Boosting Business: Co.Starters Expands To Aid Rural Lafayette Entrepreneurs

By Mitra Malek
Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.

Melissa Ford contemplated capitalizing on her knack for organization more than a decade ago. But she had no idea where to start with her home-organization business, and, no surprise, she’s the type of person who likes to have everything planned before she takes on a project.

Ford is also emblematic of a crippling attitude among aspiring entrepreneurs in rural and less-affluent urban areas.

“I didn’t think my services were valuable enough to pay for,” the 41-year-old said. “When something is second nature to you, you take it for granted.”

Still, she is one of more than a dozen people enrolled in the pilot program of a rural version of Co.Starters, the business-development program that entrepreneur Enoch Elwell started several years ago in Chattanooga and now is offered in several locations across the nation.

Rural Co.Starters began in February in LaFayette, Ga., through Highlands Presbyterian Church, an unlikely candidate for hosting a startup primer, until you find out Elwell worships there. Plus, the church defines its mission as helping the community, and the program certainly qualifies, according to pastor Tom May.

Ford’s budding business, Ordered Spaces, will focus on teaching people how to organize (and possibly clean the clutter from) their homes, with her hands-on help. Eventually, the company might branch into home staging, setting up spaces for selling a house, for example.

Because of Elwells’s relationship with the church, he’s leading the LaFayette program as its facilitator; typically, the program trains local facilitators, and then they run it. The church paid $2,500 for the training (three people learned to be facilitators), which lasts one-and-a-half days and is at the location where the program will roll out in three-hour evening sessions, once a week for nine weeks. Attendees paid $200 for the course.

“It has to be owned by the community,” said Elwell, a Covenant College graduate who won an award this year from the Young Professionals Association of Chattanooga. That means the community comes to Co.Starters; Co.Starters doesn’t hunt for communities to foist itself upon. When the community drives the program, the entrepreneurs are more invested in it, and that tends to lead to success, Elwell said.

Running a business is familiar to Ford, who owns a namesake clinic in LaFayette with her husband, a chiropractor. But she’s not the boss, never wanted to be, handling billing and insurance instead. That’s something she’s working on; launching her startup means she has to be the boss.

“I realized I had a lot of fear in starting a business by myself,” Ford said. “There are some barriers I have to get past. I want referrals; I don’t want to sell myself. I have to figure out some things.”

Co.Starters is helping with that. And with identifying her potential pool of clients and how much they would pay, among other key business concerns. Most recently, the group worked on pricing their service or product.

“There’s not a lot of money here,” said Ford, who has an associates degree from Johnson University, in Knoxville.

Walker County, where LaFayette is located, has a per-capita income of $21,000, the median household income is $40,000, and only 14 percent of its population has a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to 2013 estimates from the U.S. Census. Statistics for the city show even less wealth and education: LaFayette has a per capita income of $16,000, the median household income is $29,500, and just 12 percent of its population has a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Neighboring Hamilton County, a potential customer base, by comparison has a per capita income of $28,000, and its median household income is $47,000, the Census shows.

Rural Co.Starters is not run the same as the standard program, insofar as coaching, Elwell said. That’s because the cultural mindset is different in rural areas.

“We talk people up a bit,” he said, and give them confidence in their ideas.

A second round of Co.Starters will probably come to LaFayette in the fall, said May, the pastor at Highlands Presbyterian. But he’s hoping someone will take over his role soon and anticipates other local entities will eventually take over the program. It made sense for the church, which has about 175 adult members, to get involved, but its role probably isn’t sustainable, he said.

“Part of our vision at the church is: How we can serve the community,” May said. “If we can help people create jobs and provide jobs and help people support their families, that’s part of building strong communities.”

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