The NBIC discipline isn't for adherents of the plan-on-the-back-of-a-napkin approach to business
The 23-year-old Nashville Business Incubation Center downtown seeks to fill a record number of entrepreneur-tenant vacancies.
NBIC Director Mildred Townsend Walters (at right) told VNC yesterday that 10 of her 22 offices and manufacturing spaces are sitting idle -- even though in previous years NBIC always maintained a waiting-list of eager prospective tenants.
One casualty of the occupancy slump and generally strained resources is the business plan competition that NBIC conducted in 2006 and 2008. Though another round in 2009-10 had earlier been contemplated, "We're not having it," Walters said conclusively yesterday.
She said that the end of the competition – which was executed as part of NBIC's Business Plan University – means entrepreneurs will not have access to a 10-week program that allows them to emerge with a "ready-to-implement" business plan, rather than the template or outline they might obtain through a brief seminar. Neither will participants have access to advisors who volunteer to support the competition, and to whom entrants are partly accountable for execution of their plans.
NBIC's continual coaching and support of new companies has paid off for many entrepreneurs, nearly 80 of whom have graduated from NBIC, with a 90 percent 5-year survival rate. Graduates and former tenants of NBIC include such celebrated success stories as Beacon Technologies, Transcender, Tennessee T-Cakes, Zycron and Christie Cookie.
NBIC's current dozen enrollees includes Trackpoint Systems, which does product development and services for GPS tracking and monitoring of assets; Hardin Group, project and construction management, including services for the proposed new city convention center; Gene Pass, which works in DNA sequencing; U-Kno Catering; Computer Vision, IT services; and, Mouse Wise, for Internet and Web development and services, among others.
Walters noted that the plan competition was the only one in the region that was open to business persons who could not participate in campus competitions that are exclusively for students. She further explained that the competition had been introduced as part of the 2006 observance of NBIC's 20th anniversary of operations – "because I didn't want to do it with another chicken dinner" – and then replicated in 2008. But, no more.
Walters said the percentage of vacancies is unprecedented during her tenure running the facility, which is governed by non-profit Growth Enterprises Nashville, Inc., and linked to the Tennessee State University College of Business, where Walters has faculty status.
Walters said she believes economic uncertainty has led some would-be entrepreneurs to table their ideas and some active entrepreneurs to try to work from home, without the expert guidance available through NBIC.
Prospective tenants must apply for admission to the incubation program, must demonstrate they can support their operations for at least six months and must agree to participate in NBIC portfolio-company meetings and other business-planning and accountability requirements.
She said that in hope of recruiting more qualified tenants, NBIC will hold another of its traditional open houses this fall; and, will continue to pursue publicity, followup on referrals from Southeast Community Capital, the Tennessee Small Business Development Center and other allies, and improve the NBIC website, among other efforts.
In addition, fundraising efforts and staff time that previously went into the periodic business-plan competition will be partly redirected toward fundraising, in hope of preserving NBIC's cash reserves and resuming full-house operations.
While NBIC's 10th Avenue North facilities continue to gleam, Walters said the loss of TSU financial support, due to funding cuts; the decline of tenants; and, the loss of value in the organization's financial reserves, due to economic decline, have left the agency at least temporarily in straitened circumstances. The center operates on roughly $150,000, annually.
Walters works fulltime for NBIC, but maintains a sideline business, consulting to individual professionals, including physicians and lawyers, on growing their practices and related matters. She has been with TSU a total 15 years, including nine years teaching students entering the human-resources field, and six years running NBIC.
One benefit for current NBIC residents: Walters explained that while tenants normally "graduate" and exit the facility at the 5-year milestone, given no queue of new businesses, current tenants are being allowed to stay in place, for now. Tenants pay $7 per square foot for their spaces, which range from about 500 sq. ft. to 2,000 sq. ft.
Business owners interested in NBIC's in-residence counseling and office space may contact NBIC via (615) 963-7184 or write: NBIC@bellsouth.net The NBIC is at 315 10th Avenue North (37203). ♦