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Graduation day: Making exiting clients feel special

by Corinne Colbert

December 2006

You work hard to get clients in the door. You invest hours of time nurturing their growth. You watch with pride as they hit developmental milestones. After all that, are you just going to let them leave with a handshake and a slap on the back?

Acknowledging this rite of business passage is important for you and your clients, says Scott Draschnik, vice president of development and marketing for the Economic Development Center of St. Charles County in St. Charles, Mo., which operates two incubators.

“It becomes something like a family here,” Draschnik says. “You wouldn’t send your kid brother off to college and say, ‘See ya.’”

And for clients, a graduation ceremony can make their exit from the incubator a day to remember. “We thought of it more as a milestone celebration than a graduation,” says Julian Ross, chairman and CEO of OxySure Systems, which graduated from the North Texas Enterprise Center for Medical Technology in Frisco, Texas, in 2005. “The ceremony was a good way for us to recognize our shareholders as well as our employees, especially the ones who were there early and stayed through the hard times.”

Read on to learn how five incubators celebrate the day when their clients venture out into the real world.

A nice, quiet breakfast

The Ben Franklin Business Incubator Center in Bethlehem, Pa., marks graduations with a simple breakfast at the incubator. The incubator provides food and coffee for all incubator clients and their staffs to enjoy, while the exiting firm’s owners talk about where they are going and what their plans are.

“It’s another excuse to get all of the business owners and employees together and socialize a bit,” says Wayne Barz, manager of entrepreneurial services for Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeast Pennsylvania, which sponsors the incubator.

The parties aren’t huge affairs: The 10,000-square-foot incubator has 18 clients. Each breakfast – four to six per year – costs less than $250, Barz says, including catering by food services at Lehigh University, where the incubator is located.

While many incubators use high-profile graduation ceremonies to gain attention for their programs, that’s not necessary at Ben Franklin, Barz says. For one thing, the incubator is well-known; in 23 years of operation, it has graduated more than 30 companies that have grossed more than $350 million in annual revenue and created some 2,500 jobs. (It also was NBIA’s 2001 Randall M. Whaley Incubator of the Year.)

Barz also doesn’t like to make too big a fuss about graduations, he says, because incubation isn’t the only function of BFTP/NEP. The program is a state-funded economic development initiative that offers a continuum of services for small- and medium-sized technology companies in the region. When a client leaves the incubator, they’re not necessarily leaving BFTP/NEP.

“Our real goal is job creation in northeastern Pennsylvania, and the incubator is just one of the things we do associated with that,” Barz says.

Diplomas (but no mortarboards)

Nothing says “graduate” like a nicely framed diploma on the wall. So graduates of the two incubators run by the Economic Development Center of St. Charles County receive graduation certificates when they leave.

“We needed to give [graduates] something that was tangible,” Draschnik says. They found a cost-effective solution in the templates that come with Microsoft Office. He customized a template with the EDC logo; each certificate features the name of the company, its industry focus and the signature of the EDC president. Draschnik prints them on heavy parchment paper using the office laser printer, so the only significant expense is framing; he orders good-quality frames in bulk.

Diplomas are presented during monthly meetings of the incubators’ advisory board, comprising community leaders in education, economic development, real estate, banking and other industries. Draschnik usually invites the local media, who sometimes turn up. Regardless, he makes sure to take pictures to include with a press release highlighting each company’s departure from the incubator.

“We provide a platform for the business owner to say a few words,” Draschnik says. Board members can ask questions or offer advice, then everyone enjoys cake and other refreshments. “It’s something special for the company being sent off,” he says. “It’s their moment to shine.”

The approach worked beautifully for CDKWeb, a multimedia design firm that graduated from the EDC in April 2006. The company picked up at least two new clients specifically from the ceremony, says Kelli Hinze-Bemis, CDKWeb’s director of sales and marketing.

“We had no contact with these clients other than graduation,” Hinze-Bemis says. One of the new jobs is to redesign the Web site of one of St. Charles County’s biggest commercial real estate brokers. It’s a high-profile opportunity “that could potentially lead to more work for us, plus the owner is on several other boards,” Hinze-Bemis says.

Honoring grads and stakeholders

Behind every successful incubator client is someone who helped the company grow and thrive. To acknowledge that relationship, NTEC gives commemorative plaques to graduates and key supporters at the same time.

Graduates of the incubator receive the MEDTEC Achievement Award. MEDTEC stands for Medical industry Excellence through Design, Technology, Execution and Community impact. The client and incubator each choose a VIP recipient of a smaller plaque commemorating their support.

The plaques are presented at a reception for clients, partners and stakeholders. “And everyone invites key family members,” says Larry Calton, NTEC’s executive director. “We have hors d’oeuvres and wine – we make an evening of it.” During the evening, the company founders talk about their business and introduce members of their team. Calton also sends out a press release about the graduation, which often generates news stories about the company.

The graduation ceremonies were a part of the incubator’s plans “from day one,” Calton says. In its three years of operation, the incubator has graduated four clients. The client plaques cost about $150 each, while the VIP plaques run about $75 each. With refreshments, the cost of each reception is between $750 and $1,200, Calton says.

And the investment is worth it, he says. “It’s a special day, and we want to make sure that all of our [graduates] have a public day of recognition,” he says. “And it gives us the ability to invite people from the city and the economic development corporation, who like to be able to get up and say a few words and get quoted in the press release. For the money we spend, we get a lot of mileage from it.”

Michael Holder, chairman and CEO of Organ Transport Systems – the incubator’s first graduate – agrees. “The ceremony provided us with a substantive milestone that [showed] progress and accomplishment,” he says. “We were able to leverage [our award] with our investors, both current and prospective. The ceremony itself provided a nice PR opportunity and a chance to connect with key constituents who attended.”

Waiting for critical mass

The Maxum Business Incubator in Silverton, South Africa, began as a pilot program in 2000. In 2005, the Innovation Hub – a government economic development initiative that sponsors the incubator – moved into a new, state-of-the-art facility and launched Maxum as a full-scale program.

By spring 2006, Maxum had amassed seven graduates over the years, and the incubator decided it was time to celebrate. They opted for a late-afternoon affair with two speakers and multimedia presentations about the graduate companies. Representatives of each graduate came onstage to accept a framed certificate; later, attendees enjoyed cocktails as they browsed exhibits of the graduates’ products.

Preparing the multimedia presentations took time up front, but paid off in a well-paced event, says Amie Hunter, who handles marketing for the incubator. “We wanted to profile the entrepreneurs and their companies,” she says. “However, we needed to limit the time for presenting on the companies to keep the program crisp – hence the multimedia presentation format.”

The incubator issued 200 invitations to dignitaries from the provincial government, investors, clients, and incubator mentors and staff. More than 150 guests turned up, including 10 media representatives. “This resulted in seven print articles in daily business press, two on the Internet, and a local television newscast, as well as a radio news report,” Hunter says.

The strong media turnout was due not only to the graduates’ stories, but also to the speakers. The keynote speaker, Nick Binedell of the Gordon Institute of Business Science, “is recognized as a mover and shaker in the academic entrepreneurial world,” Hunter says. The program also included remarks from a professor who has served as a mentor to Maxum clients, including each of the graduates honored.

While the event was a success, it won’t be an annual affair – at least, not for a while. “Although it would be ideal to have a graduation ceremony [like this] every time a company graduates, it would not be cost-effective,” Hunter says. “As Maxum grows and the number of tenants in the incubator increases, it will become [easier] to group graduates and have the events nearer to their graduation dates. We shall definitely do this again as soon as we have a critical mass of companies.”

Going all out for current and former grads

People in Louisiana, it’s said, know how to throw a party. That’s certainly the case at the Louisiana Business & Technology Center, which celebrates its anniversary and its graduates at an annual cocktail party for 500 invitees.

“It’s a big production, but we find it’s a tremendous payoff to toot our own horn,” says Charles D’Agostino, LBTC executive director. “We always get a [news] story out of it, so it’s pretty much a self-promotion event as well as a way to promote our companies.”

For the November party, D’Agostino invites back all graduates from that year to receive a certificate from the chancellor or president of Louisiana State University, the incubator’s sponsor.

LBTC also presents awards for client and graduate of the year during the party. “The graduate of the year is usually someone who graduated previously and has been out doing really good stuff,” D’Agostino says. He chooses the award winner based on annual surveys LBTC distributes to graduates to track their progress.

For most of the event’s 18-year history, it was held at the LSU faculty club or some other large venue. But in 2005, the incubator moved into a new facility with enough space to accommodate a big party. “We wanted to get people here and see where we were,” D’Agostino says. “We had an open house, so we had each [client] set up a tabletop in the lobby and [we] set up a big tent out back.”

Of course, planning a party for 500 is no small undertaking. D’Agostino, his office manager and support staff, and even staff from LSU’s E.J. Ourso College of Business (which operates the incubator) get involved in planning and preparation, which can take several months. And then there’s the cost.

“We have it catered, so we have really nice food, and we have beverages including wine and beer,” D’Agostino says. The total tab can hit $5,000. “But we have people three and four years later who say, ‘Oh, yeah, I went to your reception,’ so we feel it’s money well spent,” he says.

Keywords: exit policy, graduation policy, graduation ceremony, incubator management -- general, marketing and promotion, networking

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