Photo by Joe Olivieri
Local incubators connect companies with mentors, resources
Spuntino, a line of thick cut bread chips, started out as a creative way to use up day-old bread.
Mark Spedale, then co-owner of Primizie Osteria, had grilled and crisp-fried the leftover pieces.
The chips paired well with heavy dips and hummus, co-owner Lisa Spedale said.
“We thought about retailing them as a kind of higher-end chip,” she said. “To get calls asking about them, even after the restaurant closed [in 2010], was really validating.”
The Spedales offered their chips through their Southwest Austin catering company, Primizie, before branching out to retail. Spuntino chips are now in 16 local grocery stores.
Eventually, the Spedales’ all-under-one-roof business model hit a wall. If they were going to continue to grow their business, they were going to need some help.
Many small businesses sought funding and greater exposure during the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in March. Now that the international spotlight has dimmed until next year, businesses have continued networking locally and seeking public programs and private groups to help them grow.
The City of Austin is home to more than 38,000 small businesses that employ roughly 40 percent of the total workforce. City of Austin data predicts that this year, more than 7,000 small businesses will be created—a large number for the city’s size.
The city’s Small Business Development Program offers coaching and research opportunities.
“What we try to do is provide information and references,” SBDP representative Joy Miller said. “Information is often one of the biggest needs that a small-business owner has.”
She said that business owners need to be educated and prepared, whether they are seeking loans or going through the city’s permitting process.
Mark Spedale said it was important for small businesses to know what resources are available to them.
The newly minted small business faces many challenges in the process of starting up. Some of those challenges may be in subjects that are far from the founders’ areas of expertise.
Local incubators such as The University of Texas’ Austin Technology Incubator, Texas State University’s Small Business Development Center, Economic Growth Business Incubator and Incubation Station connect small businesses with the training, services and funding opportunities they need.
Some larger companies, such as IBM and Advanced Micro Devices Inc., run their own incubators and foster talent in-house.
In January, Incubator Station selected Primizie as one of five companies it would help in its first round of training. It paired Primizie with mentors, including Rhythm Superfoods CEO Scott Jensen, who helped expand Stubb’s Bar-B-Q’s barbecue sauce, and John Rowe, who worked in marketing for Frito-Lay.
“[Incubation Station] has given us so much direction in branding, financial matters, team building,” Lisa Spedale said. “It’s like a mini-intensive MBA program.”
One important service offered by both the SBDP and private incubators is connecting small businesses with the investors who will ultimately bankroll expansion.
The city hosts “Meet the Lender” events and invites banks, credit unions, community lenders and various private organizations. Connecting with groups such as Austin Ventures and the Central Texas Angel Network can mean the difference between rapid expansion and slow growth.
Incubation Station held a Showcase Day in mid-April to help its companies raise capital.
The next step
The path to growing a business is not a straight line or checklist. Local entrepreneurs say the necessary steps are different in each field and for each company.
Incubation Station Managing Director Shari Wynne said one of the biggest mistakes business owners make is to lose track of the big picture and focus too closely on the day-to-day businesses.
“It’s called working in your business instead of working on your business,” she said. “You get so caught up in the job that two years down the line, you look up and say, ‘I didn’t grow my business.’”
Longtime entrepreneur Gary Hoover, of business research company Hoover’s Inc., said small businesses should never lose touch with the customers’ experience and should always keep growing. Convenience is important, especially for technology and Web-based businesses.
The Spedales’ next steps are to partner with a packaging company and a distributor. Once they do that, they can expand to a few more stores.
Their goal is to have a whole line of chef-created products. Some of the restaurant’s popular dips have been in the works for more than 10 years.
They would love to go regional and get into southwest grocery stores. After that—who knows?—maybe go national one day, Lisa Spedale said.
“It’s fun,” she said of the business. “It’s different every day. I’m in charge and learning new things.”