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StartUp Spokane is showing how economic development gets done down in the trenches where jobs are created

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Tom Simpson
  • Tom Simpson

Among the bright spots in Spokane's Economic Development is StartUp Spokane. StartUp's program manager, Megan Hulsey, describes StartUp as, "the front door for all entrepreneurs in the Inland Northwest," providing co-working space, access to mentors, events and workshops and introductions to funding sources and other service providers.

"We cater to all entrepreneurs from those with an idea on the back of a napkin to those having already launched a company," says Hulsey. "The goal is to provide entrepreneurs a clear path without confusion: where to go next and who to talk to, from inception, to financing and to scaling."

Spokane has experienced a shrinkage in the number of publicly held companies and large private enterprises. Grant Forsyth, Avista's regional economist, was recently quoted saying, "To help counter such shrinkage, economic development advocates should focus on supporting policies that make capital available to local companies positioned for growth. Many such funding vehicles are in place, and a continued emphasis on growing our own is essential."

StartUp serves at the epicenter of Spokane's entrepreneurial ecosystem and is fueling the creation of new businesses in Spokane.

Here are some details: StartUp provides a physical home for companies to launch, collaborate with mentors, recruit employees and meet potential customers, all for just $100 a month. It is differentiated from other co-working spaces because it is focused on entrepreneurs, offering resources, education and networking for new and emerging companies.

"It serves more as an incubator than as a co-working space," says Hulsey." At any given time, StartUp has up to 30 members using its facilities.

One key feature is how StartUp matches entrepreneurs with mentors and provides workshops guided by these seasoned veterans to share the experiences. Jim Fowler, a founder of Jigsaw and Owler, Steve Tabacek, founder of RiskLens, Chris Wood a serial entrepreneur, Rick Repp, a securities attorney with Witherspoon Kelley, Scott Martin a valuation expert with Anastasi, Moore & Martin, and Chris Lynch, an intellectual property attorney with Lee & Hayes, are among the experts who have offered mentorship or have been featured presenters at StartUp.

Rover, the Seattle-based company that recently announced a $155 million financing infusion and is referred to as the "Airbnb for pets," chose StartUp as its initial Spokane location prior to leasing permanent downtown space. Rover did much of its recruiting of early Spokane-based employees at StartUp.

StartUp organizes and holds at least one networking event and two educational workshops per month, all of which are free to attend. A recent event was focused on crowdfunding and featured two Spokane-based companies — Cyan and Spiceologist — that have completed successful crowdfunding campaigns. The "pitfalls of partnerships" was the focus of another event. These and other resources are available on the StartUp YouTube channel.

StartUp's programs are a magnet for first time entrepreneurs. Hulsey observes aspiring entrepreneurs generally attend two or three programs before talking to her about an idea. Often by the third visit they approach her and say, "I have this idea but have been afraid to discuss it."

"We are a place where you don't need to know everything about how to build a business or secure investment," says Hulsey. "We will provide connections and resources to help you vet ideas. When you are ready you will have all the information you need," she continues.

Hulsey actively participates in the Knowledge Network, which consists of representatives from 57 organizations who meet once a month to collaborate and assist entrepreneurs. StartUp is also a partner with the Spokane Angel Alliance in organizing the Triangle Venture Expo on Oct. 4. Mind2Market, a funding source for pre-seed stage companies, leverages StartUp to qualify, coach and prepare new businesses seeking capital from Mind2Market.

A program of GSI, StartUp is funded primarily by private and public sponsors and operates with a very lean annual budget of under $200,000. This is just the kind of economic development infrastructure Spokane and the Inland Northwest must add and support to be a competitive 21st century city. And it's already paying off, as StartUp assisted in the creation of more than 450 jobs in 2017 and nearly 200 jobs in the first five months of 2018.

Perhaps the most meaningful indication of success is the increasing number of calls Hulsey is taking from Seattle entrepreneurs asking, "What's it like to do business in Spokane?"

That's exactly the kinds of calls we need to not only answer but also follow up on. While Seattle is now charging a head tax, which creates a disincentive to successful, growing companies, StartUp Spokane is encouraging and supporting the formation of new businesses. I predict the impact of these opposing developments will be very favorable for Spokane. ♦

The original print version of this article was headlined "Laboratory of Growth"

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