Getting Head Start: SmartStart helps ideas become businesses

Photo courtesy of SmartStart Jason Mack teaches a SmartStart class, in which people with a business idea can develop from a thought to a successful business.

HOUGHTON — Six years after its inception, the SmartZone’s SmartStart is still going strong, helping to take entrepreneurs’ ideas from a thought to a successful business. SmartStart provides the setting for entrepreneurs to create a business, going beyond books and theories, offering hands-on coaching.

Jason Mack, who is in charge of the SmartStart program, said it began in 2012 when SmartZone CEO Marilyn Clark was new to the position and searching for ways to increase the number of people coming into the SmartZone. She found an off-the-shelf program based on the Wendy Kennedy Institute to help early-stage clients.

“It’s much like a sales funnel,” Mack said. “With sales it’s a numbers game, you try to get out and snatch up as many people as possible. When you get to that funnel part, you get to the clients that you want to work with, who have a good idea, a good team.”

The SmartStart process begins with an idea, Mack said. Anyone with an idea about a business, but is not sure of the processes or details, can enroll in SmartStart. When three or more people, or teams, or business with a business idea become enrolled, he will meet with them to decide when they want to meet.

“We’ll meet for two hours at a time, one time a week,” said Mack, “and we go over all aspects of the business in a cohort-type of environment.”

In the weekly class, topics such as marketing, path to market, financial and hiring the right people are covered. In the group, people will develop their own ideas with others to clearly articulate how the business idea will fill an unmet market need.

Mack said for example, about three years ago, there were three different people with three different ideas with three different business types.

“It’s not a lecture. We’re active,” said Mack. “We share thoughts about our business work. We’re validating who we think is going to buy our product, where we’re going to sell it, how much we’re going to sell it for. what kind of money we’re going to need to start this business, who we should have on our team, so we ask a lot of those questions.”

The idea, Mack said, is that entrepreneurs are not just starting a business based on what they they think is a good idea, but rather in the class, they exchange ideas with one another and learn from each other.

“I’ll introduce some of those things that we need to talk about,” said Mack, “and I’ll send them home to basically do a lot of that thinking, that discovery to go out and ask questions, ask other people what they think, ask themselves what they should do in this case or that case, and they come back and we discuss it.

“The idea here is you’re not just starting a business off of what you think is a good idea, but you’re bouncing that idea off of other people, and they’re getting good things from what everybody else is learning as well, so it’s a really tight group of individuals. We challenge each other.”

The SmartStart program offers support by providing business coaches and industry experts to help guide entrepreneurs and their technology ideas. Training in opportunities in sales, marketing, production, and other categories, are provided.

There is a cost to go through the SmartStart class, in two categories, Mack said. College students or a group of students, will pay $100, while non-students are charged $500. Mack said while SmartStart is non-profit organization, there are reasons for the fees.

“I want to make sure people are legitimately interested in launching their business,” he said. “The thing is, we’re non-profit organization, so if you come in at $500 or at $100, we’re going to treat you the same, but with that, we’ll file for your LLC, or your S-Corp. We’ll actually file the paperwork with the state of Michigan, if you’re ready to do so.

“We give you the book. The book costs us like $75 as it is. We’re giving it to you. We’re not making you pay for it. And then we have other trainings on top of that. I mean, we have other networks, other individuals in the community that will connect you with those.”

After graduating from the SmartStart class, the graduate has new options, new directions. By signing up as a Virtual Client, people are given access to the accelerator wing space, as well as the SmartZone supplier network of IP, bookkeeping, staffing, and pricing professionals. Or the graduate can formally move into the incubator space.

“Our incubator space is the Jutila Center, so that’s where our young businesses can set up shop if they need a brick-and-mortor location for their business,” said Mack. “If they want to move into the incubator, or anybody who wants to get connected with the SmartZone, they must go through our SmartStart program first.”

The reason for that is that the SmartZone then knows who the person or the business is, because in the incubator center, they still have access to further help.

“Every sort of business has different settings, different needs,” Mack said. “Maybe they need more support on the intellectual property side. Others need more funding. Others have a great idea, but they don’t have that talent. So, how can you help them find that talent, whether they pay for it, or they do so by adding people to other teams.”

Mack said typically the ones who graduate from the class are those who have the passion to do something with their business ideas.

“I’ve had people come through this with one idea, go down the road, and say: ‘Ya know what? This idea isn’t going to work,'” he said. “But they might come back with another idea, and so they know the format, they know what questions to ask, things to be thinking about. So, even if the first one doesn’t work, the second one might be that much better.”

The SmartStart program is not just for those with an idea for a high-tech business. It can be anyone. Mack said he has had organizations from Michigan Technological University, and even someone from Laurium who did not have even so much as a formal idea.

“They wanted to start a business, but they weren’t sure what to do with it,” he said. “They have a building, they have an idea, so they ended up going through the SmartStart class.”