There are many non-profit and government-related agencies in communities across the state with the stated purpose of providing “business development and support resources to small businesses.” The members of these organizations may know each other; they may run into each other at events; they may even, occasionally, refer a customer here or there. However, there is sometimes the perception that they compete for customers, rather than join as potential working partners.
In Western North Carolina, things work differently. For the past ten years, a group of technical service providers for small businesses in the region has been meeting together, sharing information, cooperating on projects, and, in the process, becoming friends. When a small group got together 10 years ago to see if collaboration and cooperation might work better than competition, the function of their meetings was simply to keep members informed of programmatic issues related to their small business constituency. And it worked successfully that way for many years.
This process of collaboration has produced results. Successful projects along the way include a resource guide for entrepreneurs that walks them through the different organizations; and a short-lived (due to funding cuts) Web site that highlighted each organization’s resources.
Today, this group of small business service providers includes the following: AdvantageWest, Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, A-B Tech (Small Business Center and the college itself), Asheville SCORE, BioNetwork BioBusiness Center, Blue Ridge Food Ventures, City of Asheville Minority Business Programs, Eagle-Market Streets Development Corp., HandMade in America, Land-of-Sky Regional Council, Mountain BizWorks, Self-Help Credit Union, Sequoyah Fund, Small Business and Technology Development Center at Western Carolina University, UNC-Asheville Family Business Forum, and the U.S. Small Business Administration. While most are headquartered in Asheville, almost all of these agencies cover territory that extends far beyond Buncombe County.
Recently, the group decided to mark its ten years of collaboration and create a more dynamic future for small businesses by taking certain steps:
• The group decided to give itself a name and attach both a tagline and a mission statement. It is now to be known as “Spark Tank”, and its mission is “To rock the entrepreneurial community in western North Carolina by taking a radically collaborative approach to entrepreneurial and small business development.” In addition, Spark Tank will carry the tagline “Firing up WNC Entrepreneurs.”
• Spark Tank is improving its information-sharing by planning a single portal for member-agencies’ events.
• The group will implement a program to deliver feedback to select entrepreneurs by assembling a panel of its member-experts at which the entrepreneurs could pitch their ideas. The program will be known as Catapult.
The group is holding a logo design contest, with a $250 prize to the best logo design for Spark Tank. For specific information and criteria on the contest, contact Duane Adams at AB-Tech’s Small Business Center via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Entries for this contest need to be submitted no later than the close of business Monday, February 4, 2013 , and a winner will be announced by the middle of March.
According to Pam Lewis of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, Catapult will work this way: a member of Spark Tank will nominate a startup or existing small business owner showing high potential for a Catapult panel advising session. The member will then select three or four other members of Spark Tank with the knowledge and expertise to help that client based on the latter’s stated needs. The client will then come before the members, pitch the business idea and discuss current needs. This will enable the client can get instant feedback, rather than having to visit each agency individually. A typical Catapult session might include a 15-minute session for one small business presenter, and a session would be held once per quarter.