Region resources plentiful for people who want to go into business for themselves
Clint Powell wanted to be his own boss but quickly discovered there was more involved in starting a business than he thought.
His goal came closer to reality after connecting with a Region branch of SCORE, a partner organization of the Small Business Administration. It is staffed by volunteer counselors who provide free consulting services to entrepreneurs.
“SCORE was an invaluable asset in starting (my) company and even more now,” said Powell of Dyer, who launched Mechanic-Direct in September, a mobile business. It provides an assortment of vehicle repair services.
SCORE, an SBA partner, is among an array of resources, from higher learning institutions to public-private partnerships. They are available for startups and existing businesses seeking advice to get an idea off the ground or help a company grow.
Experts say there are many paths to entrepreneurship, but seldom is success achieved without help as Powell learned. He was relieved it was unnecessary to go it alone and appreciated SCORE, which provided a mentor relationship rather than making decisions for his business.
“My mentor continues to be an active support member of (my) business and had many important points for starting (my) business that I had not previously heard of,” Powell said. SCORE helped him fine-tune his business plan and worked on financial projections.
“The great thing is that he let it be mine and offered suggestions but in no way tried to sway the business model,” said Powell, an experienced mechanic and certified master automotive technician. His company operates in Dyer, St. John and Schererville.
SCORE has provided education and mentorship to more than 11 million entrepreneurs across the county since 1964.
Donald Pelka of Valparaiso is vice chair of the Region’s chapter. About 30 volunteers serve clients across Northwest Indiana.
“Part of what we offer is mentoring (at) no cost,” he said. “But what we like to say is that it’s not free because there is a cost of the person’s time, (so) in other words, for us to be most effective, our clients have to do a lot of work, show up at meetings and give up their time.”
On the part of the mentor, Pelka said they follow a code of ethics, which guides their approach.
“We try to be empathetic, helpful and educational,” he said.
Beyond the one-on-one engagement, Pelka said counselors offer no- or low-cost business training on a variety of business topics, including marketing, finance and accounting, management, and other topics.
With respect to mentoring, Pelka said SCORE has helped entrepreneurs find success across various industries. Through the years, Pelka has seen wins that include clients adding staff and expanding product or service lines.
For mentors who become invested in the client’s outcome, they derive a great deal of fulfillment from these relationships, Pelka said.
That’s why at SCORE, the group measures its success by clients’ satisfaction.
Pelka said it is not always easy to quantify certain wins, though client feedback is one way to gauge the efficacy of the SCORE program.
“In some ways, we could say, the national organization looks at the number of businesses or the number of jobs that were created,” he said. “But sometimes it’s hard to determine those figures, but what we can measure is client sentiment.”
Shaping an entrepreneur’s mindset
Lawrence Hamer is the dean of Purdue University Northwest’s College of Business. From an academic perspective, Hamer said his institution provides a well-rounded education when it comes to the study and execution of business practices.
“So, in the College of Business at Purdue Northwest, we have an undergraduate degree in management, which allows for students to specialize in different areas that we call concentrations,” he said. “For instance, we have a concentration in entrepreneurship.”
The business curriculum marries the theoretical with the application, and that’s by design.
“We don’t want to be a program where all the education comes from the classroom,” Hamer said. “Instead, we went with a program where students are interactive and undertake activities that are very dynamic and involve them going outside of the classroom as part of their education.”
Hamer said the university leverages resources in the Region, which provide real-world experiences to students as well as to other stakeholders. One example, he said, is that PNW offers support to people in the community who are trying to get ventures off the ground. That helps foster an environment for entrepreneurship.
“I feel there is an undercurrent of entrepreneurship activity in the Region,” he said. “And I think the future of the Region is much more dependent on entrepreneurship than it has been in the past.”
Entrepreneurship as a driver of economic development underscores the work PNW does on campus. A September 2018 report from the Northwest Indiana Economic Forum titled “IGNITE the Region: A Regional Strategy for Economic Transformation” cements this idea. The strategy provides an evaluation of Northwest Indiana’s economic development challenges and opportunities, informed by quantitative analysis, qualitative input, and the consulting team’s 20-plus years of experience working with communities across the country.
The report’s findings suggest that “creating a robust entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem is vital to the long-term health of the Northwest Indiana economy. Regions can no longer base their economic development programs exclusively on recruiting large manufacturing plants, corporate headquarters or distribution facilities.”
The report’s authors make the case, noting regions that prioritize the infrastructure necessary for entrepreneurship to flourish, are better positioned to thrive economically.
Hamer said Purdue Northwest is answering that call.
“And so, at Purdue Northwest, what we’re trying to do is be a resource to the Region by offering this program, which is dependent on drawing together some of the infrastructure that’s related to entrepreneurship,” he said. “And we do that to offer students a way to let their entrepreneur dreams come to life and learn how to do that, and then go back out into the Region and practice those skills.”
‘Good for the community’
Often what’s good for students is good for the business community. Rajan Selladurai is an Indiana University Northwest School of Business and Economics professor and director of the IU Northwest Small Business Institute.
Selladurai has one foot in the academic world and the other in business, a benefit for both sides.
As the director of the institute, he has seen the power of public-private collaboration and its impact on the Region.
The SBI provides customized consulting services to businesses and other organizations in Northwest Indiana and the Chicago metro area. Student teams, under his guidance, work closely with the client organizations on several different projects, including developing industry analysis, company analysis, and customized solutions and recommendations to challenges and problems.
“We collaborate with local small businesses and companies, and provide consulting services for them on a semester-by-semester basis,” Selladurai said. “Some of the companies that we have worked with and helped over the years include a local Chick-fil-A franchise.”
Selladurai said the students enjoyed this project, because it challenged them to translate classroom concepts into action. In that case, they helped the restaurateur better market a menu item with various tactics.
Another success in the same industry, Selladurai said student teams made the case to administration — through feasibility studies — to bring two Starbucks locations to campus.
And more recently, IUN students attracted interest from health care. Just before the pandemic hit, they signed on to work with two hospitals in the Region to help improve teamwork in their systems. Although the project has been temporarily delayed, Selladurai is confident they will resume the collaboration in the spring.
Support for entrepreneurs
Indianapolis-based Elevate Ventures has an interest in the state’s entrepreneurship ecosystem.
Jacob Schpok, vice president of entrepreneurial services and entrepreneur-in-residence, said his firm’s difference is in the details.
“We operate like a traditional venture capital firm, where we look for opportunities to invest in (companies), and our limited partners expect to get a return on our investment by taking an equity position in these businesses,” Schpok said. “What makes us unique, though, is that our limited partners — they are organizations particularly in the state of Indiana — are interested in seeing Indiana’s startup ecosystem grow. So, we only invest in Indiana-based companies.”
When making these decisions, Schpok said it is viewed through the lens of offering solutions.
“Often, we look for businesses that are addressing total addressable markets that are national or global in scope,” he said. “So that often means that their market cap is, at a minimum, half a billion dollars, so these are visionary game-changing business models, but they’re across a number of different verticals.”
Schpok’s group may work with life sciences startups, such as pharmaceuticals or medical devices.
“We also look at opportunities within verticals, like companies in agriculture and manufacturing,” he said.
That investment can take the form of both capital and programmatic support, he said. His organization assists entrepreneurs who might be interested in starting a company but not yet ready to start raising capital.
“So, we’ll continue to work with them and get them pointed in the direction where they become as attractive as possible for institutional investment dollars,” he said.
“We have entrepreneurs-in-residence across the state, working one-on-one with startups.”
Schpok’s group tends to make matches based on the geographic location but considers the entrepreneur’s vertical. Meaning, if an entrepreneur has a life sciences solution, it makes sense to place them with someone who understands the ins and outs of that industry, he said.
To understand the scope and scale of their work, Schpok said his group has assisted 3,000 companies in Indiana since 2010. That’s more than $100 million in investment.
There’s also opportunity for engagement outside of these venues.
According to Schpok, his group traditionally had a statewide pitch competition. The idea is leaders from Hoosier-based startups present their concepts for a shot at an investment.
A series of workshops provide another way to engage, Schpok said. Kinetic is an annual conference, which brings together panelists of entrepreneurs who have been successful in scaling their operations.
During the program, entrepreneurs discuss their early steps to launch ideas, or in some cases, what they had to do to exit a venture. Whatever the situation, Schpok said he’s always impressed by the caliber of ideas.
What separates entrepreneurs from others is a certain drive, he said.
“It’s having that growth mindset where you want to really put energy towards solving a problem, and that’s a prerequisite to becoming an entrepreneur,” Schpok said.