Incubation Period - 405 Magazine

Incubation Period

Incubators, or programs designed to help startups innovate and grow, provide tangible help uncover resources new businesses struggle to find.

Angela Dean started Dear Reverie, a fashion and jewelry boutique, in 2016 as a pop-up shop and online store. Dean said she was converting her daydreams to tangible pieces of beautiful and affordable fashion and accessories. In early 2021, she noticed an opportunity on social media that seemed to have – as she put it – no downsides.

“I saw what RISE was offering, and I realized it would be an opportunity to test whether or not Dear Reverie was ready for a physical space of its own,” Dean said. “A storefront is always the dream in retail, and an opportunity with no real financial commitment – except $50 per month – a temporary space and the potential for networking was a great opportunity to test the waters.”

Daisy Munoz, capital access manager for Progress OKC, said the organization’s accelerator-incubator program focuses on minority-owned businesses and works to build community wealth through business development. / Photo by Charlie Neuenschwander

RISE is a cooperative program of Citizens Bank of Edmond and the Independent Shopkeepers Association launched in October 2020. Cleo Rajon, the executive director of the ISA, said CBE reached out to her in summer 2020 about collaborating on a retail incubator.

“It seemed like a perfect partnership,” Rajon said. “They were offering spaces to new and existing shops to test the retail market. Retail incubators had always been part of the vision for ISA, so this meshed perfectly with what we wanted to do.”

Per the CBE press release in 2020, the program was to “support the independent shop community and connect aspiring entrepreneurs with a low-cost, ready-to-lease retail opportunity. For a low program fee of $50 a month, the selected shopkeepers will operate a temporary retail space on Broadway Street as well as have a dedicated desk at Vault 405, downtown Edmond’s first co-working space.”

“The focus is more than just the retail space, though,” Rajon said. “We’re about to roll out the 2.0 version, and there will be more emphasis on one-on-one mentoring, practical help, merchandising, education and networking.”

The retailer, Out on a Limb, utilizing the RiSE incubator space. / Photo by Charlie Neuenschwander

RISE is only one of many incubators in the 405, some of which are certified through a Department of Commerce program, and others available through non-profit organizations like Progress OKC, a community development corporation that works with “communities that have experienced significant disinvestment.”

Daisy Munoz is the capital access manager for Progress OKC, and she said the goal of their accelerator-incubator program is “to build community wealth through business development.”

“The program begins with a 10-week curriculum for entrepreneurs or aspiring entrepreneurs,” Munoz said. “Usually for minority-owned businesses, they’re at the start-up phase, but we help people at any stage of the process. The misconception about minority-owned businesses is that they mainly need funding, but the truth is, they need help with structures, strategies and funding.”

Whitney Randell, Citizens Bank of Edmond senior vice president, and Lindsey Ogan, Citizens Bank of Edmond chief growth officer, who both work with RiSE incubator clients. / Photo by Charlie Neuenschwander

Progress OKC is working on providing wrap-around support for their clients via the curriculum, mentoring, networking and even microloans and crowdfunding. Munoz has helped two clients get the maximum $15,000 that KIVA offers through their microloan program.

“The other key component is helping them develop a solid business plan so that they are able to approach a bank for loans,” Munoz said. “We are attempting to expand our services now and are looking at partnerships with community development financial institutions (a program of the U.S. Treasury Department) and local partners like Tinker Federal Credit Union.”

AXIS is a state-certified incubator operating out of Francis Tuttle Technology Center. Jennifer McGrail, AXIS director, said the incubator program begins with important questions.

“What does success look like for your business? And what will it take for you to achieve success?” McGrail said. “All incubators are different, so we set what graduation looks like from the beginning, and then we draw up a plan with dates and milestones. We’ve found that entrepreneurs spend a lot of time working in their business but not on their business, so we include weekly, one-on-one coaching, too.”

The primary appeal of working with state-certified incubators is the small business incubator tax incentive. Essentially, per McGrail, businesses that graduate or remain in good standing with the program receive a full waiver of state income tax for up to 10 years.

“The program through the Department of Commerce is an attempt to encourage new and established businesses to remain and grow in Oklahoma,” McGrail said.

Jennifer McGrail, director of AXIS, a state-certified incubator operating out of Francis Tuttle Technology Center. / Photo by Charlie Neuenschwander

AXIS has approximately 10,000 square feet available at the Danforth campus of Francis Tuttle. The space includes eight offices and five shops (not retail shops).

“The shops allow us to take businesses that need more space, like manufacturing, or are more process-heavy than retail,” McGrail said. “The program begins with an inquiry form followed by a one-on-one meeting where we evaluate the need, including space and resources. If we lack either, we help them find an incubator or other resource like a small business development center, REI Women’s Business Center, or a coworking space.”

To qualify for certification, an incubator must establish criteria for admission, and file that criteria with the Department of Commerce. McGrail said common criteria are questions like: is it a start-up or early state (under 3 years); will it create jobs for the area; will it bring substantial capital back to the area; will it create a significant positive for the community; and, is it innovative or disruptive?

“A disruptive business typically offers something that seems basic on the surface, but it revolutionizes how things are done,” McGrail said. “So, if someone comes to us wanting to do a bakery, that’s not right for us, but there are plenty of options out there, and we can help them find the right one.”

Incubators can be valuable for helping entrepreneurs answer questions they already have, identify questions they didn’t know existed and learn the ins and outs of doing business, from loan applications to business plans to coaching and networking, Dean said. Working with RISE for 60 days helped her clarify some issues for her business, she said.

“I wasn’t ready for a storefront yet,” Dean said. “I needed to know the best path for me – online, popup, storefront – and RISE helped me sort through that.”