By Tobias Wall Belleville News-Democrat WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) "The Foundry" is there to help entrepreneurs start businesses or take existing businesses to the next level by offering advice and connecting them with resources. Belleville News-Democrat Business centers, incubators, collectives, co-workspaces -- call them what you please, but groups of entrepreneurs that provide space and expertise for each other and for newcomers seem to be springing up rapidly.
Joseph Colyer, president of the Granite City Business Foundry, says the Foundry at its core fosters "business development and growth for the entrepreneur."
Colyer started the Foundry with Mandy Harris, who owns Happy Trails Farm in Granite City, and Victoria Arguelles, owner of Kool Beanz Cafe, also in Granite City.
Colyer and Harris say the Foundry is there to help entrepreneurs start businesses or take existing businesses to the next level by offering advice and connecting them with resources. They say the Foundry also is a critical resource for would-be small business owners wading for the first time into the municipal red tape on the path to compliance.
Q: What are your backgrounds?
M.H. "I'm born and raised here in Granite City. My family's been here since 1920. I'm owner of Happy Trails Farm. Always been very interested in business ownership and business growth and of course in my own businesses as well. I'm also an Arbonne consultant, which is botanical-based products. I distribute botanical-based products to people who are label readers. Healthy products."
J.C. "I grew up in Granite City and joined the Marine Corps at 18. When I got out, I had gone from a position where I was 23 and managed a $4 million budget and had people underneath me, was used to that kind of accountability and responsibility to coming back and being treated like I was a 23-year-old coming out of college. I could not find gainful employment anywhere. That's when I decided to turn to sole proprietorship. I've been in the insurance industry for over a decade now and started my own firm about three years ago. I've done very well with it. I saw a lot of people who wanted to start businesses in Granite City who had the entrepreneurial spirit but didn't have a lot of guidance. There's a support network that exists among the infrastructure here in Granite City, but there isn't a lot of incentive for business owners to start their own enterprises and to have a support network to do so. So I envisioned the Foundry in that capacity.
Q: How did the Foundry start?
M.H. "Business brought us together. We know each other through business. It's been our baby for about two years now."
J.C. "As we started, we had been part of various networking groups. They were for-profit networking groups, and they're so fixated on just introducing business relationships but not really how to run an organization. We wanted to be a non-profit. We didn't want this to be something that was its own entity to increase revenue. We wanted to give people the bare-bones membership requirements to get into a community that had all the resources...not just introduce you to somebody. And at the same time, it is a networking group."
Q: What's the status of the foundry now? How are things going?
J.C. "We kind of became the kid with too many shiny objects. We wanted to be very community-driven in doing this because ultimately small business is the foundation of a community. We started business partnerships, we planned community classes and presentations. We were chasing a lot of initiatives at the same time while also buying the building, launching the cooperative workspace, all of the things at City Hall we didn't realize we had to go through in order to launch. Right now, we have initiatives that have been launched not necessarily to the extent they should have been, or executed as well as they should have been. We're reevaluating what we want to focus on. To our core, we are that networking group, and we want to focus on business development and growth for the entrepreneur. That is our main message and we need to kind of scale back to."
Q: Why are entities like the Foundry springing up so often? Is there a gap somewhere that isn't being met that the people who start these are trying to meet?
J.C. "You're seeing a lot of this, and there are numbers out there showing more and more jobs are on a subcontracting basis. The days of getting a job, being loyal to a company for 35 years, getting a gold watch and a pension are long gone. And with that, with the lack of security, you're finding sole proprietorship is really taking off. We're giving people a place with minimal overhead and all the things they need to operate their business -- conference rooms, a copy center -- a place where they feel at home working. The overhead in something like a restaurant is easily over a thousand dollars or more a month, whereas for $200, if you can come in as a sole proprietor, do your work and have all the amenities you need to do so including a professional spot to do business as well as a business address, it can mean a lot."
Q: Does it seem to you like governments' strategies for economic development focus too heavily on homerun-type projects like big shopping centers or multi-use complexes and too lightly on the little guys trying to make a go of it?
M.H. "We've come up against that quite a bit."
Q: How do you fight that?
M.H. "We keep doing what we're doing. We help the individual. When we started the Foundry, we had two friends who just started up businesses who've had several issues with how government helped them -- or did not help them. They didn't know certain things. You can go down to City Hall and file for a business license but they don't tell you what to file for next. They don't supply you with information or the steps you need to take to continue to be compliant and grow your business. If you're not so much that big business, you don't have a liaison. We've been through this; we've seen our business friends go through this. We know how to help."
J.C. "One of the things we realized early on was there is no welcome packet to a new business in Granite City. There's no list of resources or contacts. That does not exist. I think there are a lot of people that work in City Hall that aren't aware of all the moving pieces. So that level of support, it hasn't been a focus. Unless the community steps up and takes ownership of it, it's not going to happen."
Q: This happens all the time, where entrepreneurs might not know how to go through the process but when big developers come to town, they have their hand held from start to finish.
M.H. "We are trying to be that resource to help that smaller business grow."
Q: What feedback are you getting from Foundry members?
J.C. "We have quite a few success stories among our membership of people who have come out with new ideas or who are able to tie into resources they didn't know existed that streamlined the business, that fixed something that otherwise wouldn't have been fixed for four or five years down the line. And at that point, it becomes a fatal flaw. We've all heard the three-year make it or break it. The foundation you start off with has everything to do with that three-year outlook."
Q: What's been the most gratifying part of operating the Foundry?
J.C. "The light bulb moment. Our meetings are an open forum discussion. We have a community calendar of everything that's going on within the community that we're aware of. We'll start talking about things, and we might realize there are three different events on an afternoon. We've got 30 business owners in this room, how do we capitalize on this?