As promised in the last blog post on entrepreneurs, I have done some research on a relatively new aspect of the world of entrepreneurs: small business incubators. The National Business Incubation Association provides links to member small business incubators by state. Check out those in California.
Just what is an entrepreneurial—or small business—incubator?
I recently spoke with Dr. Gustavo Chamorro (noted as “GC’ in the interview below), the Director of the Digital Media Center (DMC) in Santa Ana and part of the Rancho Santiago Community College District in Orange County, California. The Center offers 40 digital media arts, digital music, TV/Video and business courses leading to an Associates degree or certificate through Santa Ana College. And it provides the home of the DMC’s Business Incubator. The DMC opened its doors in 2006 and was created to stimulate economic growth in Orange County by attracting emerging businesses to the area and providing educational programs in the areas of technology mentioned above.
Digital Media Center
What is an entrepreneurial incubator, and how is it connected to the community college?
GC: Most people know community colleges as a place where you get your transfer units or as the place where you get a technical career. They don’t know us for our economic development efforts. In our case, we feel that the community college cannot be just about education. You need to help those students get jobs as well. That’s where we come in. We start with company founders and help them grow to the point where they need to hire people—students and people from our community. We also provide consulting services to these businesses at no charge. We believe that education and economic development—job development—need to work hand in hand to ensure that our students will have jobs in the future.
Is the Digital Media Center part of Santa Ana Community College?
GC: We’re part of the community college system. Our economic development programs are actually from our District facility. So we’re part of the community college district, and we work with the two local colleges: Santa Ana Community College and Santiago Canyon College.
Is the idea of an incubator something new?
GC: They have been around for many years. Most are nonprofit, like us. And most are at universities. You don’t see many being operated from a community college.
An entrepreneur is someone with an idea, an idea that solves some kind of problem in the world. And they want to make a difference—as well as make money doing it. But once you have an idea, there are many things you have to consider, like what the competition is, how to fund the operation, and how to pull together a team. Typically this all starts with a business plan or at least with a road map of where you want to go. When the companies first come to us, they have their road map, but they may be friends working together out of their home. Entrepreneurs like this come to us with an executive summary of where their business wants to go, how they’re going to market it, and how it’s going to make money. What we offer them is office space at a low price—typically $200 a month, the best deal in town—and it includes utilities, Internet access, and a furnished office, ready to move in. But the real value comes from the services we provide: consultants at no charge. We have a CPA, a CFO, a technology officer, a social media strategist, a marketing strategist, and attorneys if they are drafting a contract or applying for a patent.
And when they are ready, we also connect the companies to investors. A bank is not going to give you money based just on an idea. Eventually you need accredited angel investors, who are typically individuals with disposable funds to invest. And we help make that connection. We have a company that just received over $4 million. We make sure the new companies are ready before we introduce them to funders, as we want to preserve our relationships with investors by only introducing them to companies with a ready-to-sell product or service.
So you have a list of people ready to invest?
GC: We have people we can introduce the companies to, but it doesn’t always mean they will invest. What we provide is easy access to investors that are not normally easy to contact. And remember, these investors are getting hit from all directions by new companies. So for the new companies, even if they aren’t funded, it is at least a good experience on how to refine their pitch and their vision. They are also validated by our sponsorship; we make the matches and give them a little more credibility.
There’s more to this interview with Dr. Chamorrow. Tune in for PART 2: Getting In, Growing Out.