October 28, 2020 Supporting Manhattan-area entrepreneurs, businesses, events

Entrepreneurs Need a Spark

Since 1903, every internal combustion engine works in a similar way. As a piston travels down a cylinder, it draws in a carefully mixed combination of fuel and air. When the piston reaches its pinnacle, it reverses course and compresses the mixture. At the very last moment, the mix of fuel and air is ignited and a controlled, miniature explosion forces the piston back down to create power. When the piston returns, it clears out the exhaust and the process starts all over again. The ignition that acts as a catalyst for this reaction is caused by a simple device: a spark plug. 

This precisely timed spark helps transform gasoline and oxygen into productive power and deliberate movement, and it revolutionized industry, business and the world in which we live. 

In the first half of 2019, a group of interested individuals in the greater Manhattan community organized an entity that they believe will provide a similar catalyst to the local entrepreneurial community: Spark.  This organization is currently applying for non-profit status, a process that usually takes around six months.

Photo by: David Mayes

The current team behind Spark includes a handful of local entrepreneurs and community members: Derek Richards, Josh Hicks, Jeff Black, Mitzi Richards and Sarah Siders. Although Spark is still in its infancy as an organization, the vision is clear: to create an organization that can help serve as a valuable resource for local entrepreneurs as they seek to take root in the Manhattan economy.

As Black, owner of Black Ink Real Estate and Black Ink Consulting, describes it, “Manhattan needs a go-to organization to help guide an entrepreneur from ‘I have an idea.’ to ‘I’m open!’” 

Mitzi Richards, former senior director of corporate relations at the KSU Foundation, describes Spark as “an opportunity for our community to collaborate and leverage our economic assets in a new and different way—where the city and the chamber and the university can each have a seat at the table to help Manhattan entrepreneurs receive guidance to the resources and relationships they need to birth and grow a business.”

Siders, a candidate in the recent city commission election, adds, “the entrepreneurship process is notoriously difficult and isolating.

Entrepreneurs need the camaraderie of feeling understood by others who know the journey, and they need to be supported, connected and ultimately launched by their community.

In Manhattan, we have some great resources for our business community, but the stops along our entrepreneurship ecosystem are not connected, making it cumbersome to navigate. Our goal with Spark is to be both a hub for the resources and connections that promote entrepreneurial advancement in the region, but also to smooth the path for entrepreneurs in the area so they can experience the greatest likelihood of success.”

Several of these organizers were driven to create Spark based on their own entrepreneurial journey and what they’ve learned as they’ve worked to build-up opportunities for others. Derek Richards, co-owner of Alliance Realty, found his passion for improving the ecosystem as he started his real estate business.  He eventually partnered with Hicks and others to open The Fellow, the first coworking space in Manhattan. 

As they came to know other entrepreneurs in the greater Flint Hills region, they looked for ways to help encourage and support the fledgling community. Thus, Hicks and Richards joined together with others to found StartUp MHK, a business pitch competition inspired by television’s Shark Tank. Over the last three years, sponsors (anchored by Peoples State Bank) have awarded over $55,000 in cash prizes to various local startups as a result of this competition. Six of the nine companies that have received awards have continued to operate in the greater Manhattan area. Additionally, in late 2017, Hicks and Richards founded the Manhattan chapter of 1 Million Cups, a nonprofit program sponsored by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation that is designed to educate, engage and inspire entrepreneurs. With monthly meetings at the Wareham Opera House, 1MC has become a positive support group for local entrepreneurs to share their successes and failures with peers. 

With so many initiatives in place, why is there a need for Spark? Hicks explains, “The Fellow could only provide so much to our local business community. There’s a clear cycle in the ecosystem that we observed over the years. First, like-minded individuals would connect through various community events. Then, a critical mass would continue to build as these budding business owners would find the resources to nurture their ideas. Eventually, they would find their way to funding opportunities. We’re designing Spark to focus on this cycle and help people through it quicker and more effectively.”

Photo by: David Mayes

The concept of Spark rapidly gained support from a broad-reaching coalition of community members that wanted to see continued improvement in the supporting infrastructure for entrepreneurs in the greater Manhattan area with an organization that would connect the various other organizations that serve to support local entrepreneurs in the region, including the Chamber of Commerce, the Kansas Small Business Development Center, the K-State Center for the Advancement of Entrepreneurship and additional coworking spaces Iron Clad and edge@1880. 

In Richards’s words, Spark will serve as an accelerator or concierge to help connect entrepreneurs to the various resources they may need. Many entrepreneurs are not aware of or familiar with these resources. They don’t know how to find other entrepreneurs in the community, especially when they are in the early stages of a new business. Most entrepreneurs already have a full-time job and are slowly developing their concept as a “side hustle.” They spend time in the evenings and on weekends tweaking and refining their ideas. Without formal business or entrepreneurial education, many entrepreneurs simply have an idea, a strong work ethic and a hope that there is sufficient demand in the market for their creation.

“The most important factor for business success is access to the right networks: talent networks, money networks, networks of ideas and networks of vendors and services. Spark can help grow and strengthen those networks using a combination of private and public funding,” says Richards.

Sparking Entrepreneurial Dynamism

One of the first nonprofit organizations to join in partnership with Spark and contribute seed funding was the Kansas State University Institute for Commercialization. Kent Glasscock, president of KSU-IC, recognized that an improved startup ecosystem in Manhattan would help increase the likelihood of success of commercializing intellectual property that emanated from research at K-State. With an additional support system embedded within the Manhattan community, local entrepreneurs will have increased odds of success, which can have a halo effect on similar ventures started by K-State faculty and students who desire to take successful research to commercial for-profit markets. “We need as much bandwidth as possible to engage in more complex strategies to increase economic development in our community,” says Glasscock.

In addition, Spark is poised to help accomplish broader community goals that have been set by the Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce and their Region Reimagined initiative. This initiative, originally started by the chamber, has expanded to include neighboring organizations and includes entrepreneurial dynamism as one of their core strategies. As chamber President/CEO Jason Smith states, “I’ve seen other communities embrace entrepreneurism as an economic development strategy. It’s difficult, but when you see communities like Kansas City, Omaha and Des Moines that have embraced entrepreneurism as a core strategy, you can walk into their community and you can feel it. They have young startups that are driving the economy and the culture. That’s what we’d like to see here.”

At a December city commision meeting, the chamber presented a funding request that included $100,000 to support the entrepreneurial dynamism goal. As part of the broader presentation, Richards was asked to share the vision of Spark and how it could help to accelerate the implementation of programming and to create a cohesive community strategy to enhance entrepreneurship in the greater Manhattan area.  

Mayor Pro Tem Usha Reddi stated during the meeting, “I think this is a good idea. Kansas is missing that piece. I’d like to see that blossom. Why don’t we capture talent and keep it here in Manhattan? This is an investment to ensure that we have future growth. We want people to stay. We want them to have a job here.”  

Photo by: David Mayes

Smith echoes this sentiment, “Manhattan does not have enough employers to attract all of those who would like to be a part of our community.  We want people to see Manhattan as a viable place to start a business and stay here.”

The proposed funding was approved by the city commission, with Commissioner Jerred McKee making a specific request to ensure that the same due diligence that has been in place with other funding dollars that go to nonprofits is followed by the chamber as they make decisions on how to spend the money to promote economic development.

During the public comment portion of the commission meeting, Greg Willems, president and CEO of the KSU Foundation, said, “This will help those companies that are already here get to the next level. We have a lot of resources to start a company, and a lot of resources for large companies…but we need to do more to help companies grow from two employees to 20 employees. We need the community to bet on them.”  

During this same comment period, a young woman named Grace shared her story of how she grew up in Manhattan, went to K-State and is now working at the Bluemont Hotel. Her desire is to start her own event planning business. “I am someone who chose to stay here. I wanted to stay here and invest here.  There are so many opportunities to take students like me out of Kansas State and keep them here…to keep their entrepreneurial spirit and make them a part of the Manhattan business community.”

With the funding approved, the chamber can move forward with a formal process to allocate the public funding dollars and attach them to clear goals and metrics for success. Smith clarifies that there is no “done deal” or agreement with Spark at this time, but that the approval from the commission signals a commitment to being collaborative in the entrepreneurial space and a desire to be efficient with the funding. “We want to engage the entrepreneurial community. We look at Spark as having the potential to be that local, entrepreneurial-driven effort that we’ve seen in other communities that has worked to provide that, well, spark,” says Smith. 

He smiles and continues, “We’re excited about this opportunity and look forward to working with Derek and others to see what we could potentially do. We were impressed when we talked to him and his partners. If somebody else can come to the table with resources and a proven track record, we’d definitely be interested in talking with them as well.  We can’t have an entrepreneurial program that is run by agencies. They can help and coordinate, but they don’t understand the community as deeply as other entrepreneurs. At the end of the day, there has to be engagement from the existing entrepreneurIal community or we will fail.”

As leaders within our community look for ways to help Grace and other aspiring entrepreneurs succeed, it appears that Spark is well positioned to serve as a catalyst to help transform the various ingredients and organizations present in our current ecosystem into something more powerful and long-lasting. That’s the vision. And it seems there are many people who are working hard to make it happen. 

With the right fuel, the right engine and just the right spark, the future looks bright.

Brandon W. Savage provides fractional COO and management strategy consulting to companies throughout the Flint Hills area.  He is also an instructor of strategy, ethics and operations at the Kansas State University College of Business Administration and received his MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Cheryl, live in Manhattan, Kansas, with their eight children and cat, Louie. Find him at www.thecxpro

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