A small business incubator in Zanesville is reshaping the local economy with technology.
The Muskingum County Business Incubator (MCBI) is housed in a former schoolhouse, a 55,000 square foot former elementary school building that five years ago served the nearby city of Zanesville. Since then, the building’s winding hallways, chalk-lined classrooms, and dusty administrative offices have given way to a school of a different sort: a school of business.
Business incubators, organizations that provide space, equipment and mentorship to small business owners for a nominal fee, are the hallmark of high-tech hubs such as San Francisco, Austin and New York City. They are the sort of institution that may seem anomalous in a rural Ohio county whose largest employers are retail establishments and manufacturing businesses, but the region’s undiversified economy was the very impetus for the MCBI. “It’s something about us that’s different from other incubators,” says Interim Executive Director Larry Triplett.
A different kind of school
The ball started rolling in 2003. Triplett, a longtime entrepreneur who would observed the success of similar incubators elsewhere, managed to recruit the help of Zanesville-Muskingum County Chamber of Commerce President Tom Poorman. After receiving a $100,000 grant from the Muskingum County Department of Job and Family Services, Triplett, Poorman and the fledgling incubator’s other founding members set up shop in a tiny downtown Zanesville storefront.
MCBI’s first space – an aging 5,000 square foot office – was not exactly luxurious, but a supportive landlord kept rent reasonable. It began offering consulting services, soon came to house four startup companies, and in 2011, moved to its current location on Pinkerton Lane.
The former school building has been completely refurbished. The gymnasium is now the headquarters for specialty softball company Apex Sports. The once-decrepit cafeteria is now the base of operations for the Foodorks Alliance, a MCBI-backed culinary incubator that offers equipment and training to restauranteurs. And in September, the incubator transformed 17,000 square feet of the building’s second story into mixed-use space with $225,000 in state grant money.
The incubator’s most successful companies are found in the many renovated classrooms that dot the first floor. One, public relations firm Disrupt Media, is the outgrowth of a business that CEO Ryan Thogmartin began in his basement in 2011. “I started getting clients and [it] just wasn’t very efficient,” he says. He yearned for guidance. “I wanted to be around other entrepreneurs who could share ideas, around people with small businesses of their own.”
Thogmartin joined MCBI’s business development program in 2012, and Disrupt Media has been growing ever since. “The program helped me narrow focus on a niche,” he says. That niche turned out to be funeral homes. Disrupt Media works with funeral parlors to build a social media presence.
The mentorship that MCBI provides to growing is far more valuable than the physical space it can offer, Triplett says. “[Offices] are one thing, but helping entrepreneurs to surround their ideas with business techniques and business approaches is much more important.” To that end, the incubator’s entrants start from scratch: they develop a workable business plan, a sound marketing strategy, and a sustainable source of income in the course of a few weeks to a few months.
“Most of the people that join our program have some kind of expertise in some area, but aren’t businesspeople,” Triplett says. “Just putting together a social media strategy, for example, or getting a meaningful line of credit is something they’ve never done before.”
Successful graduates of the incubator have gone on to attract outside funding, some from the East Central Ohio Tech Angel Fund which Triplett helped to co-found. Others have participated in MCBI’s “Shark Tub,” an annual competition in which companies compete for a piece of a $100,000 prize pool. And a few have attracted broader attention: MCBI alum TicketCrush, an online event ticket broker worth an estimated $2 million, was recently highlighted by U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) as part of an Ohio state initiative to promote job growth.
Looking to the future
But MCBI does not just focus on existing startups. In an ongoing collaboration with Muskingum University, it offers internships with startup companies to interested students. Last year was the program’s most successful yet – 30 people applied for five positions. The incubator has a longstanding relationship with Zane State College that sees students develop business plans. “Students can get a sense of what it’s really like to run a business,” says Director of Marketing and Communications at Zane State College Nick Welch. “In class they learn the theory, but there’s no substitute for experiential learning.” MCBI is currently in talks with university administrators to build a Muskingum University branch location that would “give [interested] students more training, inspiration and physical space to work on projects,” Triplett says.
In the next three years, MCBI aims to graduate 40 business and 400 new jobs. It is a lofty goal, but one the incubator is well on its way towards: since its inception, it is created 175 jobs and worked with more than 100 companies.
“It’s not going to be an overnight phenomenon,” Welch says. “An incubator is a long-term investment.” But the incubator’s graduates have the potential to expand globally, he says, attracting talent and dollars to the region. “The goal is to target small businesses that can grow at a national or even international level.”
The mission of MCBI is ultimately to create transformative new industries that will persist long into the future, Triplett says. He believes companies such as DISRUPT Media, Apex Sports and TicketCrush have the ability to transform the economy of an entire region (he cites Redmond, Washington, the headquarters of Microsoft, as one example). “Our job is to create jobs,” Triplett says. “If I can help an existing company that happens to be in the community but, not in the incubator, that’s just as valuable as helping a startup add jobs.”