The idea was straightforward: A successful business incubation program was looking for ways to assist new companies that for one reason or another would not be appropriate for incubator residency.
“We wanted to add another layer to incubation, to serve home-based, retail, manufacturing and IT businesses,” says Tim Mittan, director of Southeast Community College’s Entrepreneurship Center in Lincoln, Neb. In 2010, SCCEC launched its virtual incubation program to accomplish that goal.
Defining virtual incubation was one of its first steps. “We didn’t want to have it be merely an online program,” Mittan says. To us, ‘virtual’ only means ‘nonresident.’ We have the same requirements and provide the same services as we do for resident clients – but you can do incubation outside an incubator’s walls.”
SCCEC requires both virtual and resident clients to meet monthly with one of the program’s coaches. And virtual clients have access to the services provided by (or available at discount through) the physical incubator – accountants, lawyers, marketers. “They also have access to our other clients who have an incubator pricing structure – discounts for others in the incubator,” Mittan says. For this benefit, nonresident clients pay $50 per month, $10 less than the lowest fee paid by residents.
When the virtual program began, Mittan says, the most difficult aspect was marketing. “We couldn’t sell it at the beginning,” he says. But clients, stakeholders and staff spread the word by talking about the benefits of incubation.
Since then, a half dozen companies have enrolled. The first was a stay-at-home dad whose company sells equipment and supplies for disc golf, a game involving a course and Frisbee-like discs. Though it is a highly specialized, niche market, the company has been successful, and the client is ready to hire an additional employee.
Other clients include a physical trainer who plies her trade at a gym, a massage therapist, and even a race car driver who markets advertising space on his car – though he will soon be absorbed by a racing team in the sport’s equivalent of a buyout.
“We keep them in the loop, and we promote them as we promote our other incubator companies,” says Mittan. “Communication is excellent – they call, they e-mail and of course they have coaching sessions with us. We do tend to spend a little more formal time with them. With resident clients, we’ll see them in the halls, so there are a lot of opportunities to ask a question or deal with a problem. Many times with the virtuals, we don’t have that opportunity, so we take care of all contingencies when they come in for coaching.”
As currently structured, the program can support up to 12 virtual clients, Mittan says. And work is under way to expand throughout the 15-county area served by SCC and to help other communities establish virtual programs.
The SCCEC was one of 11 programs selected in February 2011 for a pilot project to build a virtual incubation network at community colleges. Led by the American Association of Community Colleges and financed by a $995,500 grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the project resulted in a best-practices guide to virtual incubation (see sidebar).
Almost any economic development organization can succeed in virtual incubation, Mittan says, though “it’s much easier for a current incubator, because then the knowledge of business incubation is already there. We’re trying to come up with practices for those who want to do only virtual, without there being a huge overhead,” he says.—Dennis E. Powell
Click here to find out more about the Virtual Incubation Network Toolkit.
Keywords: virtual incubation, client services – general, special-focus incubator
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