To understand the philosophy that drives The New Century Venture Center’s (NCVC) success, look no further than its motto: "Get in. Get good. Get out." Since 1996, the mixed-use program has attracted entrepreneurs from Roanoke and its surrounding areas, helped them excel, and quickly shepherded their companies back into the community. In that time, the incubator has assisted more than 75 companies and graduated 25 companies, becoming a beacon of entrepreneurship within the region.
Despite its long record of success, getting NCVC off the ground was a struggle; developers laid out plans for the incubator a full eight years before it opened. "The community could see the values of the incubation concept, but we just couldn’t get anyone to open their pocketbooks," says Lisa Ison, NCVC president.
During the start-up phase, NCVC solicited donations from the community for items such as paper clips, office furniture and a refrigerator, dropping projected start-up costs by $50,000. The incubator received a total of $460,000 from Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology, the Virginia General Assembly and the Community Development Block Grant program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "The process was a little different than the models you see today that get millions of dollars from the outset," Ison says. "But we knew what we were getting into from the beginning and were able to adjust our budget accordingly."
Once the funding was finalized, the project moved forward swiftly. Developers hired Ison in March 1996, purchased the 29,000-square-foot building three months later and opened NCVC in July with two client companies.
During the early client recruitment stage, Ison turned to the large number of home-based businesses in Roanoke that the incubator’s feasibility study had identified. By obtaining lists of new business licensees and working with referral resources such as lawyers, bankers and accountants, Ison has cultivated this segment into an ongoing source of clients for the incubator. "The city’s zoning administrator must approve all business licenses, and they are very strict about home-based operations," she says. "If the business is not allowed to be home-based, city zoning denies their application and sends them directly to us." According to Ison, 29 percent of the incubator’s current on-site clients were once home-based.
NCVC clients receive much of their assistance through the center’s mentoring program. Ison recruits local professionals to volunteer as mentors in areas such as law, finance, human resource management, manufacturing and marketing. From this pool of volunteers, she assigns each client a three-person advisory team to assist with meeting goals, formulating marketing strategies, plotting financial growth and other critical tasks.
Even for clients with strong business skills, the advisory team is a huge asset. "Even though I had formal business training and previous business experience as an independent consultant, I still had much to learn," says Jay Foster, president of NCVC graduate SoftSolutions Information Technology. "Working with an advisory team taught me a lot about basic business processes." The company got so good, it garnered clients including Johnson & Johnson, Volvo, Corning and Sara Lee and claimed NBIA’s 2003 Outstanding Incubator Graduate award.
One of the secrets to NCVC’s long-term success is flexible programming, which enables the center to serve clients with a wide range of skills and backgrounds. A pre-incubation program, for instance, serves entrepreneurs who may not meet the incubator’s entrance requirements or who need time to test a business concept. These individuals can lease incubator space for six months, during which time they receive all of the services and assistance available to full-fledged clients, except the personal advisory team. They may apply for full tenancy at any time or simply move on to other opportunities. For inner-city residents who might not otherwise have the opportunity to pursue entrepreneurship or self-sufficiency, the center’s BizPrep and JobPrep programs provide entrepreneurial and job training through a partnership with the Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority. And for those entrepreneurs who are unable to locate in the incubator, NCVC offers an affiliate program, Venture Out. Participants can pay for services on a per-use basis or take advantage of the whole package for a monthly fee.
In addition to reaching segments of the community that might otherwise be overlooked, these initiatives provide NCVC with additional revenue streams and help cultivate a new crop of entrepreneurs within the community. And the incubator isn’t finished looking for new ways to accomplish these goals. "Right now we’re working on a contractor’s cluster where we can bring together minority contractors and help them succeed," Ison says.
NCVC may work with small companies, but it has had a big impact on the Roanoke area. The incubator’s 25 graduates have created nearly 200 new jobs, and several have bought their own buildings. "We’re just as happy to have our smaller technology and service companies each create a few jobs as having one large company create lots of jobs," Ison says. "Our clients are recognized and appreciated by the community in a big way. Everyone knows them, and most know where they started out."
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