Entrepreneurs seeking to scale businesses and woo investors are getting valuable advice
By Toni Todd
Revolutionary accounting software. A portable drying system for sports equipment. A unique coffee concept. A community kitchen venture. A social media visionary. These businesses, dubbed Cohort Uno, represent five innovative start-ups now engaged in the ICELab’s inaugural Accelerator Program.
“Acceleration links people with intellect, and capital, if they need it,” says Accelerator director Delaney Keating.
Located on the Campus of Western State Colorado University, the ICELab (ICE stands for Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship) is many things. It’s a space to create, a space to network. It’s a space to grab coffee or a beer and brainstorm. The ICELab also offers two tracks for prospective entrepreneurs: the Incubator Program for new ideas, and the Accelerator Program for bigger ideas. Some of those have already proven successful on some level, but are poised for growth.
“With the Incubator Program, you bring your idea—you may have already been working on it—and you’ll go through 16 weeks of learning to vet your idea,” says Keating. “It’s saying, ‘Let’s hatch the idea. Is it viable? Yes? Now let’s give your hatchling some wings.’”
By contrast, Accelerator businesses have already hatched. The program provides a means for those entrepreneurs to thoroughly examine their potential, helping position them for the next big step.
“Data shows scaling a business is mighty tricky,” Keating says. Scaling, sometimes called scaling-up, usually means growing. But in some circles, it means more. The website Fundable describes scaling as a business model that “generates massive revenues without adding massive costs and resources along the way.” Think Google, Expedia, PayPal, eBay. They were all start-ups once.
“Right now, we have people looking for $100,000 to $500,000,” says Keating.
Participants in this Accelerator cohort come from Delta, Paonia, Crested Butte and Gunnison, plus one student from Western.
“I haven’t yet had somebody who could support me,” says Delta entrepreneur Ken Richards. “So the fact that I have a whole group of people supporting me here is huge.” Keating describes Richard’s software idea for financial professionals as potentially “disruptive,” the kind of product that could dramatically change the field.
A primary goal for Accelerator participants is to find the gaps in their business plans and fill them before presenting the plans to prospective investors.
“I feel very comfortable in a kitchen,” says Kitchen Project start-up entrepreneur Rachel Alter, “but in the boardroom, I feel like a fish out of water. So there’s a lot of, ‘I don’t know what I don’t know.’”
“We go through all of their mechanics,” says Keating, like financials, branding, legal concerns—like patents and trademarks—market research, leadership and culture.
The Accelerator Program brings in generalist mentors as presenters, and specialist mentors to work one-on-one with businesses. Mentors come from a wide range of experience and expertise.
Stan Weil is retired now, except from some occasional consulting. Prior to that, he worked with Ted Turner, generating revenue for the entertainment division of Turner’s behemoth media company. He now lives in Crested Butte. He’s signed on as an Accelerator Program mentor. Recently, Weil made a presentation to the cohort on leadership.
“I’ve been in business 40 years and there are some things I’ve learned. If I can share what makes effective leadership and why that’s important, I’m happy to do it,” says Weil. “Isn’t it incredible for these five to have the benefit of that experience? It’s an amazing opportunity to have this in Gunnison and not have to drive four and a half hours for something like this.”
Even with a great product, Weil says, “You still need the bones of effective leadership. You need emotional intelligence. The whole atmosphere of a company can be successful or fail based on the leadership. It’s the foundation of a successful business.
“The reality is, most start-up businesses fail,” continues Weil. “The Accelerator Program allows these businesses a chance to succeed. It allows them to pick the brains of people who’ve gone down these roads. This is a cushioned environment and people will help them do what they need to do to avoid failure.”
There’s one additional, surprising thing about the Accelerator Program. “It’s free,” Keating says. That’s because of a federal grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) designed to develop startups throughout the Western Slope.
“The grant is for Gunnison and Delta counties,” says Keating, “because of the mine closures. Our commitment to the Feds is that we’ll run three of these.”
Most similar programs across the nation are venture-capital–based. Investors fund the programs, expecting an equity stake in the businesses in return once they’re up and running.
Like entrepreneurship itself, the Accelerator Program is not for wimps. “What’s rigorous about it is you know you have these 12 weeks, so you want to capitalize the best you can,” says Keating. Mentors are there for support, of course, but also to point out shortcomings in these entrepreneurs’ hard-wrought plans— feedback that can sometimes be tough to take.
“I guess the worst thing that could happen is too many people saying, ‘You should just give it up. It’s not going to happen,’” says Paonia resident Merrily Talbot, founder of Cornerstone of Imagination, a social media start-up. “That’s what it would take, because otherwise, I’m just going to keep going.”
“It creates a little bit of competitiveness,” says Gunnison business hopeful Tyler Long. His portable, forced-air drying business is called Tyligent Industries. “You want to see everyone succeed, but you also want to lead from the front and position yourself accordingly.”
The program culminates November 6 in a six-minute “Trout Tank” pitch day to prospective investors.
“My biggest hope for anybody going through a process like this is to fail fast, so you can change direction easily,” says Keating. It’s better, she says, for the major flaws in your business plan to surface early, during this process, so they don’t cause insurmountable problems for the business later on.
Ali and Mark Drucker own First Ascent Coffee Roasters. They’re one of the five members of Cohort Uno. “This program is a gift of time and focus,” Ali says. “That is really rare in our lives.”