Kevin Flanagan knew it was time to scout for a storefront after he lost several potential clients who learned he operated his computer repair and service business out of his house.
But the sticker shock of a brick-and-mortar space meant the young entrepreneur might have to continue his living room-based business meetings.
“Then along came Roxane and the Chamber and it was the ideal solution,” said Flanagan, owner of Delaware Computer Mechanics.
That solution is an office in the Middletown Business Incubator & Collaborative Workspace (MBI) housed in the Middletown Area Chamber of Commerce’s (MACC) new 3,300-square-foot Cass Street offices. The site doubles as chamber headquarters and MBI space.
It also offers entrepreneurs like Flanagan the credibility and professionalism that comes with office space, as well as a range of ancillary perks offered by the chamber, including marketing, business workshops, and sideline cheering of the chamber’s longtime office manager Peg Ryan and Executive Director Roxane Ferguson.
For a chamber that’s experienced exponential growth in the last ten years — growing from 165 members to 451 — the incubator concept was part of the organization’s proactive strategy to meet community needs.
The Middletown entrepreneur is a product of spectacular growth in the area — both residential and industrial. But while big business like Wal-Mart and Amazon have found a home in the vibrant area known as Westown, entrepreneurs have had fewer options, according to Ferguson.
“We just knew we needed to do something,” explained Ferguson, who said she fielded numerous phone calls from individuals and startups looking for an ideal but affordable Middletown location. The interest sparked the idea for housing an incubator, but one that squared with the varied interests of entrepreneurs in the area — not all of them techies.
“It’s a unique culture here, so we took different ideas we saw and used them here,” said Ferguson, whose team visited successful incubator operations like the coIN Loft in Wilmington as well as the Walnut Street Labs in West Chester, Pa. “We really had to look at the needs of the community.”
A $25,000 grant from the Delaware Economic Development Office, $25,000 in in-kind funding from area businesses and $20,000 from the chamber helped outfit the space, which features a soaring ceiling, giant windows and center lounge.
Two private offices, two semi-private offices and four cubicles are housed in the space, which includes a Wi-Fi bar, kitchen and meeting rooms. The minimum $150 per month rent gains regular access to the postal and copier codes.
The synergy of different businesses and models — 12 which operate out of the space — means no two days are the same, according to Ferguson.
She calls herself the “Vanna” of the incubator as she regularly shows visitors its offerings, and happily said there are days when it’s mayhem.
“We’re working with members, setting up events and ribbon-cuttings,” she said. “But then you have Kevin dropping off computers, someone meeting with TLK [Tender Loving Kare) because their corporate office is here, and Ayanna is meeting with entrepreneurs looking for grants.”
Ayanna Osinuga owns Khan Consulting, a grant-writing business that counts Middletown-Odessa Rotary Club and the Salvation Army as clients. She launched her business after 10 years in the finance industry. Like Flanagan, she needed space on a budget.
“When I needed to meet a client, I would do it at Starbucks, which is very busy,” she said.
For $250 per month, Osinuga now rents a sun-filled cubicle at the front of the Chamber building. It includes a work desk and two chairs, and space for Osinuga to display business awards.
She also has access to the conference room, copier, fax machine and kitchen area.
“It’s definitely helped me grow my business,” said Osinuga, who moved into the cubicle in May. “There’s now name recognition, my logo is up, and people are more familiar with Khan Consulting.”
Flanagan pays $550 per month for his private office.
“It’s way more than I hoped for specifically because of them,” said Flanagan who moved into his space in June and hopes to use the space as a bridge until he can lease a traditional storefront. “To get a storefront presence for that price is pretty good. “
“What’s exciting is that the chamber is such a progressive organization,” said MACC President Sital Soni, the chamber’s first female president in the history of the 44-year-old organization.
“The chamber is such a wonderful platform to host an incubator,” said Soni, who added that they have generated interest from other chambers looking at their model. “What we do very well is grow and network our businesses and that marries very nicely with our goals.”