INDEPENDENT. PROBLEM SOLVER. RISK TAKER. EASILY BORED.
Montgomery is built on an impressive lineup of “firsts” — the first electric streetcars, the first civilian flying school and more. The spirit of innovation here is both historic and ongoing, thriving today in many forms, including entrepreneur ship. Learn how entrepreneurs positively affect local economies and how our city leadership is planting the strategies and resources needed to grow a bumper crop of homegrown talent.
INDEPENDENT. PROBLEM SOLVER. RISK TAKER. EASILY BORED.
When these traits combine, they often create one of our economy’s most powerful forces: an entrepreneur. According to Scott Bell, founder and CEO of Bell Media, when you look at a group of these business-building men and women, there are striking similarities; he sees them every time he attends a meeting of Auburn University’s Entrepreneurship Advisory Board. “I sit alongside some ‘serial’ entrepreneurs, people who have started and sold multiple businesses, Bell said. “They all love identifying an opportunity or a problem and looking for a way to fix it. A second common thread is the need to always grow; they’re never really satisfied. And, they often keep moving, pretty quickly sometimes, on to something else, to the next big thing.
Bell could easily be depicting himself. He started Bell Media in 2008, but the company it is today really began in 2015, when Bell shifted the business’ focus in response to a void he saw in the digital advertising market.
While these shared internal characteristics drive Bell and other entrepreneurs to do what they do, what exactly is that? A standard description of an entrepreneur is: “One who organizes, manages and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise.” But this is just one definition of “entrepreneur;” they vary, depending on who you ask.
There is one characteristic that underpins most interpretations of what an entrepreneur is: Entrepreneurs start a new business; they don’t buy or inherit an existing one. Andrea Rogers Mosley, SBDC Director, Alabama Small Business Development Center Network, explained with further details. “Entrepreneurs seek new ways to make impactful changes that help economies grow and operate more efficiently and resourcefully,” she said. This may sound like it applies to any small business owner (or any business owner for that matter), but entrepreneurs have a different mindset and different goals. “Both the entrepreneur and small business owner are in business to make a profit,” said Mosley. “However, the entrepreneur takes on more than the normal risk. They are game-hangers. Entrepreneurs look to change, create and develop, where small business owners are content and happy with how things are currently going, if successful.”
It can be hard to fit the concept in one box. To Bert Morris, a Montgomery entrepreneur who started Discover E Partners in 2009, entrepreneurship is personal. “It’s the ability to transform my visions into reality and capture unlimited opportunity to create my own value and define my brand,” he said. Regardless of the variables of what is (or is not) entrepreneurial, one concrete fact remains: Entrepreneurs benefit their community in multiple ways. It’s why Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange wants to draw more of them here. “They are critical to the health and longevity of our city,” he said. “When entrepreneurs start businesses in Montgomery, positive effects of that business ripple throughout the River Region and perpetuate progress in our community. They create good-paying jobs, present new opportunities for trade with established Montgomery businesses, attract new residents, bring new goods and services, expand competition to benefit consumers and increase revenue returns, so the city can better serve our residents.”
Lisa McGinty, Executive Director of the Chamber Business Resource Center, echoed Mayor Strange, touting both entrepreneurship’s positive economic impacts and the diversity of the sector in our area. “Entrepreneurship/ small business is our largest payroll producer and is the metaphorical ship steadier of our economy during difficult economic periods,” she said. “We have an incredibly diversified portfolio of small businesses across a variety of industries in our local economy.”
Mosley pointed to the symbiotic relationship between the progress of a community and the prosperity of its small businesses and entrepreneurial ventures. “Cities thrive on the success of small businesses and entrepreneurs, and when they do well the economy does well,” she said. “According to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), small businesses represent 99.9 percent of all U.S. businesses. When entrepreneurs are successful, they help our cities become more efficient and resourceful.”
They bring intangible value too, including fresh perspectives. “Many entrepreneurs ‘disrupt’ antiquated systems through their business solutions, like the Amazons of the world, so you always want to listen and support them” Mayor Strange said.
Bell stressed the image boost just one entrepreneurial win can give an entire area. “Look at Birmingham. The sheer entrepreneurial energy there is massive and due in large part to the fact that Shipt started there and has been shaping an industry,” he said. “That has brought other people there and has created this idea that Birmingham is now a tech marketplace. Sometimes, perception becomes reality.”
MGM ENTREPRENEURSHIP TOOLBOX
Area entrepreneurs can access a wide range of resources for every stage of their business, from start-up to development and growth. And most are free.
The Alabama Small Business Development Center at Alabama State University and its Procurement Technical Assistance Center offer one-on-one business advising and educational training to small businesses targeted for increasing employment, fostering growth, and improving financial stability and government contracting opportunities.
The Chamber has its Business Resource Center, which supports entrepreneurs through business counseling and mentoring, educational offerings and a full array of lifecycle entrepreneurial services that include coworking, start-up support, incubation and domestic soft-landing programs, as well as advanced mentoring through SCORE (the Service Corps of Resource Executives). The Chamber also offers multiple professional development training opportunities, as well as a calendar packed with its popular and productive networking events like 60 Minute Coffees, Business After Hours and more. A joint effort of the Chamber, Maxwell-Gunter AFB, the City of Montgomery and Montgomery County, the capital city’s newest tech resource, MGMWERX, is supporting tech- and cyber-leaning entrepreneurs by fostering collaboration and innovation in that sector.
STRIKE THE MATCH
It may sometimes only take a single spark, but that tiny light has to have the proper fuel to fully ignite. That’s why city and county officials as well as the Chamber are putting considerable thought and effort into forming an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Montgomery, a place where groundbreaking ideas can catch fire.
McGinty outlined the ways the Chamber is contributing to an entrepreneurial-friendly climate. “The Chamber has long been a forerunner in small business economic development with its incubation program, co-working space and domestic soft-landing initiative, so we are always looking for ways to grow that part of our economy,” she said. “The Chamber counsels and trains more than 2,000 clients each year. We are THE first stop for anyone looking to start a business. We teach long- and short-form business planning as well as steps to business formation and regulatory compliance.” The Chamber also provides professional development training for business owners while advocating for pro-small business legislation and regulatory changes.
The city has several initiatives in partnership with the private sector aimed at helping small businesses, which includes budding entrepreneurs. In 2015, it introduced its Montgomery Small and Minority Owned Business Initiative, led by Mayoral Senior Advisor and past Chamber Chairman Judge Charles Price, in an effort to expand opportunities and increase participation of small and minority businesses in city and county contracts, while encouraging the same in the private sector. “Our goal is to do everything we can to prime the pump for success,” Mayor Strange said. “From paving roads and negotiating with developers to lowering the costs of starting or doing business in Montgomery by eliminating red tape, cultivating a pristine business climate is at the heart of our mission.”
The launch of Alabama’s first Internet exchange in Montgomery, MGMix, is playing a part too, putting the city on the map in terms of tech and cyber, the industries most often associated with entrepreneurship.
IF WE BUILD IT
But are we doing enough to get and keep entrepreneurs here? According to Morris, Montgomery boasts a great business environment with available resources for small businesses and start-ups, plus the right attitude. “The city government is progressive and welcoming. My office is right across the street from city hall, and I can tell you that downtown is booming through the efforts of Mayor Strange and people like Mac McLeod, Jerry Kyser, the Foshees, Clay McInnis and companies like Marjam,” he said. “The Chamber is also helpful with incubator programs, seminars and workshops to facilitate small business growth.”
Montgomery was an easy choice for Morris when deciding where to base his business; he was born and raised here, has family here and, the market for his specific idea is huge here. “Montgomery is the home of several top-notch law firms, and I saw the need for a well-run, locally owned litigation support company,” he said. “The loyalty of my customers and the quality of life in Montgomery is what keeps me here.”
It’s a similar situation for Bell, even though today a large portion of his team and his business is beyond the River Region. “Family has really played a big part in bringing and keeping me here, and we have good customers here, so there are no plans to go else-where,” he said. Bell says that the current resources in the capital city match the current need, but to grow, we might need to do more. “The biggest challenge I see is not that we don’t have the environment or support for more entrepreneurship, but that we don’t yet have a huge young, vibrant community, and that’s where most of the ideas come from, from folks right out of school, ready to take the real risks,” he said.
Bell believes increased entrepreneurship and more start-ups would be a natural byproduct of attracting more young people here. His advice to do that is simple: “They are looking for opportunity, energy, things to do,” he said. “And quality public schools eventually matter to many of them too.”
Morris shared Bell’s sentiments on the importance of education and added a wish list of his own. “Our public schools need help, but the newly elected school board is a good first step in providing the leadership and accountability to improve at every level,” he said. “We could also use even more platforms like connectmgm, which is effective as a digital crossroads for young professionals and business owners to communicate about events, goods and services.”
According to Mosley, local and state government have an important role too and can spur more entrepreneur-ship with low-interest loans or grants that serve as seed money for start-ups. “Local government can also offer tax incentives for locating and creating jobs in the city,” she said.
Government entities willing to reduce red tape can also enhance an entrepreneurial atmosphere, as McGinty explained. “An annual survey asked 13,000 small business owners what they think makes a friendly business environment,” she said. “This year, for the third year in a row, the report showed that they value three things above all others: a licensing system that is simple and makes compliance easy; a tax system that has clear rules and is easy to understand; and training and net-working programs that help service professionals get their businesses up and running, comply with the local rules and meet other professionals in their industries.” The survey also showed that the biggest factor that a community can assist with is “providing training and networking programs,” a charge the Chamber takes seriously. “We provide a continuum of professional development training to help our business owners market and grow their businesses as well as maintain CEU credits for their respective professions,” McGinty said. “The Chamber also offers countless networking and relationship-building opportunities such as meet-up groups, 60 Minute Coffees, our Ambassador Program and Business After Hours events to name just a few.”
Local leaders say they’re ready to do more and are noting the results of national surveys and research but are also listening to longstanding area businesses to gain insight on the proper path forward when it comes to appealing to and supporting new ventures. “Finding new ways to tweak and enhance our business ecosystem is a subject we continually explore by working with the county and private sector partners, like the Chamber, along with our friends at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, to assess the needs of our community and find out what it takes to be even more successful,” Mayor Strange said. “Additionally, we rely on communicating with established businesses in Montgomery, while deepening relationships with new entrepreneurs and leveraging our existing opportunities to recruit new businesses.”
With the high level of engagement and commitment demonstrated by the Chamber, the city, the county and the River Region’s private sector, the future of entrepreneurship in our area is promising, and some of what’s needed is simply in our city’s DNA. “Montgomery has a great natural inclination to a ‘grow-your-own’ oriented economic development strategy as part of its larger plan,” McGinty said. “It is Montgomery and its people reinvesting in themselves for our shared future.”
ENTREPRENEURS: WHY WE WANT THEM
We asked local business leader David Allred, Agency Principal and Managing Director of Stamp, to outline how entrepreneurs benefit their communities and what they need to flourish here.
How do entrepreneurs benefit an area? Major employers have many diverse needs, and when entrepreneurs seize those opportunities, it is very often a win-win-win overall for our local economy. By their very nature, entrepreneurs are more nimble and can bend their offerings to quickly meet the demands of the larger employers. This provides small businesses with work and allows larger employers to scale more rapidly and with greater efficiency than if these large employers had to (also) provide all of the functions they currently depend on an ecosystem of smaller specialized businesses to provide.
What resources do they need? My experience has been that planning and budgeting are early-stage entrepreneurs’ biggest weaknesses. As a culture, we don’t even understand these concepts as individual consumers, so demonstrating their importance to entrepreneurs before it’s too late is a major challenge. However, efforts including the Chamber’s Business Resource Center and programs offered by local universities and non-profits are a big help. – David Allred, Agency Principal and Managing Director of Stamp
FUNDING THE FUTURE
One thing every entrepreneur needs is money, but getting the capital necessary to bring new ideas to life can be tricky. Arthur DuCote, Montgomery Market Executive at Regions Bank, explained why and how his bank is assisting entrepreneurs.
“Entrepreneurs drive commerce. Collectively, they employ more people and create more opportunities than large, mature businesses. It is not an ‘either or’ proposition. A successful community requires both. And 95 percent of the businesses in America are run by first-generation entrepreneurs. That’s who Regions does business with. Regions’ success is built around helping entrepreneurs achieve their goals in a way that is good for them and good for the bank, which is good for our communities. It is a true symbiotic relationship. We call that shared values in our company.”
Eric Walker, Campus Director for Strayer University Montgomery, believes entrepreneurs are strong threads in the fabric of any community, and he outlined the non-traditional options Strayer University is offering the River Region when it comes to entrepreneurial education. “Strayer University offers a variety of MBA programs, including an MBA that is specifically focused on digital entrepreneurship. It can be completed through mobile learning and live Facebook discussion boards, as opposed to lecture halls, so students can get the knowledge and tools to grow a business immediately, not years down the road,” he said. “Our Digital Entrepreneurship MBA students learn through videos shot by Cheddar, one of the most innovative companies in media, and watch lectures delivered by Cheddar Founder and CEO, Jon Steinberg, right from the NYSE trading floor.”
– Eric Walker, Campus Director for Strayer University Montgomery
WHAT IS AN ENTREPRENEUR?
“The entrepreneur is the one who creates a business from nothing, against most, if not all, odds. In business, they create, they disrupt, and they improve. They are the ones who believe that anything is possible and use every resource available to them to prove it. The entrepreneur is the artist of commerce.”
– Arthur DuCote, Montgomery Market Executive, Regions Bank
A TOAST TO OUR TOWN
Owner of Goat Haus Biergarten James Weddle is using interest in craft beer to achieve multiple goals and shared his take on Montgomery’s current entrepreneurial scene.
Why did you start Goat Haus Biergarten? The No. 1 reason is craft beer is a growth market, particularly in the Southern United States. Additionally, the biergarten is our front porch to the rest of our commercial real estate development on Clay Street (art gallery, music venue, restaurant, business offices, lofts). And, I knew this type of development would make a difference in a town like Montgomery. This type of space/development helps showcase the talent that exists here. By show casing it, you’re able to attract/retain additional talent.
What else could be done/should be done to encourage more entrepreneurship in our area? Resource-wise, I’d like to see more collaboration between many of us who are already in the start-up/business resource space. The challenge is, we’re all very busy. We also need to:
- Actively recruit existing start-ups from hotspots like D.C., Austin, San Francisco and New York. We have much lower costs, better weather, great beaches, less traffic, cool history and an emerging food and craft beer scene.
- Get more investors to get off their wallets and invest in start-ups.
- Promotion. Promotion. Promotion. People all around the country know about Robert Trent Jones Trail. People all around the globe know about Martin Luther King. Collectively, we need to understand what start-ups/entrepreneurs need, put that into a protocol that we all follow, and let it rip.
Some are born with an entrepreneurial spirit; others develop it. But both groups can be taught how to hone and harness the potential of this specific mindset, and both higher education and other area programs are doing just that.
“Entrepreneurs have a true hunger to make things better and a passion for continuous learning,” said Dr. Rhea Ingram, Dean of the College of Business at AUM. “This is the general idea in creating our undergraduate entrepreneurship major in the College of Business. It exposes students to curriculum that helps them understand the nature of entrepreneurship and innovation. Not only are we attempting to help create new business ventures, but we are also helping establish that entrepreneurial mindset in any position in an organization.”
Coursework for the major (which was first offered in fall 2017) includes classes like New Venture Creation, Creativity and Innovation, Small Business Planning and Entrepreneurial Finance, plus general business topics like Buyer Behavior and Human Resource Management.
AUM chose to add the major in recognition of the valuable asset that entrepreneurship brings to a community. “Entrepreneurs are economic engines,” Ingram said. “They turn their risk into wealth, and they also possibly catch the eye of other related business too and interest them in coming to the community.” They also benefit the local workforce. “They stimulate new jobs, and they can change a way a community lives, works and plays,” Ingram said. “When successful, entrepreneurs can create a sense of creative thinking within a community that convinces leaders to invest more in that community, which in turn, can attract new residents.” And even more new ideas.
Education and training are crucial resources for entrepreneurship, and AUM isn’t the only institution providing them. In the area’s K-12 system, Future Business Leaders of America chapters introduce kids to the concept of entrepreneurship. Troy University’s newly formed IDEA Bank is aimed at providing additional training for entrepreneurs and may soon be expanding to Troy’s Montgomery campus, as Charisse Stokes, Executive Director of TechMGM explained. “Our hopes are that we can have an extension of the IDEA Bank here to focus on tech and innovation,” she said.
For the first seven years of its existence, Bell Media, a Montgomery-based digital marketing agency and web development company, was an outdoor advertising company. But in 2015, CEO Scott Bell sold that part of the business to another company and took Bell Media in a brand new direction. “I, like most entrepreneurs, enjoy building things, so the timing was good for the sale of the billboard company,” he said. “I was ready for something new.”
But what? The direction Bell chose to go was driven by an opportunity one of his billboard clients brought to his attention. “Our customers were always asking if we knew anything about internet and online marketing, so we knew a lot of people were interested in that service,” Bell said.
Today, Bell Media helps small and midsize businesses develop digital marketing strategies to reach their growth goals. For the last four years, the company has been named to Inc. magazine’s “Inc. 5000” list that recognizes the country’s fastest growing private companies. And last year, Bell Media acquired two companies and grew from 40 to 60 team members. “In 2019, we’ll continue to grow and evolve our product and service suite to meet the demands of our customers,” Bell said.
Joseph Woollard, founder of Wise Broadband, turned personal frustration into a business when he founded his company in 2010. “I had internet at my house from a local cable provider, and at peak times I would get very low speeds, under 2 Mbps,” he said. “I called and complained and was told that due to shared usage, there was nothing they could do to increase the speed. I thought to myself, ‘I could do better.’” He did; 45 days later he started Wise Broadband.
Wise Broadband is a Wireless Internet Service Provider (WISP) that provides Internet to residential and business customers using towers to bounce signals to the house or business location. “It’s all wireless to the home or business, then we bring a wire inside that connects to your router. It’s as reliable as fiber, but without the high upfront cost,” Woollard said. It began in strictly rural areas but now has many clients in the city limits too.
Soon the company will help boost Wi-Fi in Montgomery’s heart. “We are expanding the Wi-Fi downtown,” Woollard said. “It will stretch from the capitol to the end of Commerce Street. And it’s fast. I have gotten 250 Mbps on the connection. It should be one of the fastest free Wi-Fi spots in the country.” Wise Broadband is also starting satellite service for people in rural areas. “It has unlimited data and no contracts, making it a pretty good deal,” Woollard said.
DISCOVER E PARTNERS
Started in 2009 by Bert Morris, Discover E Partners is a full-service litigation support company that takes documents attorneys have gathered in the discovery process and scans and organizes them as hardcopy and searchable digital files. Even though the company has not quite hit a decade, it’s the oldest litigation support firm in the capital city and is helping attorneys make their preparations for a trial more efficient and organized.
Morris saw a need and filled it, and he and his team remain committed to staying on the leading edge. “Technology has significantly impacted this industry, and I am always looking for ways to adapt and transform with the evolving digital world,” he said.
BUILDING BUSINESS IN ALABAMA: A LOOK AT WHAT’S WORKING IN TUSCALOOSA
By Dr. Theresa M. Welbourne, Executive Director of the Alabama Entrepreneurship Institute
How does a community build and support a culture of entrepreneurship? This may seem like a daunting question, but many communities have tackled this challenge and provided us with examples and paths that we can adapt to fit our community’s unique needs.
Growing a culture of entrepreneurship is like constructing a new building: There are some basic rules that one needs to follow (a building needs a foundation and a roof and to be code-compliant). And then there’s the creative aspect: You choose the style, colors and shape and decide whether you want to follow or innovate.
What we are doing in Tuscaloosa is creating a hybrid approach that combines both familiar and innovative ways of supporting and growing new business ventures. How are we doing this? There are three key steps that we are taking:
STEP 1: Finding ideas and entrepreneurs.
This step is not as easy as you might think. There are lots of people in our community with innovative business ideas who are interested in entrepreneurship, but those ideas don’t necessarily translate into an actual, sustainable business. It’s risky to talk about your ideas. It costs to move an idea to a business. It may cost you time with your family, friends and your hobbies. And you may risk financial security. Starting your own business is hard work and can be scary. That’s something we can change, and that is happening now in Tuscaloosa.
In February 2019, we celebrated a grand opening for The EDGE, an incubator, accelerator and workspace facility. Located in an enterprise zone created as part of Tuscaloosa’s recovery from the 2011 tornado that devastated parts of the city, the brand new 27,000-square-foot building provides space for people to meet, learn, create and work. We are utilizing The EDGE space to invite people who want to be entrepreneurs to find ways to move their ideas forward into sustainable businesses while assuming minimal risks.
The EDGE is a joint effort of the City of Tuscaloosa, the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama and The University of Alabama. The University’s effort is managed by the Culverhouse College of Business’ Alabama Entrepreneurship Institute, of which I am Executive Director. The EDGE has also been part of the fabric of the business community for several years, being located in space generously provided to us by Regions Bank.
Part of our work is hosting events to promote grassroots entrepreneurialism. We recently hosted the second annual River Pitch event at the Tuscaloosa River Market. UA students and community members had opportunities to win one of eight different $1,000 prizes based on their three-minute pitch. We had over 150 people at the event, pitching, watching and sharing advice.
STEP 2: Turning ideas into businesses.
A key component of our agenda at The EDGE is hosting regularly scheduled workshops and meetings with coaches and mentors who can help move ideas forward. If you have a good idea and don’t necessarily want to build the business, we can help find a team to work with you. Additionally, we can link you up to funding resources to help you find the money you need to kick off your business idea.
Over the summer, we started our first pilot accelerator program. We worked with five start-ups that were resident part-time or full-time businesses at The EDGE. They were able to move their ideas forward with the help of several people from our community. In 2019, we are planning to expand that program and provide opportunities for students, faculty and community members to get further involved.
We also have an excellent resource in our branch of the Small Business Development Center. Representatives from the center conducted a presentation called “Find the Funding” during Global Entrepreneurship Week in mid-November 2018.
STEP 3: Growing businesses.
Starting and growing a business is fun. However, starting a business is hard, and growing a business is even more challenging. Thus, if a community wants to support new business growth, then it must grow its entrepreneurs, leaders, workers and existing businesses. That is a key part of our work at The EDGE: We are bringing in CEOs of growth companies to meet and teach. Through a new initiative called the Growth and Innovation Leaders Forum, we are helping leaders in growth firms and utilizing their talent to build other businesses.
Through the efforts of my team at the Alabama Entrepreneurship Institute and The EDGE, we are supporting the growth of both new and existing businesses throughout the entire West Alabama region. I encourage you to follow along by visiting us at the-edge.ua.edu.
Dr. Theresa M. Welbourne is Executive Director of the Alabama Entrepreneurship Institute and The EDGE as well as the Will and Maggie Brooke Professor in Entrepreneurship at The University of Alabama’s Culverhouse College of Business. She has decades of experience in the areas of entrepreneurship, human capital management and strategic leadership.