EDITOR’S NOTE: The following column was written by B. Thomas Mancuso and posted January 19 on his LinkedIn profile. It is reproduced with permission.
Good ideas last. Business incubators were invented over 60 years ago and they continue to serve a growing number of people and communities around the world. Today is the 102nd birthday of Joe Mancuso, the creator of the world’s first business incubator. Its simple concept of promoting community prosperity by helping entrepreneurs start and grow their diverse job-generating businesses in mission-run shared spaces in empty buildings may be needed more than ever.
In today’s chaotic, pandemic-affected world, where do small business owners go for help to start, survive, and succeed in their hometown? Beyond the many explosive growth, high-tech, or venture capital programs out there, the local business incubator may be their best bet. Seeing the new business applications of 2020 and 2021 number in the millions for the United States alone, we need to expand the network of economic development-focused incubators to improve the distribution of entrepreneurial impact. Well-organized and focused centers expand the opportunity for more communities, in more places, to profitably increase the diversity of potential of all kinds of people to achieve their particular path to prosperity and happiness.
In 1959, in a small rural town (population 18,000), the idea of filling an empty 1,000,000 square foot 19th century factory with anything resembling the thousands of jobs lost by its closure seemed ludicrous. Initially, progress was elusive. Necessity has led to trying everything, including:
not The cavernous building has been divided into smaller units (as small as 300 square feet).
not User-friendly and creative rental structures have been customized.
not Expensive equipment was shared.
not Services have been developed to help customers meet challenges as they develop
Every business mattered because every job mattered. The first occupant was a 1,200 square foot sign maker and two employees (funded by the facility pre-purchasing its large, iconic sign from the startup). Eventually, little by little, the buildings filled up and the number of jobs exceeded 1,000.
The success of the revitalization of the industrial center of Batavia has prompted demands from struggling property owners and municipalities in need of jobs of all kinds and sizes. Industrial, commercial and institutional buildings of varying sizes and conditions have been creatively recycled to house a mix of small, medium and local businesses.
Over the years, we have had the honor of working with thousands of companies that generate countless jobs by occupying these previously abandoned properties. While there was only one incubator in 1959, today there are more than 10,000. I believe that our planet would benefit from many more economic development business incubators.
Once upon a time, a wise man, at an international conference, said, “Every place that’s big enough to have a library should have a business incubator.”
I did not appreciate his wisdom at the time. Decades later, the experience continually reminds me how right he was. As our world and our concept of things like “work” and “normal” change, the opportunities (and challenges) that business owners will encounter are constantly increasing. There is a steady stream of people looking to start a variety of businesses for countless different reasons. We need everyone, in order to find those that “stick” and grow (locally, globally and everywhere in between). They are the key to our hope for jobs, progress, prosperity and happiness.
Joe Mancuso’s original term “business incubator” refers to a building that promotes the start-up and growth of businesses that will employ local people. It is inclusive and organic (all kinds and sizes) with an economic development perspective. Local and regional businesses are particularly attractive as they are more likely to stay and make long-term contributions to the host community.
Although many different interpretations of the label have arisen, community economic development is where we come from. Our experience at Mancuso Group leads us to believe that:
not Every business matters because every job matters.
not Business incubators should be building-based.
not Sharing space and sharing resources can help us do more than we could alone.
not The best target is local market DNA.
not Mixed-use facilities encourage more and different kinds of “creative collisions”.
not Makers, Crafters, and Fabricators are a positive preference.
not Business incubators must be financially independent and viable in their market.
Starting and running an effective business incubator is not for the faint of heart. The early years are often filled with the stress of priming your path to cash flow balance while tailoring the program to the unique realities of your location. Project sponsors can strategically appear in forms that include municipal institutions, economic development organizations, churches, shrinking businesses with surplus real estate, entrepreneurial cooperatives, and more. Striking the proper balance between “mission-run magic” and financial margin can produce decades of economic progress for your region.
Over the years I have seen the difference an incubator can make in a person’s survival and arc of progress. Affordable space, flexible terms, customer service, and shared wisdom can be essential at all (and all) stages of a business’s existence. Small business owners often tell us that simply “being part of a community” and “not being alone” in their entrepreneurial journey are some of the greatest values of these special places. Just knowing about a community’s commitment to hosting an entrepreneurship center or witnessing the positive energy that comes from our neighbors’ business efforts can encourage a person to pursue their dream.
Every place has people who need the right job, as well as the hope for lasting and vibrant prosperity in their hometown. Locally-led business incubators that attract, start, and nurture the growth and success of these community-based businesses are fundamental fuel for this desirable future. This place-based effort wants to be as realistically community-centric as possible. The concept of revitalizing underutilized buildings to house a business incubator to share local physical, financial and human resources to foster hometown progress is a proven path. The idea persists because it is good.
What can you do to create a community of opportunity in your hometown?
B. Thomas Mancuso is President and Business Incubator Expert of Mancuso Business Development Group in Batavia. He is a member of the Society of Industrial and Office Estate Agents. It supports the start-up and operation of financially independent business incubators and local business centers in recycled buildings for project leaders.