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The ‘Hatchery’

STCC’s Student Business Incubator — Where Ideas and Passion Come Together
Nancy Kotowitz

Incubator tenant Nancy Kotowitz has created a business out of helping people become better step-parents.

Since its formation in 2000, the Student Business Incubator in the Andrew M. Scibelli Enterprise Center in STCC’s Technology Park has helped many young, and not so young, entrepreneurs turn ideas and dreams into successful ventures. Technically a room with nine cubicles and a mailing address, the incubator is, in reality, a community of determined business owners trying to learn by doing.

Nancy Kotowitz says it’s hard enough raising one’s own children, let alone someone else’s.

She should know. She has two stepchildren in addition to the five children she had with her first husband and another with her second spouse. She told BusinessWest that, not long after her second marriage, she went on a mission to become, in her words, the “perfect step-parent,” and later went about creating a support group for those facing the same challenges she was.

Her many experiences in this realm led to her conclude that there was a huge need for support services within the large step-parent population, and she went about trying to meet it.

Her vehicle is called step-parenting.com, a Web-based business and one of the many intriguing ventures in various stages of development within the Student Business Incubator in the Andrew M. Scibelli Enterprise Center (SEC) in the Technology Park at Springfield Technical Community College.

Technically speaking, the incubator is a large room on the building’s ground floor that contains nine small cubicles (eight are currently occupied) in which each tenant entrepreneur may conduct some business duties. But in reality, said the facility’s coordinator, Karen Knight, the incubator is actually a community — one without any real walls.

The student entrepreneurs, who have ranged in age from 14 to around 70 since the incubator opened in 2000, share their experiences, frustrations, and hopes for the future. They also take valuable lessons in business and how to grow a venture from agencies within the SEC and individuals across the region who have been there and done that. And ultimately, they work to take their often-unique product or service to the marketplace.

“There is a lot of cross-fertilization of ideas here; it’s an extraordinary place,” said Knight. “People share resources, but they also share their dreams.”

The current mix of businesses is representative of the diversity that has defined the facility since it opened its doors. In addition to Kotowitz’s venture, there is Jx2 Productions, an event-management company that provides DJ, lighting, sound, staging, and other services; thingreen computing, a remotely hosted desktop services venture; Multicultural Multimedia, producers of promotional advertising video clips for local Latino and Hispanic-owned businesses; Kristoriya, a company that designs and distributes customized decorative gift baskets; Tip Off Sales Force, a provider of in-store merchandising and promotions for specialty product manufacturers; Beyond Brackets, creators and producers of an innovative shelf and bracket system; and the latest addition, Irie Designz, which designs and prints high-end T-shirts.

The entrepreneurs are as diverse as their ventures. Andrew Jensen, 20, a graduate of Agawam High School, started Jx2 with his twin brother when he was 14, and has grown it steadily since. Viktoriya Romanchenko, who has partnered with Kristen Thornton to operate Kristoriya, immigrated to the U.S. from Russia earlier this decade. Paul Wilson, 45, owner of Irie Designz, is a native of Jamaica who came to the U.S. in 1995 and spent several years in the Army, among other diversions, before getting into the screen-printing business.

Knight and Diane Sabato, director of STCC’s Entrepreneurial Institute at the SEC, told BusinessWest that there is a lengthy process for getting one’s name and business on one of the cubicles in the incubator.

There are interviews, tours of the facility, an eventual request for a business plan, and some more interviews, said Sabato, adding that, in addition to good answers, officials at the facility are looking for something else — passion, for both a concept and the rugged process of making it into a viable business venture.

And when asked how one recognizes passion, Sabato said it’s not very hard.

“They exude it,” she said of those who possess that quality, adding that this makes it fairly easy to spot those who don’t.

In this issue BusinessWest goes inside the incubator, or hatchery, as officials there call it, to see how it helps tenants get their ventures off the ground — while creating a self-supporting entrepreneurial community in the process.

Not an Eggs-act Science

The business card/bookmark that Kotowitz hands out for her business describes her Web site as “First aid for your stepfamily.” It includes some bullet points that hint at the challenges her clients and potential clients face, and some of the many things that can be accomplished by seeking help, such as:

  • ‘Get your step-child to like you before your marriage self-destructs’;
  • ‘Pacify your lover and your stepchild without losing your sanity’;
  • ‘How to outmaneuver the most devious ex’; and
  • ‘How to win and influence your stepchildren’s lives.’

“People from all over the world have come to this Web site; there is a huge need for this service,” said Kotowitz, adding quickly that she knows her business is viable because others are trying to emulate what she’s doing.

Learning about step-parenting came largely by doing — and listening to others who had experience in the subject and wisdom to impart, said Kotowitz, adding that this is basically the same approach she and others take as tenants of the incubator, where they are, as the name implies, students of business and entrepreneurship.

Kotowitz said that she and other tenants are obviously skilled in whatever it is they do or make. But this skill is never enough to make a business successful, she continued, adding that the incubator and its various programs have provided help with everything from marketing to reading the economic tea leaves.

In her case, advice from officials with the Small Business Development Center, SCORE, other agencies headquartered at the SEC, and staff with the Entrepreneurail Institute helped convince her to convert what she intended to be a nonprofit venture into a for-profit business — the operating model for which is still a work in progress.

And at present, step-parenting.com isn’t as profitable as she’d like, in part because she finds herself essentially giving away her products and services to those desperately in need of them. Finding a balance between providing help and turning a profit is one of the things she’s trying to master.

“Experiential learning” was the phrase Knight used to describe how the incubator, one of two at the SEC (the other is for established businesses), builds a bridge between the classroom and the real (business) world.

It does so by providing both physical space and a forum in which ideas can become successful business ventures, said Knight, adding that students learn from each other, administrators at the incubator (who are known as ‘facilitators,’ not teachers), experts in subjects ranging from marketing to sales, and business owners in the larger incubator within the SEC.

“These students have ideas, and they have enthusiasm,” said Sabato. “What’s missing is experience in business, and that’s what we try to provide; this is a learning environment designed to prepare people for what they’ll find when they leave here.”

This environment has enabled many to successfully cross the bridge Knight described. Blondell McNair is one of them.

She is the owner of Blondell’s Fashion Gallery and the Designer Fashion School of Technology, a multi-faceted business she operates out of a 1,000-square-foot studio in the Indian Orchard Mills. Before moving there nearly a year ago, she spent three years in the incubator, honing her design skills, but mostly learning about what it takes to stay in business.

“My time at the incubator helped me develop a lot of skills, like knowing how to market my business and utilize my time better,” she said, adding that when she talks of being a procrastinator, she uses the past tense.

Beyond time management, however, McNair said the incubator helped her broaden her focus — from her designs, for people of all ages, to the many nuances of running a business.

“That was the biggest help to me,” she told BusinessWest. “Before, I was doing my business, but not doing the things that would help my business grow. Today, I’m more keenly aware of what business is all about.

“I’ve been doing this now for four or five years, and there have been a lot of ups and downs,” she continued. “Having people to talk to during those down times was a huge help; without that encouragement, I might have given up.”

Overall, the incubator has played a key role in the establishment of more than a half-dozen businesses now operating across the Pioneer Valley, said Sabato. The products range from Blondell’s fashions to a brand of gourmet ice cream, she noted, adding that while most of the entrepreneurs who started the ventures remain sole proprietors, there is real hope that they will someday create jobs for the region.

Birth of a Notion

Knight, who assumed her role in 2006, told BusinessWest that one of the things she enjoys about the student incubator is its fluid nature. Indeed, while most tenants stay for more than a year, and some much longer, there is a steady dose of movement to the tenant mix.

This serves to enhance the ongoing learning experience by bringing a steady supply of enthusiasm, energy, and new voices to the discussions about how to succeed in business.

The latest arrival is Wilson, who started developing an interest in design while working at a small garment factory in Kingston after graduating from high school. There, he heeded the advice of his uncle who told him to “try to find out how everything works.” He did, learning how to make silk screens and actually print the designs on the garments.

It’s taken a while to bring his design skills and entrepreneurial drive together, but he has high hopes for Irie Designz. He already has contracts to produce T-shirts for some salons in this area and New York City, but he expects his contacts in the Caribbean to generate larger deals involving sports teams, musicians, carnivals, and other entities.

“I’ve always been a very technical guy; I’m fascinated with how things work,” he said. “But some of the intricacies of business are missing, and I hope my time in the incubator will help me become a better business person.”

Wilson, like Kotowitz and John Reynolds, co-owner of Beyond Brackets, is an example of an older, non-traditional student who has become a tenant. Others, like Jensen, have earned a coveted cubicle while still in high school.

While only 20, Jensen, considered one of the rising stars in the incubator, has already put a number of accomplishments on his resume. He was named a Small Business Administration Young Entrepre-neur of the Year for Massachusetts in 2006, for example. That was a busy year for Jensen; he was also named a Young Entrepreneurial Scholar as part of the YES program administered by STCC, and one of the Top 25 Young CEOs of the U.S., as identified by the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City. Meanwhile, he also won a Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation Entrepreneurial Spirit Award .

All this, and much more, for an enterprise he started with his brother, Erik (hence the name Jx2). The name hasn’t changed, but Andrew is the only Jensen still involved, and he has big plans for his venture, to which he has added a sister business called JenMark Events, which handles a broad range of corporate functions.
These include a recent conference for Texas Instruments’ T3 Educational Division and the New England Bar/Bat Mitzvah & Party Showcase, slated for Oct. 7 at the CT Expo Center. Jx2, meanwhile, provides a wide range of music services for proms, birthdays, and other events. In fact, Jensen didn’t just go to his high school prom at Chez Josef in 2006 — he managed the event.

Jensen’s inventory of equipment is rather extensive — from Madison 18” subwoofers to Gemini DJ mixers — and he hopes to complement it with practical lessons in business management at the incubator and the SEC as a whole.

“There’s a lot of knowledge and experience in this building; there’s so much going on and so many people you can learn from,” he said. “I love bouncing ideas off people and picking their brains.”

Getting a business off the ground isn’t easy, and neither is earning a cubicle in the Student Business Incubator.

There is one slot currently open, said Sabato, and competition for it has been keen, with the winner, from among two or three finalists, to be chosen within a few weeks.

Interested applicants, who need only be attending an area high school or college to be eligible, start with an interview and a tour. There is then a written introduction, in which students explain everything from their product to their market to their competition. Applicants are then asked to submit a business plan and references; the former can be preliminary in nature but should address short- and long-term goals, market research, start-up and operating costs, financing, break-even analysis, and much more. All this goes to a screening committee — comprised of members of the Entrepreneurial Institute, STCC faculty, business owners, and student incubator tenants — which conducts a thorough interview.

It’s designed to discern the requisite level of passion, said Knight, but also determine not only what the incubator can do for the applicant, but what the applicant can do for the incubator.

Indeed, this is a community, a team in some respects, she said, noting that when Jensen managed a large event recently, a number of other tenants were on hand to help and show support.

This camaraderie is appealing to Kotowitz, who said that enthusiasm is palpable inside the incubator, and it helps tenants stay upbeat and survive the downs that inevitably come with the ups.

“I’ve had a lot of people say, ‘why are you doing something so negative?’ or ‘why are you doing this?’” she said of her unusual venture. “Being here is like a breath of fresh air; everyone is up, they’re happy, they’re on your team. They say, ‘you can do this,’ and you need to hear that to keep going.”

It’s Not Kid Stuff

“How to outmaneuver the most devious ex.”

Sounds like a lesson plan born from experience. It also sounds like a skill that can be acquired only by doing — and listening to others who have gone before you.
As Kotowitz said, step-parenting isn’t easy. Neither is taking an idea and turning it into a successful venture. The incubator, or the hatchery, was created to make it a little easier. There, students can learn about crafting a business plan, developing some marketing materials, and even some basic accounting. They cannot, however, be taught passion.

They have to bring that with them.

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

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