May: Fox Valley Tech turns to entrepreneurship
Fox Valley Technical College is getting into the startup business. It is preparing to hire someone to start up a "virtual" Center for Entrepreneurship, which will help people take their ideas and turn them into job creating businesses. FVTC’s plan doesn’t involve brick and mortar; it's a "virtual center" that delivers a package of services to clients.
Entrepreneurship has been the buzzword in business and political circles the past several years as state groups pitch ways to reinvent Wisconsin’s economy. While many of those efforts have focused on tech and biotech companies, FCTC’s vision is aimed at a wider group of people who want to build more traditional mom-and-pop companies.
With partners such as the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Small Business Development Center, Advocap Inc., CAP Services and Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corp., FVTC hopes to bundle services from organizations that are already helping entrepreneurs.
WisBusiness.com’s Brian Leaf spoke recently with Susan May, FVTC’s vice-president for instructional services, about the center.
Leaf: It’s a concept at this point, correct?
May: It is something of a concept, yes. We’re going to be building on some foundational things that we have to create a greater degree of service and programs for entrepreneurs?
Leaf: What kind of entrepreneurs are you looking at – anybody, or are you trying to specialize?
May: At this point, we don’t have a plan to target specific types of entrepreneurs. It’s more of a wide-open approach that we’re taking.
Leaf: How long until this center is up and running? And what will it be comprised of?
May: When we talk about a center, we’re not necessarily talking about a physical location or a building. We’re talking about a package of services and support for entrepreneurs that could be delivered through a variety of locations. It could be Web support. What we know is that we have a good foundation to build on. We have been running a program called E-seed (a 12-week entrepreneurship training series to assist start up and early-stage entrepreneurs develop management and planning tools), which we have done with the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh’s Small Business Development Center and others. We have had really wonderful success in helping people who are exploring the possibility of starting their own businesses and getting those folks into action as a business.
Leaf: You’re talking about hiring a director. Where is that money going to come from?
May: It is going to be an investment on the part of the college. At this point, our board has authorized us to tap our reserves to fund that position as a startup initiative for the organization
Leaf: What are the projected costs of this going to be?
May: We plan to start the initiative in January, so we’re looking at half-year startup costs of $67,000, and full year next year of about $137,700. What we’re doing is looking to hire somebody with good expertise with entrepreneurs and small business development, to serve as a champion for this effort. While we have somewhat mapped out a general direction, what we’re looking for that person to do is to build a more detailed business plan for the college’s efforts in this area.
One key that we see to this plan is that it is a collaborative effort with various community entities who are doing some elements of entrepreneur development or small business support. For example, UW-Oshkosh as a key partner. The chambers have SCORE chapters. There are others out there.
Leaf: It’s interesting the description of the person your looking for to run the Center for Entrepreneurship. Sounds like they’re going to have to be an entrepreneur, too.
May: That’s exactly how I presented this to our board, that this will have all the elements of a startup to it. They’re going to have to develop a business plan for this. What we don’t have is all the answers yet. We wanted to be able to hire the expertise to put the finishing touches on what direction this should take, what a service package would look like. It’s really coordinating and pulling together many different elements that already exist in the community, or new elements of either service or programming that will really be of help to that client base.
Leaf: How many clients do you hope to serve in the first year?
May: That we’ve got to figure out in a business plan. We don’t have those kinds of details yet.
Leaf: Are you envisioning this as a place where you get a startup going and turn them loose, or is this going to be a continuing relationship where the center provides counseling and support? Let’s face it, a high percentage of startups fail. Where’s the safety net?
May: There is that group of new startups that go through the struggling stage where they need more assistance. Absolutely, that would be part of this center as well.
Leaf: Access to capital is one of the biggest issues for any startup. Do you have any plans to facilitate that?
May: We know that is a big challenge in the state for businesses today. We would look at that a little big longer term, thinking we might have more possibilities there as we develop this plan more fully. Initially I don’t see that as something we will do. But working with key partners, we want to pull together an advisory group of very successful entrepreneurs to support this initiative. They should be able to set a course of direction for us that might take us into that path.
Leaf: How do you make sure you won’t be duplicating services of others?
May: We want to come out of the gate working in collaboration with other entities. We really don’t have any intention of duplicating things that are available, unless we have to build capacity in some areas. We want to work with other partners that are providing some elements of business support. We put the total package together, give it more visibility to attract more people to the notion of starting their own businesses and doing our best to support them and the kind of job creation that we think they’re going to have.
Leaf: How long is this going to take?
May: We have asked our board for a two and a half year general startup. We’re asking for that amount of time for the planning, partnership development and the implementation phases we’ll be going through. This is definitely a startup effort.
Leaf: Does Fox Valley Technology College offer any courses in entrepreneurship right now?
May: The e-seed program is one of our key offerings right now. It’s a 12-week training course, done with UW-Oshkosh and their Small Business Development Center. We also have a certificate in small business, a course in small business operations and do seminars for small business owners. That’s part of the base we’re trying to build on here.
Leaf: Who has been the big driver behind this?
May: The president of our college, Dave Buettner. He has had some experience with this kind of business development support in the previous college he led in Mason City, Iowa. So he has encouraged us to look at this. Our college has done a great dealt of work for the business community in the last decade, largely through contract training. They tend to be the large organizations that have a number of people to be trained in some particular aspect and the resources to put into training. We’ve always struggled here with the ability here to adequately serve the very small and startup companies. We see this as an opportunity to provide services to the business economy of the area.