup, Seattle-based Global Water Labs, is developing a scalable and affordable fluoride-removal technology that aims to reduce the incidence of irreversible diseases as a result of consuming excess naturally occurring fluoride in groundwater — a risk common to some 200 million people worldwide.

She credits Hadley-based VentureWell with helping her move her big idea beyond the headspace into something tangible and, hopefully, impactful.

“One of the things VentureWell helped me realize was that the business model has to be really different for the R&D pilot phase and the scale-up and commercialization and expansion phase,” she said. “In a sense, I pivoted from how I was thinking about the fundraising for the initial pilot phase to thinking about who the different donors and funding agencies would be for the scale-up phase.”

VentureWell, which has been promoting technology entrepreneurship — especially in the sciences, medicine, and the environment — for almost a quarter-century, was a key reason Cherukumilli was able to even reach the pilot stage, thanks to $25,000 grant, but also connections to additional opportunities and networks she otherwise wouldn’t have access to.

“One of the things VentureWell helped me realize was that the business model has to be really different for the R&D pilot phase and the scale-up and commercialization and expansion phase.”

Myriam Sbeiti tells a similar story. While at New York University, she co-founded Sunthetics, which has developed a solar-powered device to use during the chemical-input phase of nylon production, helping eliminate greenhouse-gas emissions from the manufacturing process. But she quickly learned that conceiving a way to solve a worldwide problem and actually solving it are two different things.

“I’ve learned that entrepreneurship is finding solutions to completely new problems every day. I’ve been able to develop many new competencies from scratch — from negotiating contracts to navigating regulatory hurdles,” she said. “VentureWell has been a catalyst for our development. They provide a healthy balance of business mentoring and support while also keeping in mind the feasibility and viability of a venture’s technology.”

It’s that gap — between good ideas and viable businesses — that VentureWell has been trying to bridge since its founding in 1995, largely working with teams of college students and faculty. Its success to date, and its future promise, have both turned heads and drawn significant funding support, from the likes of the Lemelson Foundation, USAID, the European Investment Fund, the National Institutes of Health, the Autodesk Foundation, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the National Science Foundation, to name a few.

“Our objective broadly is to impact entrepreneurship and innovation at colleges and universities,” VentureWell President Phil Weilerstein told BusinessWest, noting that its programs encompass grant making, faculty development, conferences, and curriculum — all with the goal of “making the idea of entrepreneurship more available to students.”

Laura Sampath says VentureWell is looking to adapt its model to enterprises that aren’t college-based.

Laura Sampath says VentureWell is looking to adapt its model to enterprises that aren’t college-based.

More specifically, the idea is to foster programs that help people move ideas into practice — and then scalability.

“As someone who’d started a business in the Valley before this, I wish I’d have had someone share these things with me so that the startup process was more effective, efficient, and less painful,” he went on. “It’s very rewarding, knowing the value it has for the people we work with, and being able to do it in a way that not only supports that particular venture but creates, through that venture, other pathways.”

Such a program is needed, if a recent report by the National Chamber Foundation and the Millennial Generation Research Review is to be believed. While more than 2,100 U.S. colleges and universities have added an entrepreneurship curriculum, the report notes, a large percentage of former students claim that the coursework did not adequately prepare them to start a business. Which raises the question, how can student innovators gain the necessary tools and knowledge to take their idea to market?

Enter VentureWell, and its team of 56 individuals trying to change the world from their quiet corner of Hadley. “We provide people with a healthy start,” Weilerstein said, “and get them on a pathway they might not otherwise have found.”

How they do that can’t be explained in a few words — and the potential worldwide impact is broader still.

What’s the Big Idea?

VentureWell was established in 1995 with support from the Lemelson Foundation, founded by prolific independent U.S. inventor Jerome Lemelson, who believed invention was essential to American economic success and vitality and envisioned a program that would foster the next generation of collegiate inventors and help them bring their ideas to impact.

In 1995, Lemelson convened a group of higher education faculty and administrators at Hampshire College to discuss how to make his vision a reality. In the meeting, Lemelson described an organization that would support educators in implementing a hands-on, experiential approach to learning while at the same time helping students develop new products and boost them toward commercialization.

VentureWell — originally called the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance — was created out of this meeting. It began offering grants to faculty to start programs in technology entrepreneurship, particularly ones that focused on the development of ‘E-teams’ — groups of students, faculty, and advisors working to commercialize a novel idea. VentureWell then funded the best E-teams coming out of those courses and programs, helping them bring their inventions to market.

Christina Tamer (left), senior program officer, and Lauren Gase

Christina Tamer (left), senior program officer, and Lauren Gase, senior evaluation analyst, at VentureWell’s annual OPEN conference, which promotes connections among innovators and entrepreneurs.

The organization has since grown to a membership of 200 colleges and universities from across the U.S., engaging — and funding — thousands of undergraduate and graduate student entrepreneurs each year.

“Our approach from the outset has been to develop pathways for people with good ideas to figure out how to make an impact in the world through an innovation process that leads to scaled entrepreneurial outcomes,” Weilerstein said. “We’ve been successful at doing that both in the individual E-team ventures as well as working with institutions — with faculty and folks who are the enablers of this work — to improve the productivity of their environments.”

The end goal, he added, is to create pathways and support resources that enable ventures not only to emerge, but emerge with the ability to scale up and sustain that growth.

This is accomplished in three ways: programs to assist early-stage innovators, faculty initiatives, and cultivating broad-based innovation and entrepreneurship networks.

E-teams — VentureWell’s most common approach to early-stage innovation — are formed through competitive grants accessed through universities, Weilerstein explained. “Students are driving the projects — they’re the entrepreneurs, and they’re expected to be the startup founders, typically after they graduate. They learn by doing early-stage development in school, so they’re in good position to raise money and launch the company after graduation. Our training programs are designed to support that process.”

VentureWell’s second means to achieve its goals is by supporting faculty initiatives at colleges and universities — basically, challenging innovation and entrepreneurship (I&E) faculty to pioneer new and better ways of engaging their students in the entrepreneurial process. To these ends, the organization issues grants up to $30,000 to support science- and technology-based I&E in higher education.

Finally, VentureWell wants to cultivate networks of inventors and entrepreneurs to build an ecosystem of innovation.

“VentureWell has awarded over $11 million to 450-plus faculty at more than 230 different institutions,” Victoria Matthew, VentureWell senior program officer, said during a recent conference session on a project called Mission 2025, which was designed to elicit a vision for the future of I&E education. “Over that time, I&E education ecosystems have flourished and advanced such that competitions, entrepreneurship centers, and maker spaces are now standard on many campuses. While the progress is impressive, many in our community are now asking: ‘where do we go from here?’”

Indeed, Laura Sampath, vice president of Programs, told BusinessWest that, more than five years ago, VentureWell started being recognized nationally for the work it was doing with early-stage innovators, and funders were asking how to translate the model to support innovators who were not necessarily university-based. So the organization started working with USAID and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on programs that supported scientific community.

“It’s the same at its core with a slightly different participant base, and those programs have continued to grow,” Sampath said, adding that VentureWell also works with the U.S. State Department to promote enterprises in Africa, Eastern Europe, and other areas. “With this model we developed over our first 20-plus years in existence, there are a great deal of transferrable ideas within that.”

Getting Down to Business

Again, the idea is to effect broad change in some area of technology, healthcare, or environment — and change lives, perhaps worldwide.

“We want to have an impact on educational and institutional systems, infrastructure, and ecosystems that provide the breeding ground and opportunity space where people with ideas can begin to think about the applications of their ideas,” Weilerstein said. “We work with the innovators to move that forward to support opportunity and investment and jobs — but also societal benefits through health and environment impacts.”

Sometimes the innovator doesn’t even understand what the eventual value of his or her invention will be.

“Like, I might know how to put a coating on a piece of glass so that nothing will stick to it. Well, who cares about that?” Weilerstein said, suggesting that, perhaps, people who make solar panels and want them to shed dust may value that idea most. “The initial thinking was, ‘I can make windows that never need to be washed.’ Well, it turns out that’s not actually worth much to people. So the innovators are finding out where the value is and what will actually lead to a viable, scalable business.”

In short, the E-teams and other programs are teaching students and faculty how to go from thinking like a scientist to thinking like an entrepreneur. “How can we support the scaling of your brilliant research idea and help it move more quickly or successfully into use by other people? That’s the critical jump between nothing ever coming of a really interesting research result and something actually world-changing happening.”

At VentureWell’s inception, Sampath added, the field of innovation and entrepreneurship was very different, and the types of institutions it works with must continue to evolve along with societal needs. “Part of what we now need to do is create that engine in a way that keeps us up with the times, that ensures we’re meeting the need of the [innovation] field as it stands today, which is constantly changing. And there’s no shortage of opportunity.”

Part of Mission 2025, Weilerstein said, is building tech-innovation networks in geographic pockets — like in the Midwest — that don’t have the advantages of, say, Boston, where resources, funding, and talent to build a billion-dollar company are close at hand.

“This is very rewarding work,” he added. “I feel lucky every day to come to work. It is meaningful work, both for the outcomes that happen and the way the work we do changes people.”

Even if an idea never turns into a viable business, the E-team experience often changes the mindset of the students, who then bring that heightened entrepreneurial approach to whatever career they attempt.

And if an idea does take root? Well, the world is full of massive problems in need of solving.

“The solutions to the problems facing society are often found at scale in an entrepreneurial way, and I think that’s true of things like climate change, pollution issues, and healthcare,” he went on. “People often are reluctant to associate problem solving with entrepreneurship, but that’s the way we approach it. Our work starts with invention. That’s really at the core of what we’re looking for — people who have figured out how to take a good idea and reduce it to practice. And the good idea is usually a solution to somebody’s problem.”

To an entrepreneur, the end goal of a good idea might be a business, independence, and financial security. That’s all fine, but Weilerstein wants people to think bigger.

“You have the satisfaction of a career, but it’s also an important way for society to solve problems,” he said. “All the things we think of as a crisis, we also see as an opportunity.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Entrepreneurship

Stout Measures

Ray Berry and business partner Ashley Clark

Ray Berry and business partner Ashley Clark at the company’s beer garden in Tower Square Park.

Ray Berry said he recently delivered what amounted to the commencement address for the most recent accelerator class at SPARK EforAll Holyoke.

When asked for a synopsis of that speech, Berry, founder and general manager of Springfield-based White Lion Brewing Co., said he talked to the fledgling business owners about the roller-coaster ride that is entrepreneurship — the ups and downs, successes, failures, and inevitable pivots.

“They’re traveling the same journey I traveled,” he said of his time working with Valley Venture Mentors and taking part in its accelerator program. “I talked about what worked and what didn’t work, what I would do if I had the opportunity to change something, and how, at the end the day, you win some along the way and you lose some, and that just makes your company stronger and the team around you stronger; you ride that wave of experience.”

He was speaking, of course, from experience — lots of wave riding, in fact, as he’s taken White Lion from a part-time pursuit, a concept he launched while working for the United Way of Pioneer Valley, to a full-time passion.

“At the end the day, you win some along the way and you lose some, and that just makes your company stronger and the team around you stronger; you ride that wave of experience.”

Indeed, he told BusinessWest that the casual observer might not be aware of those turns, dips, challenging times, and pivots, but there have been many of each on this ride, which started in 2011.

“A lot of people see what’s on the surface, but they rarely get a glimpse of what’s going on behind the scenes,” he explained. “The late nights, a lot of conversation, a lot of strategy … and during that process, there are some wins, and there are some losses. In our business, it’s about sales, and through that journey, you gain accounts, and you lose some accounts.”

For White Lion, the journey has come to an intriguing place — one where the venture is taking dramatic steps to expand its footprint geographically, while also increasing its presence in the region and playing an ever-larger role in the ongoing renaissance in Springfield.

These efforts take several forms, especially the ongoing plans to create a brewery and taproom in Tower Square, specifically at the long-vacant site of the former Spaghetti Freddy’s restaurant.

Berry and other partners recently appeared before the Armory Quadrangle Civic Assoc. to talk about their plans and what they might mean for the city and Tower Square, and in a few weeks they’ll do the same before the City Council, which must grant a special permit for the project to move forward.

Meanwhile, the company has moved forward with plans for a beer garden in Tower Square Park, the small park across Main Street from the office/retail complex. Actually, Berry likes to call this “an outdoor beer, music, food, and family venue,” a phrase that certainly captures what it’s all about.

Indeed, there’s White Lion on tap, but there’s also music — the Standing Bear Band and the Buddy McEarns Band were among the first acts booked — as well as rotating food trucks and other food providers, and activities for the entire family.

The venture is a logical extension of the White Lion Wednesdays pop-up beer gardens that drew a popular response, said Ashley Clark, a cash-management officer at Berkshire Bank, part of the White Lion team for several years, and now a managing partner. And it is an important step forward as the company works to build its brand while also being part of the efforts to bring more vibrancy to Springfield and its central business district.

“The White Lion Wednesdays were created so that everyone could leave work, stop, have a beer, hang out for a little bit, and be on their way,” said Clark. “Now, with the beer garden stationary in one place, the event is created not just for people leaving work, but also for families.”

White Lion’s new beer garden was designed to be enjoyed by the whole family.

White Lion’s new beer garden was designed to be enjoyed by the whole family.

Combined, these ambitious steps add up to a critical moment in the company’s brief history and represent an intriguing new chapter in the story.

“We’re at a pivotal stage of growth — we have strong programming, we have strong community engagement, we’re in the midst of building a brewery, and we’re clearly growing by way of volume and the amount of sales that are hitting the market,” Berry said, adding that, once the downtown brewery opens, the company will add another six to 12 employees, taking growth to another, much higher plane.

For this issue’s focus on entrepreneurship, BusinessWest talked with Berry and Clark about White Lion and the latest strategic initiatives in its business plan — but also about those basic tenets of business that Berry passed on in his recent address — especially the part about riding that wave of experience.

Lager Than Life

Returning to that address at the SPARK EforAll event, Berry said he spent a good deal of time talking about pivoting, how natural it is, and how important it is.

“I talked about how people in business often get stuck in their lane — we don’t want to venture out, for whatever reason,” he explained. “So I was very strong in touching on fear of failure, the risk quotient, the need to pivot, the need to listen … but how also, at the end of the day, you’re responsible for the decisions you make, and you have to live by them.

“To change course is a natural part of a growing business,” he went on. “And sometimes, those forces are financial, demand, supply, government regulation, and more, so you always have to be aware of all of those fronts.”

Listening, pivoting, and moving out of the lane pretty much sum up what is approaching a decade of business for White Lion, a brand that now boasts several different labels and has made the White Lion imagery part of the landscape in Springfield — and beyond.

But none of it has been easy, said Berry, who cited his plans — first envisioned several years ago — for building a brewery downtown as a solid example.

“It’s been a journey, and we’ve really come full circle,” he told BusinessWest. “From day one, we wanted the brewery to be part of the downtown fabric; we wanted to be in the heart of what was being called a renaissance, a resurgence in downtown Springfield.”

While many breweries are located in more rural areas, in old mills along rivers and streams, Berry said some have set up shop in the central business district and been part of downtown revitalization efforts.

He noted Brooklyn Brewery — a venture that has played an important role in the meteoric rise of that New York borough in recent years — as an example he’s in many ways trying to emulate.

“They took it upon themselves to invest in a highly dilapidated area in Brooklyn,” he said. “And since that investment, that entire area has been redeveloped, and it’s become a destination.

“White Lion is anchored in the heart of a metropolitan area,” he went on, adding that he was determined to build a brewery somewhere downtown.

But the search became more complex than he could have anticipated.

“I think that, in the beginning, I might have been a little naïve, feeling right from the onset that there would be a lot of opportunity, and space, for a brewery, and that was just not the case,” he said, adding that it soon became clear that the company was going to have to fit, or “mold,” itself into a suitable location downtown.

He looked at a number of options, including the old Rain nightclub building in Stearns Square, a property in Market Place that was eventually deemed more expensive to rehab than new construction, and 1350 Main St., also known as One Financial Plaza, before the focus shifted to Tower Square.

Actually, it was the new ownership of that landmark property that approached him.

White Lion partners

White Lion partners Ashley Clark and Ray Berry with brand ambassadors Scott Freniere, second from left, and Jeremy Eickelberg at the beer garden.

“They wanted us to be part of their plans to make Tower Square a destination of its own,” he said. “We were intrigued and felt very comfortable in those discussions.”

One of the new owners of Tower Square, Vid Mitta, has also become an equity partner in White Lion, said Berry, adding that the ownership team has expanded in recent months and now includes several managing partners, including Clark and brewer Mike Yates.

What’s on Tap?

It was this expanded team that appeared before the Armory Quadrangle Civic Assoc. last week, and is slated to make its case to the City Council later this month (they certainly believe they have a strong one).

If all goes as planned — and the brewing equipment has already been moved in — roughly 98% of production will take place in downtown Springfield, said Berry, adding that the remaining 2% — the bottles supplied to MGM Springfield (the rest are cans) — will be contracted out.

And while pressing on with the plans for the brewery, the owners are taking bold steps to build the brand and expand its footprint.

The beer garden is one of these steps, said Clark, adding that a permanent location for the beer garden and an expansion from Wednesdays to Wednesday through Saturday was a logical progression, and one that made this a family event.

“We’ve created an environment where, if you’re a mother and father with two young kids, everyone can come down on Saturday afternoon or Friday night and listen to some music and play games, and all have a good time,” she said, adding that the garden is open from 4 to 9 p.m.

Meanwhile, outside the city, the brand, which self-distributes, has now extended its reach across the state to Cape Cod and continues to look for new growth opportunities, said Berry, adding that it now has more than 750 accounts — and counting.

“We’ve been able to grow in Central and Eastern Mass. through hard work and forging relationships,” said Berry, who credits another fairly recent addition to the team, Blair Landry, a veteran of the craft-beer industry who had already forged a number of relationships on the distribution side within the industry with another label, and has been re-engaging with the White Lion brand. “Locally, it’s a much cleaner and clearer conversation because we’re local. Through the relationships that all of us have, we’ve been able to onboard a number of accounts that have enabled us to grow considerably over the past two years.”

He said the decision to self-distribute, while somewhat unusual, is a pivot— again, one of many — that has benefited the company in a number of ways.

“Early on, we relied too heavily on distribution partners,” he explained. “Those distribution partners can open doors, but they’re also managing another 100 to 150 brands, and that led us to make a pivot; we felt we could have a stronger level of engagement by doing it on our own, and we’ve been able to demonstrate that by opening up many more accounts and strengthening our outlook going forward.”

He acknowledged there is a tremendous amount of competition within the craft-beer industry, and new brands enter the market seemingly every week. But he said this competition provides both challenges and opportunities, with the latter coming to those willing to put in the work and make their brand stand out in a crowded marketplace.

“Craft is about local; craft is about conversation and fostering relationships,” he explained. “If you can engage and foster relationships and have good beer and be true to your word, you’re going to be able to open some doors, and we’ve done that.”

Hip Hops

Berry told BusinessWest that, if all goes smoothly — and what he told the accelerator graduates at commencement is that things certainly don’t always go smoothly — the first can of White Lion will be rolling off the line at the facility in Tower Square late this summer.

It will be an important moment for the company given the stage in its development and the location of the brewery — the heart of downtown Springfield.

But, in reality, it’s just the latest in a number of big moments, with many more likely to come as the team at White Lion continues to ride that wave of experience and continue its remarkable journey.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Entrepreneurship

Becoming a Resource

Robyn Caody, left, and Samalid Hogan are working to take Innovate413 to the next level as a resource to the region.

Robyn Caody, left, and Samalid Hogan are working to take Innovate413 to the next level as a resource to the region.

Samalid Hogan says that, when the website Innovate413 was launched roughly four years ago, it was with a desire to not only promote entrepreneurship and innovation in the region, but to inspire more of both.

And when she agreed to essentially take over the initiative early last year, she admitted the original goal was just to “keep it going,” as she put it, because she could clearly see the value it represented.

But rather than just keep it going, she has committed herself to taking its mission, and its offerings, to a much higher level. And with the help of a growing team that includes Robyn Caody, a business-culture and brand strategist who relocated to the region from New York City, Hogan, best known as director of the Western Mass. Small Business Development Center and winner of BusinessWest’s Continued Excellence Award last year, is doing just that.

Indeed, Innovate 413, or Inno413, for short, has become a multi-platform initiative, with a website (www.innovate413) as well as a monthly newsletter and comprehensive calendar of events related to entrepreneurship, professional development, and business management.

In addition to publishing original content, Innovate413 also aggregates and links to entrepreneurial news from outside sources, provides resources for entrepreneurs in the Pioneer Valley, and encourages its partner organizations to submit their own content highlighting innovative trends within their businesses.

The broad goals, said Hogan, are to educate and motivate the audience and also promote the region and all that’s happening within it, especially when it comes to a steadily growing startup community.

“There’s a big start-up culture here, a culture of creativity — I could sense that. But since I moved here, it’s been hard to find these people; I know they’re here, but where’s the community hub? How can I find out what people are doing? Innovate413 is a way to make that more obvious.”

“When I took it over, the goal was to just keep it alive and post items on the site,” she explained. “But now we’re actively engaged in taking this to the next level and making it much more of a resource.”

Caody agreed. She said she relocated to this region partly because of the large amounts of creativity and entrepreneurial spirit that exist here, and a desire to be part of all that. She joined Innovate413 to help shed some light on all that’s going on.

“There’s a big startup culture here, a culture of creativity — I could sense that,” she explained. “But since I moved here, it’s been hard to find these people; I know they’re here, but where’s the community hub? How can I find out what people are doing? Innovate413 is a way to make that more obvious.”

The content currently on the site provides an effective snapshot of the mission and how it’s carried out. There are several stories from the pages of BusinessWest — including those highlighting agencies such as TechSpring, Valley Venture Mentors, the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship at UMass Amherst, 1Berkshire, and others — and other media outlets. But there is more original content, such as a piece on the upcoming Demo Day, written by Paul Silva, president of Launch413, and short stories on individual businesses.

The site prints articles from agencies like TechSpring (one of the original founders of the site, along with Click Workspace and PixelEdge), Greentown Labs, and others, and submissions from individual entrepreneurs looking to help educate others or just tell their own story.

Headlines on educational stories currently on the site range from “Five Signs You Might Have Second-stage Business” to “Should You Get a Business Certification?” Meanwhile, there are profiles (again, many from BusinessWest) on agencies and businesses ranging from Happier Valley Comedy to Central Rock Gym.

The team at Innovate413 now includes Hogan; Caody, serving as chief Development officer; and Mychal Connolly Sr., an entrepreneur (he founded the venture Stinky Cakes), author, and speaker who serves as chief Marketing officer.

Together, they’re working to make the initiative more of a resource for area entrepreneurs — and the region as a whole — and an ever-more-important part of the entrepreneurship ecosystem in Western Mass.

“There’s a lot of opportunity here because a lot of organizations that are not really innovative have found themselves wanting to innovate. And we can really be a resource to these agencies.”

The goal moving forward, said Hogan, is to create more original content, build a subscriber base for the monthly newsletter — there are currently a few hundred, and the goal is 1,000 — and continually build the calendar, which is becoming a popular and valuable resource,

Indeed, the calendar posts events being staged by 16 different area organizations within the ecosystem, and organizers do the hard work by pulling the items off those agencies’ websites.

“We post anything that helps entrepreneurs,” said Hogan. “That includes training and educational programs such as those on how to start a business, networking events, pitch competitions, leadership programs, things like Demo Day, blockchain-technology meetups … anything that helps educate entrepreneurs.”

And, looking down the road, those at Innovate413 have a vision of perhaps creating events to help promote entrepreneurship. As with the startups it spotlights, the initiative’s business plan is evolving, said Caody.

“Ultimately, we want to create a community of entrepreneurs and small-business owners,” she said, adding that there is a considerable amount of momentum building within the startup community and the ecosystem that supports it, and Innovate413 wants to tap that energy and use it to fuel additional growth.

Like any business in this region, Innovate413 has the broad goal to be sustainable, said both Hogan and Caody, adding that the initiative is laying a solid foundation that will enable it to do just that.

“There’s a gap when it comes to this kind of service in this region, and we’re filling it, slowly but surely,” said Hogan. “We’re getting there.”

Caody agreed. “There’s a lot of opportunity here because a lot of organizations that are not really innovative have found themselves wanting to innovate,” she explained. “And we can really be a resource to these agencies.”

—George O’Brien

Features

Getting Creative

Kristin Leutz

Kristin Leutz says the inaugural Innovation Fest will provide a solid foundation on which to build.

HUBweek in Boston. Denver Startup Week. The Tom Tom Summit & Festival in Charlottesville, Va. South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.

These are just a few of the many highly successful and very well-attended entrepreneurship and innovation events now taking place across the country.

Some of them go on for a few days, others for a whole week, as their names make clear, said Kristen Leutz, executive director of Springfield-based Valley Venture Mentors (VVM), who has been to Startup Week and will likely attend some of those other gatherings in the months and years to come as she seeks to learn more about entrepreneurship ecosystems, how they work, and how they can be developed and expanded.

For right now, though, she’s busy putting together the latest addition to that list of summits. It will be called the Springfield Innovation Fest, or SIF for short, although its probably too early for an acronym to take hold.

Indeed, Leutz and her team at VVM are essentially starting from scratch and scrambling to pull things together for the June 12 event, to be staged at the Innovation Center on Bridge Street in Springfield. As she tells the story, those at VVM had been thinking about and talking about a summit — an event that would showcase this region’s burgeoning entrepreneurship ecosystem (and the many other things that are happening in and around Springfield) and take VVM’s Accelerator Awards banquet to a new and much higher plane. But they were initially focused on 2020, a round-number year with all kinds of meaning — until they decided not to wait that long to get the ball rolling.

“We decided to do this on a very short time frame,” she said. “Once we came up with the vision, we were all excited; we didn’t want to wait a another year. We said, ‘let’s lean into it and see what we can pull off.’”

Leutz told BusinessWest that the Springfield Innovation Fest certainly has a long way to go before it can be mentioned in the same sentence as those events in Boston, Denver, Central Texas, and Northern Virginia, but one has to start somewhere, create some buzz, and continually build on the foundation that’s been laid, and that is the very informal business plan for the festival.

“We decided to do this on a very short time frame. Once we came up with the vision, we were all excited; we didn’t want to wait a another year. We said, ‘let’s lean into it and see what we can pull off.’”

“Startup Week certainly wasn’t built in a day — or a week,” she said. “We want to see if we can gain some excitement and momentum for next year.”

The inaugural event, still very much in the planning stages, as noted, will feature a number of speakers, ample amounts of networking, and opportunities to get a taste of Springfield — figuratively and quite literally, with tours of the Springfield Museums and Fresh Paint mural art, as well as a visit to What’s on Tap Wednesday.

There are many goals for this year, said Leutz, listing everything from celebrating this region’s history of innovation and ‘firsts’ to recognizing the winners (and all the companies) in this year’s VVM Accelerator class, to moving the needle when it comes to putting Springfield and this region on the map as a startup and innovation hub.

“In the vein of these other festivals that showcase the startup and innovation economies, I thought that, given all that’s happening in Springfield, it was time for our own startup event,” she explained. “I want visibility for the work of entrepreneurship and innovation and how it affects our economy and how it affects traditional businesses as well as startups.

“The idea of being innovative goes beyond a startup company — it infiltrates everything that we do,” she went on. “Springfield is a city of firsts, and we really believe in that heritage and history, and we want people to see that it still is a city of innovation.”

For this issue and focus on business innovation, BusinessWest talked with Leutz about the launch of the SIF, what to expect this year, and where this summit can go in the years to come.

Summit Meeting

“How to Bootstrap the Bejeezus out of Your Startup.” “Think Like a Placemaker Transforming Neighborhoods.” “Future Forward: Live Better with Innovation in Healthcare.” “How to Help Female Founders Succeed (and Every Other Founder, Too).”

These are titles for just some of the presentations scheduled for the SIF, said Leutz, noting that they will cover two tracks — a startup track and an innovator track — and feature speakers that include both young entrepreneurs and leaders of several of the groups within that aforementioned entrepreneurship ecosystem.

And these presentations represent just one aspect of the festival, she went on, adding that there will be, as mentioned, several breaks for networking and collision-making, a showcase and lunch at which attendees can meet the VVM Accelerator and Summer Collegiate Accelerator startups as they showcase their businesses and compete for ‘VVM bucks,’ and also a pitch competition featuring the top five in the Accelerator and the awarding of prizes.

The full lineup is still very much a work in progress, even at this late date (remember, they started late), and the general ideas are to both call attention to the growing startup community and innovative energy in the region, and also give attendees something to take back home — whether that’s across the state or maybe cross-country (although that’s more likely to happen down the road).

This is the formula that those festivals mentioned at the top have followed, said Leutz, noting that many of them are works in progress as well.

That’s certainly the case with HUBweek, which was launched just three years ago, but now brings together attendees from 59 countries, 46 states, and 38 industries, according to the event’s website. Marketed as a gathering “where art, science, and technology collide,” HUBweek was founded by the Boston Globe, Harvard, MIT, and Massachusetts General Hospital, and its website describes it as “a giant petri dish welcoming impact-oriented artists, entrepreneurs, researchers, executives, makers, and up-and-comers. HUBweek brings together the curious, those building our future.”

Startup Week in Denver is in many ways similar, said Leutz, adding that she attended last fall’s festival and came away inspired to bring something with the same vibe, and energy, to the City of Homes.

“It was incredible,” she said, using that adjective to describe the scope of the show, the depth of the speakers, and the amount of planning and marketing that went into the event. “They had 1,000 applications for talks.”

While something to aspire to, these shows more importantly represent a model that can be replicated on a considerably smaller scale, she said, adding that, like the Boston show, she wants an event where worlds can collide, and, like Denver, she wants a “community-created event,” where people submit ideas for talks.

For this first show, organizers have put together a schedule of talks targeted toward entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs, and ‘innovators,’ a broad constituency to be sure, said Leutz. Speakers, many of them still to be confirmed, include Christian Lagier, executive director of TechSpring; Mo Reed-McNally of the MassMutual Foundation, and Laura Masulis, transformative development fellow with MassDevelopment (they’re handling the talk on transforming neighborhoods); Bill Cole, leader of Living Local, and Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, director of SPARK EforAll Holyoke, who will lead a discussion titled “How to Revive Main Street”; and Daquan Oliver, president of WeThrive, the first-prize winner in last year’s VVM Accelerator Awards.

As for this year’s Accelerator class, it is smaller — by design (16 companies) — in order to provide more in-depth, customized support to the startups, said Leutz, adding that a smaller group enabled VVM to have a higher ratio of entrepreneurs in residence to startups.

Meanwhile, some of the cash traditionally handed out at the annual banquet as prizes has been awarded already in order to help the startups advance their ventures, said Leutz, adding that there is still plenty at stake at the June 12 showcase and final pitch.

All-day passes to the SIF are $50 each ($45 each for blocks of three or more), and potential attendees can buy an extra ticket so an entrepreneur can attend for free, said Leutz, adding that the admission charge is essentially to cover the cost of the event. Sponsorship opportunities are available, starting at $1,000. For more information, visit www.valleyventurementors.org.

Getting Started

Like the companies taking part in the VVM Accelerator, the SIF is essentially a startup venture, Leutz acknowledged, and one with considerable promise to grow well beyond its current size and scope.

It will likely never be on the same level as HUBweek or Denver Startup Week, but like those other events, it provides an opportunity to bring several worlds together and spark more innovation.

SIF is not part of the local lexicon yet, but Leutz and her team believe it soon will be.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Editorial

Back nearly a quarter-century ago, BusinessWest launched a new recognition program — the first of what would become many: its Top Entrepreneur Award.

And that name pretty much says it all. It’s an award recognizing entrepreneurial spirit — the kind that made this region what it is today, business-wise. The kind possessed by people like Milton Bradley, Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson, Mike Kittredge of Yankee Candle, and Prestley and Curtis Blake, who were just 20 and 18, respectively, when they launched Friendly Ice Cream in 1935.

That kind of entrepreneurial spirit lives on today, and it needs to be recognized, because it is that spirit, as much as any effort to lure casinos or subway-car-building companies to the region, that is responsible for the economic vitality we enjoy in this region.

Indeed, BusinessWest now has a number of recognition programs, including the wildly popular 40 Under Forty competition and the Continued Excellence Award that emerged from it, Difference Makers, Healthcare Heroes, and Women of Impact. But the Top Entrepreneur Award may in some ways be the most significant in terms of its ability to recognize excellence and inspire others.

And entrepreneurship is inspiring, because it comes in many forms. There’s the more traditional variety — generally in the form of bringing new products and services to the market. And BusinessWest has recognized individuals who have done that over the years, such as Paul Kozub, creater of V-One Vodka. There are also serial entrepreneurs, like Peter Rosskothen, owner of the Log Cabin and several other businesses, and Bob Bolduc, founder of Pride, who continues to find new ways to expand and improve upon that brand.

There are generations of the same family who have taken an enterprise well beyond its original roots — the Balise family (auto dealerships) the Falcone family (Rocky’s Hardware), and the D’Amour family (Big Y) have been so honored.

And then, there are individuals and groups who would be considered non-traditional and honored because of the manner in which they have brought entrepreneurial thinking to an organization. There have been several winners in this category as well, ranging from former STCC President Andrew Scibelli to former Cooley Dickinson Hospital CEO Craig Melin, to last year’s honorees — the owners and managers of the Springfield Thunderbirds.

Actually, those who have resurrected hockey in Springfield fit into several of those categories, because they’re introducing new products and inspiring an organization to become entrepreneurial in everything it does.

And the same can be said for the Top Entrepreneurs for 2018, the Antonacci family. Indeed, its work also falls into several categories, of you will, especially that of the serial entrepreneur. The various generations have created everything from a waste-hauling operation to a horse-breeding and racing farm; from a family-entertainment complex to a high-end country club. But they have also worked continuously to find new and imaginative ways to expand those ventures and make them even more successful.

Younger generations of the family talked about their grandfather (Sonny Antonacci) as a visionary who could see opportunities where others didn’t — like bottled water during the 1970s, even though he didn’t actually get into that industry. But they possess the same trait themselves as they take GreatHorse, Sonny’s Place, Lindy’s Farm, and especially USA Waste & Recycling to new heights.

The Top Entrepreneur Award was created to recognize entrepreneurship, showcase the many forms it takes, and inspire those looking to follow in the footsteps of some of those now-famous names mentioned earlier.

In all those respects, the many members of the Antonacci family are certainly worthy recipients.

Workforce Development

The Heat Is On

Springfield Operations Manager Meagan Greene

The culinary world is a notoriously challenging place to forge a career, and turnover at the entry level is often high, a problem that constantly challenges restaurants, hotels, colleges, and a host of other food-service companies. Enter Snapchef, which has built a regional reputation for training those workers and matching them with workforce needs to help them get a foot in the door — and then, hopefully, kick it in.

It’s called ‘backfilling.’

That’s a concept businesses in many area industries — from financial services to marketing, from security to hospitality — have been thinking about as MGM Springfield has ramped up its efforts to hire some 3,000 people for its August opening.

Backfilling, simply put, it’s the replacement of an employee who moves on to a different opportunity, and MGM has undoubtedly caused a wave of that phenomenon locally. Because of the casino’s food-service operations, area restaurants, hotels, and other facilities that prepare and serve food have been doing quite a bit of backfilling as well.

If they can find adequate replacements, that is. That’s where Snapchef, a regional food-service training company that opened up shop in Springfield last year, can play a key role.

CEO Todd Snopkowski, who founded Snapchef 16 years ago, said the business model has proven successful in its other four locations — Boston, Dorchester, Worcester, and Providence, R.I. — and has found fertile ground in the City of Homes, where the need for restaurant workers has been on the rise.

“We train folks that are looking to make a career change,” he told BusinessWest. “And, being a staffing company, we don’t only train, we also match folks looking for work in the industry with jobs that are available. If they don’t have the skills to do a job, we actually train them, whether it be dishwashing, cooking, cheffing, you name it. We cover those bases and give them a foothold in the industry.”

As the largest culinary training and staffing company in New England, Snapchef essentially trains and provides staffing help to area food-service establishments. Clients range from large colleges and universities and hospitals to food-service corporations; from hotels and corporate cafeterias to hotels and restaurants.

We train folks that are looking to make a career change,” he told BusinessWest. “And, being a staffing company, we don’t only train, we also match folks looking for work in the industry with jobs that are available. If they don’t have the skills to do a job, we actually train them, whether it be dishwashing, cooking, cheffing, you name it. We cover those bases and give them a foothold in the industry.”

“If they come to me with little or no skills or just want to brush up, we guide individuals in that track,” said Meagan Greene, operations manager in Springfield, noting that Snapchef’s 13-week courses include fast-track culinary training, ServSafe food handling, and workplace safety, among other offerings.

“When the finish the apprentice program, we try to find them full-time jobs, where they can utilize their skills in the workforce,” she went on, noting that all of that is free. The training programs are grant-funded, while Snapchef’s partner employers pay for the hours the employee works, while SnapChef pays the employee directly, with pay depending on the position.

This isn’t culinary school, Greene stressed, but a place to learn enough to get into the culinary world, and advance career-wise from there — an idea Greene called “earning and learning.”

“We go over soups, stocks, sauces, emulsions, salad bar, deli prep. Sometimes, people will go out into the field, come back, and say, ‘hey, Meagan, I did this today at work; is there a better way to do it?’ We also do a little bit of baking, which isn’t our specialty, but you’ll learn how to make pies, quick breads, muffins, and danishes.”

The need for culinary workers, especially at the entry level, is constant, Greene noted, sometimes year-round and sometimes seasonally — for example, colleges need help between September and May, while Six Flags requires a wave of help between April and October.

“For some of the colleges, this will be their second school year with us, so they may buy out some of our employees because they liked them last year,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s kind of bittersweet for us, because the people who get bought out or move forward or find their own job — those are your keepers. Those are the ones who show up for work every day, people who are clean and on time and ready to rock. I’m like, ‘noooo!’ But it’s nice to see somebody move forward.”

Moving forward, after all, is what it’s all about once that foot is in the door.

Slow Burn

Snopkowski has grown Snapchef from its original home Dorchester into a regional force that has trained thousands of workers for potentially rewarding careers in what is, admittedly, a tough field to master, and one where good help is valuable.

Clients have ranged from individual restaurants and caterers to Foxwoods Resort Casino and Gillette Stadium, as well as large food-service corporations like Aramark, Sodexo, and the Compass Group.

Snapchef CEO Todd Snopkowski

Snapchef CEO Todd Snopkowski

“With my background, being a corporate chef, I saw the need for an organization like Snapchef 25 years ago. And I think there’s a huge opportunity down the road for even more expansion,” said, noting that MGM Springfield itself poses significant opportunity. “We’re supporting them, and for businesses suffering the loss of people taking these awesome jobs MGM has to offer, we’re there to make sure we backfill the vacancies.”

Snapchef’s growth has led to a number of accolades for Snopkowski, including the 2015 SBA Small Business Person of the Year award for Massachusetts, and the 2016 Citizens Bank Good Citizens Award. And it has inspired people like Greene, who see the value in training the next generation of food-service workers.

She works with the state Department of Labor and the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County to create apprenticeship models, teaching participants everything from basic knife skills to how to conduct themselves in a kitchen. She also helps them append their résumés based on what they’ve learned.

After studying culinary arts at a vocational high school and earning three degrees from Johnson & Wales University, she became a sous chef at Sturbridge Host Hotel, not far from her home in Warren. She loved the job — and the commute — but traded it in for an opportunity to work for Snapchef.

“To be honest, I’m never bored. I’m always doing something different,” she said, and that’s true of many of her trainees, who typically begin with temporary placements, which often become permanent. But not all are seeking a permanent gig, she added; some love the variety of ever-changing assignments.

“Some people love it because it’s a lifestyle for them,” she said. “They want to work over here, then they come back to me and say, ‘hey, Meagan, I wasn’t really liking that spot; I don’t want to go back there. I didn’t like the size of the kitchen. It was too big for me; I’m used to working in a smaller kitchen.’” I’ll say, ‘OK, I’ll try not to send you back there.’ And it’s a two-way street; clients can say, ‘I don’t want Joe Smith back.’”

Because the training is free, Snapchef offers an attractive opportunity for people who want to get a food in the door in food service.

Finishing Touches

As a company that fills a needed gap — as culinary schools aren’t typically training for entry-level positions — Snopkowski said Snapchef has made significant inroads in Western Mass. over the past year, especially working with FutureWorks Career Center to identify individuals looking to shift into the world of food service.

“Our employees don’t have to pay for transition training and all those attributes that are needed to get a foothold in the business,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s good to see that MGM recognizes it, the colleges as well.”

Speaking of financial perks, Snapchef-trained employees may access round-trip transportation from the Springfield office to their job sites across the region, for only $3 per day, Greene said. “It’s cheaper than Uber, cheaper than Lyft, and better than having your mom come pick you up and drop you off. If you live in the city and are used to taking the bus everywhere, you don’t have to worry about how to get to work.”

As for Greene, she continues to enjoy the variety of her work — a pickling enthusiast, she taught a recent class how to pickle vegetables, and they prepared 300 jars worth — as well as the success stories that arise from it, like a man trained by Snapchef who went on to further his education at Holyoke Community College and is now opening a restaurant with his daughter.

“I’ve had the opportunity to see people progress in a short period of time,” she said. “It’s nice to see someone grow so fast. I love that.”

Snopkowski has seen plenty such stories unfold in the 16 years his company has been training people for a new, challenging career, and then helping them build a foothold in the industry.

“We’ve only been able to scratch the surface; there are so many other opportunities out there,” he said. “The future is bright in culinary.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Entrepreneurship

Accelerating the Process

The winners of the 2018 Accelerator awards

The winners of the 2018 Accelerator awards

The products and services vary widely — from smoothies to yoga classes; from pet adoption to solar-powered battery rechargers; from water-purification technology to entrepreneurial apprenticeships. But the companies in Valley Venture Mentors’ Accelerator class of 2018 have many things in common, specifically the myriad daunting challenges involved with getting a venture off the ground or to a higher altitude. For this issue and its focus on entrepreneurship, BusinessWest looks at the three highest finishers among the 12 Accelerator finalists. We talked to those entrepreneurs about everything from what they’re going to do with the large checks they’ve received through this competition to how the Accelerator program helped them advance their concept.


WeThrive

Venture Provides an Entrepreneurial Practice Field for Students

WeThrive was the top winner in this year’s VVM Accelerator Awards.

WeThrive was the top winner in this year’s VVM Accelerator Awards.

Daquan Oliver is still in his mid-20s, but he already has a lot of awards and accolades on his résumé, including many of those ‘under’ lists that have become so prevalent.

He was included on the Forbes 30 Under 30 compilation for 2017, as well as the Boston Globe’s 25 Under 25 list. Back in 2014, as he was graduating from Babson College with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, he was named one of the Top Five Black Student Leaders to Watch by the Clinton Foundation. He’s delivered a TEDx Talk on actionable strategies to overcome structural violence, and been recognized by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Yes, it’s an impressive list of achievements, and it looks like he’ll have to make room for more trophies, plaques, and citations — including the ceremonial first-prize check from this year’s VVM Accelerator program, featuring the name of the venture, WeThrive, and the number $42,500.

That’s because it’s Oliver’s goal — and WeThrive’s unofficial mission — to help young people make those same ‘under’ lists and other honor rolls.

Indeed, Oliver, who grew up in a single-parent, low-income household, made a promise at age 14 to assist future children in a similar socioeconomic position to become successful. In a nutshell, that’s what WeThrive, based in New York City, is all about.

This is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) that essentially equips and empowers — those are two different things — low-income students in grades 7-10 to rise as entrepreneurial economic leaders, Oliver told BusinessWest.

“The students we serve are bursting with ideas to break the cycle of poverty, but too many times in their young lives, they have been told ‘no,’” he explained, adding that WeThrive gives them encouraging ‘yes’ to their entrepreneurial dreams.

It does this by training teachers, staff, and volunteers to become entrepreneurial educators who guide students through a curriculum designed to reach those left behind in traditional classrooms. Each student creates their own company, earning real revenues and donating profits to the charity of their choice.

The result is what the company calls an ‘entrepreneurial playing field,’ one that provides lessons not just in profit and loss and other business terms, but also in realms ranging from goal setting to teamwork to surviving the ups and downs of transforming an idea into a business.

Oliver, who launched this enterprise as he was exiting Babson, has taken it to a number of major metropolitan areas, including New York, Boston, Oakland, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., and it was while he was exploring the possibility of expanding into Greater Springfield that he learned about and then became part of the VVM Accelerator class of 2018.

His was, quite obviously, a story, a concept, a business plan, and a final pitch that won over the judges.

But as advanced and apparently rock-solid as this venture is, there is still growing and pivoting (that’s the term one hears a lot in rooms full of entrepreneurs) to do, and proverbial ‘next’ levels to reach, said Oliver, and the VVM Accelerator experience will help with all of that.

“We’re at a unique point in our journey,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re doing a number of different things, our model has recently pivoted pretty strongly, and we wanted to go through the nuts and bolts of really reassessing everything.”

The Accelerator program, a broad term used to refer to everything from the mentorship to the work sessions to the feedback from the other entrepreneurs in the room — helped with this by continually stressing the value of customer interviews.

“We need those to make sure we understand our principals, our teachers, the things they want, the value they see in WeThrive, their pain points, and more,” he explained. “That’s the biggest thing for us — the innate value of digging deeper into each of our customer pain points.”

Oliver said he was impressed by the strong sense of community within the VVM Accelerator and the manner in which the entrepreneurs, all vying for cash awards, nonetheless supported one another in their collective efforts to get to the next level.

“It’s technically a competition, but it never truly felt like one,” he explained. “Because we’re all rooting for each at the end of the day.

“When we approached this, we definitely wanted to win, of course,” he went on. “But we were much more focused on just creating a sustainable company, and VVM provided us with the resources to help do that, whether it was the mentors or the entrepreneurs.”

Oliver said WeThrive will begin operating in Springfield this fall, and he expects the nonprofit to expand into other parts of this region. Wherever it goes, it focuses on students who were like him — who all too often heard ‘no,’ and needed someone, some influence, to get get them to ‘yes.’

And in the process, maybe some of those students it helps will also follow Oliver onto some of those ‘under’ lists.


Breaking Through

Julie Bliss Mullen and Barrett Mully

Julie Bliss Mullen and Barrett Mully say the market for their product may be vast, from residential and commercial applications to domestic sales to global interest.

Aclarity Set to Take New Water-filtration Technology to the Market

As Julie Bliss Mullen and Barrett Mully talked about the potential market for their product — a new type of water-purification device that uses electricity — they struggled somewhat to do the job with numbers, as many entrepreneurs do.

So they tried words, and one in particular: vast.

By that, they meant residential and commercial applications, domestic sales, and what they hope and expect will be truly global interest.

That’s because water is a precious commodity, and as the human population continues to skyrocket, the demands on the Earth’s limited supply of fresh water have increased accordingly. Meanwhile, the search for better, less expensive methods of filtering water have been intense and ongoing.

Bliss Mullen essentially grasped the size and scope of the potential market in 2015 when, while conducting evaluations of potential new filtration products as part of her lab work under the U.S. EPA’s Water Innovation Network of Sustainable Systems (WINSSS), she essentially discovered a novel, electrochemical advanced-oxidation process, or EAOP technology.

This technology has extensive treatment capabilities — more than the filtration products currently on the market — and low power-consumption needs compared to traditional processes.

“I found that the treatment capability of this specific technology was much greater than anything I had evaluated,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she became inspired to understand what it would take to bring the technology to the market, and in 2016 filed a provisional patent with the university and subsequently enrolled in entrepreneurship courses to further understand the commercialization process.

Moving the story along, Bliss Mullen and Mully met in the spring of 2017; she was participating as a student in a graduate-level Lean Launch Pad entrepreneurship class where she was conducting customer discovery while also seeking potential business partners. He was a fellow at the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship and attending that class as a teaching assistant.

“My pitch to the class was, ‘hey, I have this cool technology, but I need someone with a little more business acumen than I have to bring this to the market,’” she recalled.

Mully became immediately compelled by the potential of the technology and the business that could be generated from it, and the two quickly agreed to partner up. They won the top award at the UMass Innovation Challenge, claiming $26,000 in seed money to help jump-start the company, which was initially named ElectroPure and later renamed Aclarity.

The company was accepted into the inaugural Berthiaume Summer Accelerator in 2017, and it used that experience to continue customer discovery, meet with mentors, work with the university toward converting the patent, develop a business strategy, and advance technology research and development. The company won additional seed funding and soon thereafter embarked on a collaboration effort with Watts Water Technologies Inc. to help bring a residential product to market, something they expect to do within the next 12 to 18 months.

So it’s been a whirlwind few years, and those are just the first few chapters in this intriguing story; the principals are now involved in writing the next several, and they will have their $27,500 prize from the VVM accelerator — and the many forms of assistance that were part of that experience — to help them in that process.

“It’s not all about the technology,” Bliss Mullen said of the complex process of taking a product to market. “You need to find a customer.”

VVM has helped with that, said the two partners, adding that the next step in their journey is to raise capital for a pilot installation on an industrial scale.

“We want to look at the scalability of the technology and how we can put a pilot site in, what that looks like,” said Mully. “And prove the technology on a larger scale; once we do that, that opens up other markets.”

The prize money from the VVM accelerator will certainly help in taking that next step, said the partners, adding that it (along with other grants secured in recent months) will be put toward R&D, product development, and marketing efforts. In a word, it will be used toward generating that commodity they need the most at this time: validation.

As for the startup ‘experience,’ if you will, the two partners, like just about everyone else in their shoes, talked about a roller-coaster ride, with lots of highs and lows. And also about expectations and how to manage them.

“We have a lot of people come up to us and say, ‘this is the next big thing. I want to be part of it; I want to help you fundraise,’” said Bliss Mullen. “You think, ‘this is going to change the world.’ And then you have other days when it feels like the end of the world.”

Mully agreed.

“You have a lot of ups and downs,” he told BusinessWest. “The wins are big wins — they’re really high highs. And then, sometimes, when you think you’re going to hit a certain milestone and it just doesn’t work out that way and you have to make those hard pivots … it can get really challenging.

“It’s not that there’s no end product, because there is,” he went on. “It’s just so intangible at times, it’s like you’re feeling your way through the dark a little bit.”

It appears things are a little brighter these days, and the VVM accelerator played a big role in that process.


ACEA

Kyle Kahveci

Kyle Kahveci

Venture Sets a New Standard for Continuing Education

Kyle Kahveci says continuing education is part of life for a wide range of healthcare professionals, from physicians to dentists to nurses. They need it to keep their licenses.

Unfortunately, also part of life are considerable amounts of wasted or underutilized time for those same healthcare professionals as they take part in those continuing-education experiences, said Kahveci, who is part of the founding team at ACEA.

That’s an acronym for the Advanced Continuing Education Assoc. And maybe the key word in the phrase is ‘advanced,’ which in this case is used to connote a way of thinking about this topic — a methodology, if you will, that goes well beyond what Kahveci called “checking the box” as individuals go about amassing the requisite number of hours of required education each year.

“There are now hundreds of thousands of different continuing-ed courses in healthcare, but there’s no easy way to sift through it all and really find the most relevant education and have that all centralized,” he explained. “What we’re doing is aggregating all that in one place so a clinician can have a much more pleasant experience across all of those ed providers by discovering the right education in the right place and the most relevant stuff for their requirements, but also their personal interests.”

That one place is an app that does everything from track activities as members attend activities to sending a notification to a member’s phone alerting him or her to the fact that they haven’t taken a continuing-ed course recently and need to do so.

The app is live, and a number of clinicians have joined through a host of partners that ACEA works with, including the Cleveland Clinic, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said Kahveci, adding that the broad goals are to continuously improve the app and add more members.

And VVM’s accelerator program has been quite helpful with those two assignments by emphasizing the need to for customer surveys to determine specific needs and how to go about meeting them.

Elaborating, Kahveci said that, in the beginning, ACEA and its app were focused mostly on helping healthcare professionals keep track of what they’ve done when it comes to a continuing education, something that might sound easy to those who haven’t tried, but definitely isn’t, as confirmed by all those who have.

“We were hearing complaints from physicians who said, ‘after one of these courses, I take I get a certificate, and it’s oftentimes on paper, and it’s like keeping receipts for taxes,’” he recalled, adding that the partners at ACEA followed how people kept track of these certificates. One physician kept it all in a manila folder that included courses from the ’90s.

Moving the story along, he said the first app they developed was designed simply to keep track of all those certificates much better than a manila folder could. It received a solid response, and thousands of clinicians signed on, he said, but it quickly became apparent that this app needed to do more.

Specifically, it needed to help members not just after the fact, but before it — in the discovery phase, if you will — and ACEA has made that shift, with a big assist from VVM and its accelerator program.

“VVM helped us treat this like an early-stage startup,” he told BusinessWest. “We did more 100 interviews with clinicians and partners to get a sense for where to really focus in on solving their problems.”

And there is tremendous growth potential, he went on, adding that, while ACE has tens of thousands of members, that represents a tiny fraction of the number of potential members.

The value proposition for this app is that it can save clinicians up to 40 hours a year by automating much of the continuing-ed process and getting them into relevant education. And considering how busy they are, 40 hours represents a great deal of value.

Getting that message across is critical, and the company will devote much of its energy — and the $20,000 prize it won during the accelerator contest — to do just that, while also continually improving the product and building a team.

The company is currently based in Boston — an ideal location, given the many world-class healthcare facilities in that city — but as a result of connections made with potential partners here, ACEA is thinking about opening a satellite location in Springfield.

VVM and its accelerator helped the company make those connections, he said, but mostly, the experience has enabled ACEA to sharpen its focus on the customer and identify opportunities for growth.

“It’s helped us see the forest for the trees,” he noted. “It was a good experience for us to help get the organization to the next level.”

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Despite the occasional major project landing in the region — that casino opening is only two months away — the Pioneer Valley’s economy is still driven far more by the myriad small businesses that dot the landscape.

That’s why it’s important to give entrepreneurs the tools, inspiration, and resources they need to make the risks they take in launching their enterprises worthwhile.

Our story on page 40 is always a fun assignment — our annual writeup on the winners of the Valley Venture Mentors Accelerator Awards. This year, we sat down with the entrepreneurs behind the three top winners, who received, through this program, significant funding for their projects, but, just as important, key guidance and support in taking their businesses to the next level.

Because those enterprises deal in such critical matters as clean water, continuing medical education, and equipping low-income youth to write their own entrepreneurial stories, that next level, as you’ll see by reading these accounts, may turn out to be life-changing for many — and even world-changing,

Then there’s our page 26 story on Click Workshop — perhaps a less splashy story, because no one is handing out giant checks. Rather, they’re handing over monthly payments (rather reasonable ones, at that) to participate in a community of 98 small (mostly solo) businesses that share resources and network in a refurbished former warehouse in downtown Northampton.

One of the region’s growing number of co-working spaces, Click is supporting economic energy in its city while also boosting the profile of another type of entrepreneur: the local artists and musicians to whom it offers exposure and a place to promote their creations.

These two articles may seem unrelated at first, but they both speak to the importance of creating a supportive community of entrepreneurs who understand that the success of each contributes to the success of all, by establishing Western Mass. as a place where ideas can turn into viable businesses.

“You have a lot of ups and downs. The wins are big wins — they’re really high highs,” said Barrett Mully, one of the VVM Accelerator Award winners. However, “it’s just so intangible at times, it’s like you’re feeling your way through the dark a little bit.”

Programs and organizations that support the region’s startup culture are making that journey a little bit brighter.

After all, countless entrepreneurs are taking calculated gambles every day that have nothing to do with a casino. When those risks pay off, everyone benefits.

Cover Story

Policy Shifts

Roger Crandall stops at State & Main in MassMutual’s headquarters building in Springfield.

Roger Crandall stops at State & Main in MassMutual’s headquarters building in Springfield.

Over the course of its 167-year history, MassMutual has successfully responded to changes in society and also in how business is conducted. Today, the pace of change has accelerated greatly, but the company is answering with new strategic initiatives involving everything from the design of workspaces to how individuals apply for life insurance.

They call it ‘State and Main.’

MassMutual built its former headquarters building in Springfield at that very intersection, so that may have something to do with that name. But it’s more likely a reference to the fact that this is where two of the main spines of the company’s sprawling current home on State Street come together. So that’s where many of the 4,000 people working there come together as well.

There’s a Starbucks there, as well as a small shop where people can get their electronic devices serviced, as well as a convenience store. Over the past 18 months or so, some small meeting places and workstations where people can plug in have been added in a nod to changes in how work is now done.

There is a row of these stations along one wall, which, coincidentally, was the old end point of the building before an addition was built. Where the windows once were, there are now photographs depicting work life at MassMutual decades ago.

If you’re looking for evidence of just how much things have changed, you can juxtapose a solitary worker on a laptop in one of these workspaces in front of a huge photo depicting row upon row of desks — an iconic glimpse of the workplace maybe a century ago (see photo above).

It took a long time to get from where things were in that photograph to where they are today, but the pace of change is rapidly accelerating — even when it comes to a product seemingly frozen in time, like life insurance.

While the basic insurance products haven’t changed much over time, how people research them, shop for them, and ultimately buy them have, said Roger Crandall, president and CEO of the Fortune 100 company, the only one based in the 413.

“We’re looking a lot at how to do business with people the way they want to do business,” he explained, adding that there is much that goes into this equation. “The single biggest thing that the technology revolution has done is give consumers the power to interact the way they want to interact.

“We can’t say, ‘you can only talk to us on the phone’; we can’t say, ‘you can only talk to us in person,’” he went on. “We have to be able to meet consumers where they want to be met, and that is what we call an omni-channel world.”

Responding to this new landscape is just one of the many organizational focal points for Crandall and MassMutual, with the emphasis on ‘many.’ Others include those aforementioned changes in the way people work, he told BusinessWest, adding that the company’s headquarters has seen a number of significant changes in response to trends involving more open spaces and the need to bring great minds together, not keep them apart.

As a result, there are far fewer of those large, private offices that once dominated large financial-services companies and often defined how high one had risen in the ranks, and much more of those open workspaces like those along State and Main.

A MassMutual employee gets some work done in front of an image that Roger Crandall calls “a look back in time.”

A MassMutual employee gets some work done in front of an image that Roger Crandall calls “a look back in time.”

These changes are taking place at all of MassMutual’s facilities, which leads to another of those focal points, a headline-generating consolidation and realignment of facilities that will see the company significantly increase its presence — on both ends of the Bay State.

Indeed, there will be $50 million in investments to the Springfield facility, with an estimated 1,500 more employees working there, many of them commuting to that facility instead of the one in Enfield, Conn., which is being closed.

Meanwhile, in Boston, MassMutual will build a new facility in the Seaport District that will be home to about 1,000 workers. The company will look to capitalize on the city’s emergence as a global leader and its already established ability to retain many of the young people who come there to be educated as a way to help attract and retain top talent for years to come.

Still another focal point for the company is Springfield and the region it serves as its unofficial capital, said Crandall, adding that, while the company’s commitment to the City of Homes has come into question — the sale of Tower Square triggered much of that speculation — he said it is as strong as ever, with involvement in everything from education and workforce development to entrepreneurship and new-business development.

Overall, the city has rebounded nicely from the financial turmoil of a decade or so ago, and the opening of MGM Springfield in a few months constitutes just one of many signs of progress, said Crandall, declaring that “Springfield has its mojo back.” (Much more on those thoughts later).

For this issue, BusinessWest caught up with Crandall for a wide-ranging interview that touched on everything from Springfield and its mojo to Boston and the latest addition to its business landscape, to all those changes at State and Main and what they mean for this 167-year-old company.

Space Exploration

That interview took place in Crandall’s spacious office on the second floor of its headquarters building. As he gestured toward his surroundings, Crandall, who has occupied them since 2010, admitted candidly that he wasn’t exactly sure what would become of them as MassMutual undertakes that realignment of its facilities to accommodate more employees and a changing workplace. He did know that it won’t look like it does now.

“This office is a dinosaur; no one would build an office like this in a new building,” he told BusinessWest. “This space may very well have 20 people in it when we’re all done — there’s plenty of room for 20 people in here in a modern configuration.”

He was more certain about many other things, especially the company’s changing footprint when it comes to facilities. It will be a smaller, more efficient footprint, he noted, one shaped to address a number of challenges and opportunities moving forward.

This change to the landscape has resulted from some seismic shifts over the past several years, especially a number of acquisitions — including Metlife’s retail advisor force, the Metlife Premier Client Group (MPCG) in the summer of 2016 — that left the company with a dispersed portfolio of facilities, and also changing technology, which, as noted, has altered everything from how people buy products to how they work.

These changes prompted the company to take a much-needed step back, said Crandall, before it could decide how to move forward.

“We said, ‘this is a good time to step back and say, ‘how is our geographic footprint aligned with what we’re trying to do from a long-term perspective?’” he recalled. “And that prompted us to take a look at a whole variety of options.”

Elaborating, he said recent acquisitions left the company with facilities in Charlotte, N.C., Memphis, Tenn., Phoenix, Ariz., Somerset, N.J., Amherst, and other locations. And while advancing technology allows people in remote offices to communicate effectively, consolidating those offices emerged as the option that made the most sense.

“Although people work in different ways and the ability to work remotely is greater than ever because of technology, it’s really important to have more people interacting with each other,” he explained, “to get the best ideas, the best execution, and to take advantage of the diversity our workforce has.

“It’s great to be able to connect through devices, but face-to-face meetings are really important,” he went on, noting that roughly 2,000 employees will be relocated to Massachusetts from locations in other states. “So we liked the idea of getting to a smaller footprint.”

That makes sense on other levels as well, he noted, adding that the company was really only using about 60% of its facilities in Springfield and 60% of its facilities in Enfield.

At the same time, the company has put an even greater emphasis on the broad issue of workforce development and the challenge of attracting and retaining top talent.

And this combination of factors prompted a long, hard look at Boston — a city that has drawn similar looks from a host of other major corporations — and then hard action.

“We thought about how to set ourselves up to attract the best and the brightest for the next 25 or 30 years,” said Crandall. “And that’s where having a location in Boston, which has really emerged as a global city in the last decade, came to the forefront.

“Boston has become a true world leader,” he went on. “It’s always been a world leader in education, and it’s become a world leader in medicine and life sciences, and it’s also a very significant financial center as well. People go to school there, and they want to stay there.”

But while MassMutual will build a new facility in Boston’s Seaport District at 1 Marina Park, it will maintain a strong presence at both ends of the state, said Crandall, adding that Springfield will remain the company’s home.

Once used as basketball courts, space on the fourth floor of MassMutual’s headquarters building is now dedicated to meeting spaces known collectively as the ‘tree rooms.’

Once used as basketball courts, space on the fourth floor of MassMutual’s headquarters building is now dedicated to meeting spaces known collectively as the ‘tree rooms.’

The fact that it is only 90 minutes away on the Turnpike from the Boston offices (traffic permitting) should bring a number of benefits, he noted.

“It’s very, very different running a company where people can drive back and forth, and running a company where you have to get on a plane,” he noted. “And from that culture perspective, that became important to us as well.”

Room for Improvement

As for the facilities in Springfield, Crandall told BusinessWest that what’s planned is a reconfiguration and not an expansion in the true sense of the word.

But more people will be working at that location — and turning up at State and Main for lattes, to have their phone repaired, to get their dry cleaning, and, increasingly, to get some work done as well.

As Crandall noted earlier, there will be fewer private offices moving forward and more open spaces where people can work and collaborate as the company strives to moves away from a historical hierarchy that has defined much of its history and that of other financial-services giants as well.

The company has already taken a number of significant steps in this direction, he went on, referencing rows of tables where people can work on laptops, spaces where a few people can gather and talk, and larger, technology-equipped meeting spaces, such as those now known simply as the ‘tree rooms.’

There’s ‘Birch,’ ‘Elm,’ ‘Maple,’ ‘Hemlock,’ and others. These are meeting facilities created on the fourth floor of the headquarters building — space devoted to basketball courts until 1980 and for less ornate (and modern) meeting spaces in recent years.

Meanwhile, there are more meeting spaces on the ground floor just off State and Main that, like the ones a few floors up, are always occupied and need to be booked well in advance. These rooms are named for national parks, and include ‘Yosemite,’ ‘Zion,’ ‘Everglades,’ and ‘Glacier.’

As for what’s going on in all those meeting rooms, Crandall said the company is focusing its efforts in many directions, including what he called “a digitization of everything we do.”

And that brings him back to that omni-channel world he mentioned and the need to meet consumers where they want to be met.

“We’re basically building a digital insurance company from scratch to disrupt ourselves,” he explained. “It’s going to give us the ability to be much more responsive to consumer demands, and have much lower costs, which will enable us take advantage of the next big opportunity, which is to broadly offer more Americans insurance.”

Elaborating, he said there are 35 million American families with no insurance at all, and insurance penetration in this country is among the lowest in the world. “When we go out and do focus groups and ask people if they need life insurance, 70% say ‘yes,’” he said. “And 50% of the people who have life insurance say they need more life insurance, so there is this big unmet need.”

There are many reasons for this, he said, including the fact that fewer people are working for the kinds of large companies that offer life insurance as a benefit, and more are working for smaller ventures that don’t, or are self-employed.

To meet that need, the company is responding proactively with products and processes that can put insurance within reach and bring the numbers from those surveys down.

“No normal person sits down and thinks about the process of buying life insurance,” he said. “But we took a look at that process a few years ago and determined that it was largely the same as it was in 1995, 1985, and, arguably, 1975 — a paper-based application that got sent through snail mail to an underwriter, which triggered a paramed going to someone’s house, and a process that begins with someone standing on a scale and goes downhill, from a consumer’s perspective, to 25 days later getting told you’re not the best risk class and you’re going to have to pay more for the product than you thought.”

To change that equation, the company’s data-science team began working with an accumulated asset — the applications taken for life insurance over the years — and built a machine-learning mortality-scoring model.

“That model, with the support of reinsurers, is being used to underwrite 75% of the policies MassMutual issues,” he went on, adding that this process often lowers the time required to get approval — down to one day for those who are younger and in good health — and brings down the cost of that insurance.

And this is just one example of this digitization process, which doubles as a growth strategy.

“What really matters to us in the long run is being able to have the talent we need to execute our mission,” Crandall explained, “to help people secure their future and protect the ones they love, and to continue the growth trajectory we’ve been on — we’re now the biggest seller of whole life insurance in the country and are the second-biggest seller of all life insurance in the country.”

Paying Dividends

As MassMutual continues to respond to a changing landscape for a wide range of business perspectives, it is doing the same when it comes to its work within the community and especially its home city of Springfield, said Crandall.

He noted that there have been many forms of progress in recent years, from new vibrancy downtown to the city’s much-improved fiscal health, to a better perception of the city across the state and even outside it.

Roger Crandall says MassMutual is essentially building a digital insurance company from scratch “to disrupt ourselves.”

Roger Crandall says MassMutual is essentially building a digital insurance company from scratch “to disrupt ourselves.”

“The vibe in Springfield is as positive as I’ve seen it in 30 years,” he said when asked to offer his assessment, adding quickly that there are many areas of need and concern, and MassMutual and its foundation are partnering with others to help address many of them.

Especially those in the broad realm of education.

Noting the importance of education to attaining a job in today’s technology-based economy, Crandall said MassMutual’s commitment to education takes many forms, from financial-literacy programs involving middle-schoolers to a $15 million commitment to help create a sustainable workforce in data science.

“We know that, in the long run, better educational outcomes are such a powerful way to change people’s trajectories in life,” he explained, adding that it starts with getting individuals not only through high school, but graduating with the skills they will need to thrive in this economy.

But the company’s commitment to the city and the region — what Crandall called ‘enabling philanthropy’ — encompasses many different aspects of economic development, he went on, listing, for example, its work with DevelopSpringfield to revitalize neighborhoods across the city, and its backing of Valley Venture Mentors ($2 million to date) and financing of startups that pledge to put down roots in the region.

There has also been support of workforce-development initiatives, such as a training center for call-center employees at Springfield Technical Community College and a similar initiative involving the precision-manufacturing sector.

Then there’s the company’s support of ROCA, the agency that works with incarcerated individuals, usually repeat offenders, to help them change the course of their life and succeed outside the prison walls.

“There is no greater waste of a person’s potential or, frankly, the economic potential of our community than having a large group of young men who are unemployable or in prison,” said Crandall. “When you talk to a young man who’s been in prison who’s now a member of the carpenter’s union, getting married and having a child, and buying a home … to think about where he is as opposed to when he was 18 — that’s inspiring.”

Overall, Crandall, deploying that word ‘mojo,’ said the city has not only many positive developments breaking its way, but also more confidence and self-esteem. Perhaps even more important — and those factors are significant in their own right — is the fact that those outside the city are sharing those sentiments.

To get that point across, he relayed a recent conversation he had while visiting one of the company’s agencies in Brooklyn, a borough that had more than its share of problems a generation ago but has morphed into one of the hottest communities in the country.

“I was talking to one of our agents, probably in his mid-30s, and he said, ‘I just invested in a property in Springfield, Massachusetts,’” he recalled, adding that he responded by asking why this individual wasn’t investing in Brooklyn instead. “He said, ‘I’ve done great here in Brooklyn, but Springfield reminds me of Brooklyn 20 years ago.”

Past Is Prologue

Referencing those pictures placed where the windows were on the old exterior wall of the State Street facility, Crandall said each image was designed to be “a look back in time.”

“It’s a pretty neat historical kind of twist that adds an interesting flair to that area,” he said, noting that looking back is much easier — and generally more fun — than trying to look forward, anticipate the future, and prepare for it.

But that’s just what MassMutual is doing, and those exercises define the many strategic initiatives at the company — everything from its soon-to-be-much-smaller geographic footprint to its efforts to meet customers when and how they want to be met, to philanthropic efforts within the community focused on everything from education to providing new, productive lives for the incarcerated.

Crandall doesn’t know what his current office will look like in a year or two, but he does know it won’t look like it does now. And there may be 20 people working in that space.

It’s a dinosaur that’s extinct. The company is moving on from it, reconfiguring, becoming more efficient, and responding proactively to change.

And it’s doing that with every aspect of an altered landscape.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]