Do this! Don't do that!
Jonathan Leinonen, Jim Baker, and John Diebel offer these tips for would-be entrepreneurs.
- Get help wherever and from whomever you can.
- Think about protecting your idea or invention, early, often, and carefully.
- Talk with prospective customers and partners.
- Focus on a clear goal, but stay flexible.
- Plan on everything taking two to three times as long as you think it should.
- Assume that a bright idea is all you need to build a successful business.
- Wait to come up with the perfect idea; most innovations aren’t perfect, and most never will be.
- Think you can do it alone; every successful company has a well-rounded team moving it forward.
- Be so afraid to talk about your idea that you miss out on valuable partnership opportunities.
- Assume customers will commit to sales based on an early prototype.
A One-Stop Shop for Budding Businesses
It started out as a marketing class assignment: find ways to make students more aware of the Michigan Tech Enterprise Corporation (MTEC) SmartZone’s Entrepreneur Support Center (ESC). It wound up turning Jessica Tompkins into an entrepreneur herself.
“When I saw how many resources the Entrepreneur Support Center had to offer, I ended up asking them to help me start my own company,” Tompkins says. Her fledgling firm, Two Bows LLC, designs and sells a line of outdoor clothing for women.
The ESC is both a place and a support system. In addition to fully equipped offices in the Jutila Center in Hancock and the Lakeshore Center in Houghton that budding businesses can call home, the ESC provides just about every kind of service a start-up might need: legal assistance, intellectual property counsel, business plan development, accounting and financial management, market research, marketing, and web design.
Tompkins’ first stop was attorney Kevin Mackey, who helped her register Two Bows as a limited liability corporation (LLC). The legal counsel cost her nothing but the LLC registration fee. John Diebel, assistant director for technology commercialization in Michigan Tech’s Office of Innovation and Industry Engagement and an ESC intellectual property counselor, helped Tompkins do market research. Jackie Miaso, a certified bookkeeper and QuickBooks specialist, taught her to set up and keep her financial records.
The ESC also prepared Michigan Tech’s teams—including Tompkins’—for the 2012 New Venture competition, a partnership between Michigan Tech and Central Michigan University. All six Tech teams made it to round two of the statewide competition, and two placed first and third.
Now Tompkins is working on a website for Two Bows with Zach Erkkila, a fellow Tech student and partner in ZT Web Development, another business launched with the aid of ESC.
“The ESC provided Two Bows with opportunities around every corner,” says Tompkins.
A Safety Net
The SmartZone’s ESC and Michigan Tech work hand in hand to weave a sturdy web of support services for would-be entrepreneurs. Tech’s School of Business and Economics offers an entrepreneurship class, a two-semester capstone program in business development, and a graduate-level course called Developing Entrepreneurial Ventures. The School also sponsors the Entrepreneurs and Innovators Club and the annual Bob Mark Memorial Elevator Pitch Competition, named for the late professor Robert Mark.
Mark, who died in 2011, was the reason Tompkins began to think about starting a business in the first place. “I was taking his Introduction to Business class during hunting season,” she recalls. “I’d taken many hunting trips with my dad, and I was always amazed at the unflattering clothes women wore to go hunting. I decided to see what Bob thought of my idea of creating attractive, yet serviceable, hunting and outdoors wear for women.”
Mark thought the idea had merit. He urged her to enter Tech’s 2010 Elevator Pitch Competition, which she won, and referred her to Diebel and Jim Baker, who run a federally funded Small Business and Technology Development Center at Michigan Tech. With those resources to draw on, they were able to help set Tompkins on the right path.
Two Bows has developed a product line of designs and prototypes, found a camouflage fabric supplier, established a manufacturing/supplier system stretching from Iron Mountain to North Carolina to China, and raised a little start-up capital at Crowdbackers.com. She’s building a business network nationwide and has already caught the eye of two outdoor retailers, “one of them very well known,” she hints. During a Michigan Economic Development Commission Entrepreneurial Services statewide tour, her company was named 2012 Student Start-up of the Year. And that, says Tompkins, “felt like a hug.”
A Growing Concern
Amber Campbell is another Michigan Tech entrepreneur who says she couldn’t have opened her doors without the ESC.
Actually, her business doesn’t have doors. It’s a farmer’s market and garden center on Sharon Avenue in Houghton, where Campbell sells giant zinnias and tiny blue bachelor buttons, cilantro and fennel and sweet banana peppers—all kinds of flowers, herbs, and vegetables that the garden centers in discount chain stores don’t tend to carry. She also sells farm and garden-fresh fruits and vegetables.
In China, where Campbell was raised, she and her family grew and ate their own fruits and vegetables. “I remember how fresh and good they were,” she says. “I am bringing my own good memories to life here.”
An MBA student as well as an adjunct instructor at Michigan Tech, Campbell started with little more than an idea. “I like fresh produce and healthy food,” she says. “And I have always liked growing things.”
When Jonathan Leinonen, a SmartZone executive who teaches entrepreneurship and business development at Tech, led a seminar about the SmartZone’s Entrepreneur Support Center, Campbell immediately sought his help. “I have an idea, but I don’t know how to start,” she told him.
Leinonen knew exactly how to start. “He put me in touch with a lawyer who helped me fill out forms,” she says. “Forms and more forms and then more forms.”
Once the attorney had helped Campbell establish the garden center as an LLC, another Entrepreneur Support Center counselor stepped in. John Diebel usually counsels would-be entrepreneurs about intellectual property protection. Since Campbell’s business is not high-tech and does not involve patents or licenses, he pitched in with market research.
“He helped me find out if there was a demand for more variety in plants and for fresher, natural, healthier produce,” Campbell says. “There is a great demand for more variety and for sustainable food.”
She opened G&A Farmers’ Market and Garden Center in May 2012, as the planting season kicked off, offering colorful bedding plants and a striking variety of herbs and vegetables. As the summer progressed, she added a fruit and vegetable stand where she sells produce fresh from local farms and gardens.
Sustainability guides Campbell’s business plan. She intends to build a pond on the property and raise fish for sale in the market, along with cage-free eggs, locally raised meat and honey, and homemade baked goods. Water from the pond, containing fish waste filled with plant nutrients, will be used to irrigate the gardens. She also plans to use solar energy for the greenhouse and market.
Still working on her MBA and teaching at Michigan Tech and nearby Finlandia University, the entrepreneur quickly learned how demanding launching a new business can be. “I am a little overwhelmed by the demands for time and efforts,” she says, “no matter how small or how well-prepared you are. Every day I start with a screaming in my heart—‘Help!’”
But Campbell is optimistic about her business’s future. “We offer greater variety, lower prices, and better quality,” she says. “I believe that’s what people want.” She’s already thinking about the time when she can replace her plastic greenhouse and roadside stand with a building where she can sell fresh, natural produce year round.
Since it opened in February 2011, the ESC has provided resources for Campbell, Tompkins, and about two dozen other students, as well as five or six faculty members. It’s serving a purpose central to the vision and mission of Michigan Tech.
“The US economy is transforming itself, and that means that more and more of our students are heading toward entrepreneurial careers,” says President Glenn Mroz. “We are preparing them not just to be innovators, but to be leaders in the management of innovation.”