Rich Resources: Big help for Utah’s small businesses
A couple years ago, Alex Adema moved from New York to the Beehive State to join DPS Skis as COO. Upon arrival, he made a beeline for World Trade Center Utah. He knew the organization could make a difference for DPS Skis, because he had already seen what the World Trade Center Association could do back in Buffalo. There, when Adema helped launch an economic development organization, he had worked closely with WTC Buffalo.
Now, thanks to the connections WTC Utah has helped DPS make, the carbon fiber ski manufacturer has made significant headway with its international business. WTC Utah is just one of several business development organizations that are propelling small businesses statewide, lending powerful resources that can be a big boon for Utah’s up-and-comers.
When John Lane founded Logical Front in 2003, he wasn’t sold on the need for a commercial office headquarters. He had previously worked for LANDESK (now Ivanti) as a senior field service engineer, and found that his local and national clients preferred meeting at their own offices—which meant his space at LANDESK was going to waste. So Lane launched Logical Front, a value-added systems integration IT consulting company, from his home office.
As Logical Front grew, however, he wanted to find a right-sized solution—one that provided a place for his home-based employees to gather, without the unnecessary overhead of leasing a large commercial space. Enter Miller Resource Business Center, a collective of services and organizations all dedicated to helping businesses grow.
“We’ve been at the Miller Center for about six years. It’s been fantastic,” says Lane. “First off, with the Business Incubator program, we get access to a commercial mailing address, access to the conference rooms and training rooms, and if we need it, we can grab a desk or cubicle at any point. We’re there about once a week—and it costs just a little over just $50 a month.” He then jokes, “My only concern is if I tell you how affordable it is, they’re going to send my rates up!”
Lane has also taken advantage of other training programs and business events hosted by MBRC, and he’s encouraged his employees to do the same. “I’ve sent my marketing team to the marketing-centric events. They’ve found it useful,” he says.
MBRC offers more than just its Business Incubator program. Its departments include the Global Business Center, Utah Small Business Development Center, Conference and Event Center, and Park City Business Resource Center. Perhaps most notably, it’s also one of 33 sites across the United States and UK for the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program.
An entrepreneur’s dream, 10,000 Small Businesses provides education, capital and support services to small businesses, with more than 7,700 graduates to date. Competition to participate can be tough—Lane says he applied twice before being accepted. But once in, the resources are abundant: in-depth curriculum designed by leading entrepreneurial school Babson College, access to small business lenders, and a network of business advisors ready to provide insight and counsel.
Lane attests to the value of the program, saying, “The biggest thing I’ve appreciated about the program is the peer group analysis. The business advisors have also been fantastic.”
Not only is 10,000 Small Businesses helping Lane take Logical Front to the next level, but it’s also helping him jumpstart other ventures. “I intend to start a new company. The program’s helped me build a plan to get a USTAR TAP grant,” he says.
As Lane looks to a bright future with the support of organizations like these, so do companies like ElastoCrete, which recently received a hefty grant through another Utah-based program.
When ElastoCrete execs heard they were one of just 20 companies to receive a 2017 Technology Commercialization and Innovation Program grant, they were elated. In its third year, the startup has been gathering market share with its polymer-modified concrete. But like all young companies, funding is paramount to continued success, and the $100,000 TCIP grant offered through the Governor’s Office of Economic Development has been a welcome gift.
Greg Freihofner, ElastoCrete COO, says the company first heard about the opportunity last fall. Although the grant program is technology-centric, ElastoCrete took a chance at applying, “because there’s technology and innovation involved in creating our product,” says Friehofner. “Our product is a concrete that’s been engineered to be strong and rigid, but also flexible. Regular concrete cracks, and it can’t be poured over wood. Ours doesn’t crack, and it can bond to inorganic and organic material, like wood and rubber. If you saw it you wouldn’t believe it—it feels strong like a piece of tile, then it bends.”
After the initial TCIP grant application and screening process, ElastoCrete advanced to the presentation round. They were notified of their award earlier this year, and Freihofner says the grant is already making a difference.
“It’s been beneficial for several reasons,” he says. “First, the cash—any small business is always strapped for cash, trying to make payroll, getting your name out there with marketing. But it’s more than just the cash.
“It’s been great to connect with other young companies in Utah, as well. There are a lot of synergies, a lot of comparing notes and getting out in the business community. And they don’t just give you money and walk away, they help your business improve marketing; they teach you how to raise additional outside funding; they help you know how to get proper metrics in place so you can measure your growth.”
Freihofner points out a common challenge for new businesses is that introspective analysis. He says, “You just forge ahead; you move on to whatever fire is burning the hottest. You think about improving the product, but you don’t think about improving the process of the business, about acquiring new customers, managing finances and sales processes. That’s why this has helped us a lot.”
Another TCIP $100,000 grant recipient, Storj, couldn’t agree more.
Storj Founder and Chief Development Officer John Quinn offers similar praise for TCIP. “It’s probably the most established startup accelerator program in the state,” he says. “We meet once a week, go through things like sales, marketing, fundraising. That’s been really helpful.”
Storj was originally founded in Atlanta in 2015, but quickly decided it wanted to establish its presence in the West. After an exhaustive search yielded Denver, Portland and Salt Lake City as its top three choices, Storj chose Salt Lake for the cost of living, quality of workforce and access to transportation. (Quinn jokes that the flight between Salt Lake and San Francisco is shorter than the commute between Silicon Valley and San Fran.)
During its city review process, local tech and business leaders put together a meet-and-greet for Storj, which was held at Impact Hub Salt Lake, another of Utah’s valuable small business resources. “The event was well-attended, a really warm welcome. It gave us that reinforcing factor to say there’s a really cool community here that gets what we’re doing.”
That event also connected Quinn to Dustin Haggett, founder of Impact Hub Salt Lake, where Storj ultimately decided to set up shop last summer. Located downtown, Impact Hub Salt Lake is one of 90 Impact Hub sites around the world, designed to serve “as a home base for freelancers, entrepreneurs, and small business owners who are creating innovative solutions to local, regional and global needs.” Monthly membership fees allow for a range of services, from drop-in individual desk and conference room access to permanent office space.
Members also benefit from ongoing events and development support, like the bi-monthly Changemakers Meetup for social entrepreneurs, the weekly One Million Cups for entrepreneurs to pitch ideas to business advisors, and the monthly Wine Down mixer for spurring additional connections.
Quinn says Impact Hub Salt Lake has done more than provide office space for the Storj team—it’s also been a catalyst for expansion. In fact, it was the folks at Impact Hub who encouraged Storj to apply for the TCIP grant. And as Storj anticipates adding additional employees over the coming months, Quinn says Impact Hub Salt Lake is an ideal setting for growth.
When it comes to growth, Utah has been ideal for DPS Skis. DPS is known for introducing the world’s first pure carbon fiber ski, the first 120mm powder pintail, and it also claims credit for transferring “the word ‘rocker’ from surfing to skiing”—then building “the first rockered ski with sidecut.”
The company was founded in Denver in 2005 and moved its headquarters to Utah a few years later. Adema says the relocation was prompted by several factors, including “the outdoor recreation ecosystem here. It’s more central to the buyers and resources we needed.”
The company also moved its manufacturing from China to Salt Lake City, which Adema says provides greater IP protection and enables the company to shorten the development cycle. “We all know it’s much less expensive to manufacture overseas, but that created other challenges for us,” he says. “Here, we can design a ski, build it, test it at Snowbird or Alta, and make revisions to it all within one week. But when we were manufacturing in China, it was a two-week test cycle. We occupy the highest price point in most markets we’re in, and part of that value is in having U.S.-made products.”
In addition to the outdoor recreation resources, organizations like WTC Utah have also played a role in DPS’ success. With its mission to “help Utah companies think, act and succeed globally,” WTC Utah provides training seminars, forums and newsletters to facilitate international business development and export opportunities. It also offers B2B consultations, and it organizes worldwide trade missions and networking opportunities with foreign trade officials. It’s one of 300 World Trade Centers in over 100 countries dedicated to advancing global business.
“World Trade Center Utah has been great to help us get oriented,” says Adema. “We were already exporting our skis pretty far around the world—Europe, Asia, South America. But they’ve helped us get an understanding of ways to do what we do smarter and more efficiently. They’ve helped us look at foreign trade zones and duty drawbacks. And they introduced us to a couple resources, like the U.S. Commercial Service’s Gold Key Service, which has provided matchmaking for us with other potential distributors. We’ve seen healthy, steady growth for a number of years, and anticipate that to continue.”
When looking at resources like WTC Utah, Miller Business Resource Center, GOED’s TCIP, and Impact Hub Salt Lake, it’s clear why Utah is fertile ground for growing companies. These organizations are strong individual contributors to small business success, and what’s more, they often collaborate with one another.
For example, WTC Utah’s list of partners includes the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, the Salt Lake Chamber, U.S. Commercial Service, Economic Development Corporation of Utah, Utah Technology Council, Utah Manufacturers Association and USTAR. MBRC’s partners include USTAR, Salt Lake Community College and Women Tech Council.
That kind of synergy is why the Beehive State consistently achieves high marks, like CNBC and Forbes both naming Utah as the No. 1 state to do business in 2016.
As a beneficiary of this robust support system, Freihofner has a word of advice for other small businesses out there: “Do everything you can to tap into resources like these. Not only can you get funding, but you’re getting assistance in running your business and networking within the Utah business community.”