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Incubators show startup businesses that it’s OK to think small

When you want to make it big, why not think smaller? I’ve asked myself that many times through the years, watching fledgling businessmen struggle with their strategy.
Dennis Grubaugh    Many of them closed their doors all too quickly because they failed to realize what they were getting into. They didn’t know their market. Or didn’t understand finances. Or didn’t understand the regulation that goes along with running a business. They weren’t taking the plodding baby steps that are sometimes necessary to stay on track.
    In other words, they didn’t have a plan. They were in love with the idea of running their own business, but not as in love with the hard work — read that, homework — that goes into overcoming the obstacles.
    Apparently other people are thinking as I am, because there is a growing movement in this country to give small businesses a boost through incubation.
    When I was a kid, incubation is what chicks went through in a hatchery. They still do for that matter, but in modern times the term is applied more than ever to a creative way to start business.
    In this month’s issue we have two stories about local business incubation efforts. One is under way in Belleville; the other in Alton. Neither is far enough along to know whether either will succeed, but certainly a lot of time has been spent on both projects. And as every farmer knows, time is essential to a good harvest. But then, so are land, seeds, weather and work. And luck.
    Certainly this is not the first time incubation has been applied to southern Illinois, but the wave of interest is so strong right now there is a newness about it. I’ve been watching with awe some of the organized startup efforts under way on the St. Louis side of the river and it appears to me that the trend is rubbing off on the east side.
     Area colleges have been at this for a while, of course, but more than ever they are being proactive. SIUE’s University Park and Metro East Small Business Development Center, for instance, were recent sponsors of the Metro East Startup Challenge, which awarded $10,000 to one new business, and $5,000 to a second, following a three-month competition. Combine those prizes with the wealth of resources offered through the university’s business network (like SCORE, for example) and two lucky entrepreneurs have a real head start.
    Then, there is Kaskaskia College, which offers incubator space and support services at its education center in Trenton. Kaskaskia is specifically targeting businesses that have a better chance of succeeding in today’s economy — sales, marketing, health care, energy and Internet firms among them. In short, the school’s got one of the best business-assist programs in our region.
     One common factor among most of the incubators is the requirement that participants be screened. Only serious folk need apply, is the unstated mandate, and I like that. People who are serious enough to help a startup need to know that the man or woman behind the startup is serious, too.
    Such scrutiny works. While SIUE had 100 people initially inquire about the Startup Challenge, only 30 turned in business plans for consideration. That sadly reminds me of the business failure rate in America.
    Every day in the U.S., more than 15,000 people start a business. Up to 70 percent of those businesses will close within 18 months,  according to StartupPoint, an Atlanta-based company whose mission is to help communities increase the success rate of their new businesses.
    Sometimes the difference between success and failure is finding the right resources in the beginning. Those entities mentioned here are but a few of the many places where local entrepreneurs should turn before they ever consider hanging a sign.
    Dennis Grubaugh is editor and partner of the Illinois Business Journal. He may be reached at or (618) 977-6865.

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