Any business needs to function the same as a living organism.
To survive and thrive, a company must breathe in customers and ingest revenues, convert them into profits while expelling expenses, and reinvest the surplus energy generated to ensure continued growth and maturation. If successful, the firm can reproduce, either through expansion, diversification or franchising.
Just like living things, businesses are most vulnerable when they are young. From concept to inception to implementation of the business plan, the initial phases need extra care and attention.
Loudoun County is remarkable in the number of start-up businesses and incredible success stories. According to Vanessa Wagner, small business and entrepreneurship manager for Loudoun County Economic Development, much of that success story can be linked directly to business incubators.
“An incubator is a program that focuses on growing early-stage companies,” Wagner said. “It could be a mix of resources that includes office space, mentorship, business assistance and networking resources. It could include some of these or other programs, or it could include all of them.”
Wagner said these incubator programs can help entrepreneurs take an idea or vision, form that idea into a business and begin the initial phases of business-building with a support system that helps keep overhead manageable.
“For a small business, the advantage of starting in one of these spaces is it allows you flexibility,” Wagner said. “You’re not obligated to a five- or 10-year lease. You are in a shared environment with shared amenities so you are often paying lower costs for Wi-Fi, coffee or receptionists. Those costs are often included.
“You are taking up a smaller footprint than entering first into a commercial real estate office. Those are some of the ways they keep the costs lower.”
Wagner said the Mason Enterprise Center in Leesburg is only true, fully-functioning incubator in Loudoun County, but she points to several other programs she calls innovative spaces, which help small businesses get started, keep start-up costs manageable and achieve sustainable during the crucial infancy stage.
“While Loudoun may have one true incubator program and another coming on board, I feel our community needs a mix of innovative spaces,” Wagner said. “This would extend to our co-working facilities, accelerator programs, and maker spaces.
“When I started my role here almost three years ago, we had one innovative space – the Mason Enterprise Center. Now we have a mix of nine”
“These are shared work environments, and the vision for most is that it builds a community by providing networking or other opportunities for tenants to engage with one another,” Wagner said. “We have Brickyard in Ashburn, EXCYTE Workspace, which is a HUB Zone space in Leesburg, and Leesburg Junction.”
- Brickyard’s website (thebrickyard.co) bills it as providing “community-focused coworking.” “More than just a space: It’s one thing to have a workspace that isn’t your kitchen table or a coffee shop. It’s something totally different to be part of a community that pushes, supports and championship you in your pursuit of your passion; your business.”
- XCYTE website (xcyteworkspace.com) says it offers “coworking space located in the HUB Zone area of Leesburg. We exist to provide a collaborative atmosphere for professionals, entrepreneurs, and innovators alike. Aspiring to combine work, play, and success, Xcyte strives to foster a community with great services and infrastructure to help get the job done.
- Leesburg Junction’s website (leesburgjunction.com) says it is “a collaborative workspace and event venue in downtown Leesburg. We are located in the thriving Arts & Cultural District right on the WO&D bike trail, just a short walk from several beautiful parks, fine restaurants, and unique shops.”
- Simple Office Space (simpleofficespace.com), at 312 E. Market St. in Leesburg, Is HUB Zone compliant located in historic downtown Leesburg. SOS offers easy access, fully furnished private offices. According to its website, SOS offers quiet, clean interiors, wi-fi, shared conference and kitchenette areas, private parking and is within walking distance of several restaurants and local government services in Leesburg. The Tryst Gallery (trystgaller.com), showcasing regional artists, is housed within SOS.
“Brickyard and Leesburg Junction has only been around for less than two years and XCYTE is in its first year,” Wagner said.
Maker-spaces are places where upstart entrepreneurs can share more than space and networking.
“We also have two maker-spacers, which basically is a do-it-yourself lab where people can share tools as well as knowledge to create physical products,” Wagner said. “They are great places for tinkerers, inventors, and hobbyists. Makersmiths Innovative Forge has one in Leesburg and they are building a second location in Purcellville.”
Mark Millsap is the member’s president of Makersmiths Innovative Forge. He said the overall concept is simple.
“A maker-space is a place where were share space, we share tools and we share each other’s expertise,” Millsap said. “We have about 60 members and there are more every week. There are a lot of maker-spaces and they are all a little different. They take on their own flavor, depending on their membership.
Millsap said he was a member at the Nova Labs maker-space in Reston he was approached about being part of Nova Labs’ expansion into Loudoun County.
him about his plans to expand.
“Pat Scannell was the executive director and he knows I live in Loudoun County,” Millsap said. “He asked me about being in charge of + this one.”
In addition, the Sterling and Gum Springs branches of Loudoun County Public Library have Maker-Spaces, including 3-D printers.
SHARED WORKING ENVIRONMENTS
Wagner said shared working environments are like the other types of innovative spaces but tend to be basic in their offerings, often providing services ala carte.
“Any of the incubators, whether it be co-working or maker-spaces or shared spaces, they offer flexible, affordable space options for entrepreneurs,” Wagner said. “Not unlike other companies, most of them are privately managed.”
- Leesburg Innovation: One such shared working environment is Leesburg Innovation (leesburginnovation.com), which was started by Dan Caporale when he was facing the very problem his innovative space resolves.
“It came about trying to look for some space and stand up a new company,” Caporale said. “Unfortunately, there is either 5,000 square feet or 100 square feet. There was never that happy medium that fit what I wanted to do. I figured I couldn’t be the only person who was having that issue.
“We had the idea of what would happen if we stepped into a larger company and offered it to other companies.”
Caporale said many people start businesses working from their homes, but eventually want to move into a separate office.
“People want to grow,” Caporale said. “It’s good and bad to work from home, but people need that degree of separation. So, they look for that environment to set up shop.
“We offer up the opportunity for small start-ups to come in and start with a small space and eventually either grow into a larger space or graduate out into their own facilities.”
Terminal 68’s website (terminal68.com) uses the slogan, “Where Life and Work Intersect.” Terminal 68 offers a Chinese-menu array of options, from “Dedicated Desk 1 and 2 to “Office A through Office I.”
“When you’re a smaller team facing a certain level of risk,” the website continues, “it can be difficult to get a good rate from service providers. We understand that, and will negotiate rates with our partners on behalf of our entire community.”
MASON ENTERPRISE CENTER
The only true, full-service business incubator in Loudoun County is the offshoot of the program housed at George Mason University’s Fairfax campus.
Taking up a building in historic downtown Leesburg, the center was formed by collaboration from the Town of Leesburg, the county government, and Loudoun County Economic Development.
“It was the first location of its kind in Loudoun and it started with the town of Leesburg saw the need to develop and foster entrepreneurs,” Wagner said. “We wanted to focus on small business development because 86 percent of the companies in Loudoun County have fewer than 20 employees. So, it is important that be able to provide them with the resources they need to grow and innovative spaces was an important part of our strategy, and continues to be so.”
The Mason Enterprise Center, being a public entity with the resources of a university behind it, has many advantages other innovative spaces can’t offer.
“One of the great things of MEC is they also house the Small Business Development Center, which provides no-cost business coaching and development programs. They will tap into resources at GMU, however, the SBDC has many resources available as well as staff and volunteers from around the greater Loudoun region.”
(Much more about the Mason Enterprise Center and its success stories will be included in Part 2 and Part 3 of this series).
Wagner said young businesses and entrepreneurs are extremely vulnerable in their early stages. That is why having innovative spaces that can keep overhead low while providing expertise and networking is vital to the economic development of any community.
“Entrepreneurship is risky and it can be scary and it can be lonely,” Wagner said. Incubators and innovative spaces are really not just physical locations, but can be a catalyst for tenants by connecting them to regional and national resources who can help them grow their business.”