Incubator helps nurture small business growth

Published on July 7, 2012

By Lillia Callum-Penso, The Greenville News

Clemson Elementary third-grade teacher Susan Nunamaker developed the Money Cents for Kids program to teach students how to negotiate costs and develop marketing for the businesses they've created.
Clemson Elementary third-grade teacher Susan Nunamaker developed the Money Cents for Kids program to teach students how to negotiate costs and develop marketing for the businesses they’ve created. / MYKAL McELDOWNEY/Staff

The sounds coming from Susan Nunamaker’s classroom at Clemson Elementary are what you notice first. Kids’ voices vie to be heard above each other in a mix of squeals, shouts and general commotion. It all seems very contrary to the school environment.

Enter the brightly decorated room and you can see what the third-graders are so loud about. The desks are misaligned with neat piles of lollipops, Jolly Ranchers and Airheads; some have neatly bagged brownies and cookies.

These are the students’ products, and they’re learning how to negotiate costs and develop marketing for the businesses they’ve created. It’s like one big marketplace microcosm, which Nunamaker has created through her Money Cents for Kids program.

Change scenes, away from the noisy classroom and into a professional business setting with individual offices, a conference room and spaces for meetings with clients. It’s here, in the Oconee Business Center, a nonprofit business incubator, that Nunamaker practices a real-life version of what she preaches in her classroom.

Here, she’s the student, and her teacher and business mentor is Mike Hehir, a retired executive with McGraw-Hill. Nunamaker is one of several tenants in the business center, part of the nonprofit Mountain Lakes Business Development Corp., which aims to help entrepreneurs develop and grow their businesses.

The center created by retired business executives is working to give would-be business owners in the Pickens-Anderson-Oconee area the physical space and expertise they need to realize their dreams.

Sharing experience

In two years Nunamaker has developed a curriculum, associated products and materials like wallets and debit cards for both a classroom version (REAL) of Money Cents and an after-school and summer camp edition (enRICHment). The REAL program is being used in more than 60 schools in two states, and enrichment is being used for the first time this summer at three Upstate locations. Through a recent partnership with Kaplan Early Learning Co., both are set to expand nationally in the fall.

For her, the incubator space has meant a place to store all of her Money Cents items and thus new access to her home garage, as well as a more professional meeting place (she used to meet people at the public library). But it’s also helped her really build her business.

She meets with Hehir in her office every few weeks. The meetings have been invaluable, says Nunamaker, particularly when it comes to the “nitty gritty” things like patent laws and intellectual property rights.

“This is my baby,” Nunamaker says. “So I don’t always see things objectively. He helps me look at it from a different perspective.”

On a recent Wednesday morning, Nunamaker and Hehir sit across from each other in Nunamaker’s incubator office. She’s been working on a new Money Cents training video and images for the Kaplan product catalog. She has a lot to discuss with Heir and has written it all down on a scrap piece of paper lest she forget anything.

“So we’ve got the training video complete,” she begins. “Then Kaplan has already talked about me going to present at a conference in Austin this fall.”

Hehir intercepts her reports with questions: “If Kaplan is going to ask you to a conference, are they paying for your travel?” “Who’s writing the catalog copy?” “Will you get to approve it?” “When?”

Hehir is like Nunamaker’s skeptic, helping her see all the possible problems. You can hear the slight annoyance in Nunamaker’s voice as she fields her mentor’s barrage of questions. But she meets each one, and her confidence grows.

“A lot of times Susan knows the answers,” Hehir says gently, “but she doesn’t know she knows the answers.”

Small businesses get a chance

The Walhalla-based Oconee Business Center and Mountain Lakes Business Development Corp. are the brain child of Carl Cliche, a former executive with General Electric.

Cliche was volunteering with SCORE — a nonprofit group of primarily retired executives dedicated to helping small businesses get off the ground — when the group realized an untapped need in the Pickens-Anderson-Oconee area.

He recruited others — Dave Eldridge, a retired CEO of a manufacturing company, and Terry McKenney, who owned and operated his own service station in Maine and helped start several incubators in that state.

“Typically in smaller communities like Pickens, when you go to the economic development office, there’s one or two people, and they’re out working on bigger projects like suppliers for BMW or things like that that are going to create many more jobs,” Cliche says. “So at the local level there isn’t anybody that’s got a shingle out that says ‘we will help small businesses.’”

Mountain Lakes has attracted a number of entrepreneurs and business people through SCORE in its two years, and partnered with Tri-County Technical College in Anderson to offer business classes for members. But Cliche always had hopes to start an incubator to nurture those businesses that demonstrated “real potential.”

The incubator is a physical business space budding entrepreneurs can use as an office or storage space. The Mountain Lakes board negotiated use of an abandoned county building in Walhalla by offering a community asset. All tenants pay $100 a month in rent for use of the space.

“Rather than spending their monies on an expensive space downtown they’re able to, at low rent, have all other kinds of facilities, including a kitchenette,” Cliche says. “They spend their money on growing their business so the intent is to give them an additional lift.”

Each potential tenant is interviewed by the Mountain Lakes board. The screening process looks at viability, whether the person has a defined business plan and commitment.

Each tenant must also agree to meet with a mentor regularly, who acts as a guide during the development stage.

Building on an idea

Incubators aren’t a new idea, says Frank Knapp Jr., president and CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce. The goal is to help support entrepreneurs and, in turn, help drive economic development of an area, Knapp says.

Incubators work to nurture entrepreneurs by offering essentials like space, affordable access to financial planning and technology, and access to funding through angel investors and banks.

But many are focused on technology sectors that are affiliated with colleges and universities, like the Clemson University Research Foundation, which operates two facilities devoted to biomedical innovation.

This is where Mountain Lakes is different. The incubator is open to all fields, space permitting. So far, there are five tenants, including Nunamaker, whose businesses range from manufacturing to education fields. Currently, the non-profit is looking into grant funding.

A different niche

Travis Barnett found his niche in rope. The 47-year-old, who’s worked in the logging and pulp industries, discovered the need for good rope while working at a local marina. He was storing the rope coils in his basement but as his business, Upstate Rope, grew, he needed more space and a better plan. He found Mountain Lakes through the Oconee Business Development Office last year.

Since then, Barnett has taken business classes through Tri-County Tech, honed his business plan and grown his business nationally. He is set to meet with a CPA to discuss a business loan later this month — a free service provided by the incubator.

“I started in the basement of my home,” Barnett says. “I have a full basement and one coil of rope is not a problem, but I was in growing pains.”

If the Mountain Lakes incubator succeeds, the hope is that it will become a viable contributor to the economy of the area of Pickens, Oconee and Anderson counties. Many of the businesses are not going to employ hundreds or thousands like a manufacturing plant, Cliche and Eldridge said, but one job is better than none. And it does have an impact.

“I think you’d find that small and micro-sized businesses create most of the jobs in this country,” McKenney says. “Even in this state, which has a fair amount of industry, there are a number of businesses that employ five, 10 people. Once you start to produce something you’ve created wealth. A real entrepreneur, failure doesn’t deter you. There have been some very successful companies that have risen out of the ashes from some failures.”

Putting it into practice

For Nunamaker, “big things are happening,” Cliche says. “Susan had the basic idea, but to convert this into a business. …” Through mentoring, “it’s given her the guidance to understand the parameters in which she can make decisions.”

Nunamkaer developed the financial literacy curriculum when she began teaching eight years ago as a way to both engage the kids and to discipline them. The kids got so excited that each year she added to the lessons. Now, the students pay business taxes, discuss class-action lawsuits and even use debit cards.

It’s kind of surreal at first, 8- and 9-year-olds discussing financing and business taxes, but kids need financial literacy, says Nunamaker, and she’s not going to quiet them down when they get it.

The Money Cents scene in her classroom at first looks like some sort of end-of-year party, until you hear what the conversation is.

“Well I’m selling these and I’d like to buy an advertisement to market them,” one student says.

“Fresh brownies for sale!” another shouts.

“How much are they?” asks her classmate.

“They’re $1.50, but you can get two for $2.75.”

For Nunamaker, the future seems quite bright, and for her students, too. Nine-year-old Jenna Marshall has achieved great success with her specialty marshmallows, a novelty among the lollipops, gum and chocolate candy.

“Because nobody else had made them before and I was the first one to make them, I paid a $20 fee so I could patent them,” she says with a satisfied smile.

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