Members of the Frankfort Small Business Network
Members of the Frankfort Small Business Network represent a wide range of fields. While their businesses are diverse, the group shares an interest in local community development. They not only want their own businesses to thrive, but to strengthen Clinton County as well. Among the members are (from left) Jason Wilhite, Clinton County Chamber of Commerce; Kim Stevens, Frankfort Main Street; Robert Lane, Northwest Travel; Rafael Bautista, Del Real Auto; Terris Ayres, Muck Creek Farm & Hardware; Melinda Grismer, Purdue Extension Learning Network of Clinton County; Kevin Baker, Quik USA; and Rick Good, Auto Rental Plus. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

A Powerful Network

Purdue Extension Support Critical to Small Businesses

By Nancy Alexander - Published January 12, 2014

The aroma of fresh-brewing morning joe wafts over a group of 15 men and women at Flavors coffee shop in downtown Frankfort, Indiana. It's early—before their own businesses open for the day.

These members of the Frankfort Small Business Network represent a wide range of fields. They are entrepreneurs in IT consulting, Web design, painting, insurance and real estate. They own or operate a hardware store, a mobile home community and a fireworks company with connections in China. One heads a nonprofit organization.

While their businesses are diverse, everyone in the group shares an interest in local community development. They want not only their own businesses to thrive, but to strengthen Clinton County as well.

Purdue Extension is giving them hands-on support. Melinda Grismer, county Extension director and community development educator, facilitates these monthly networking gatherings. And in her opening remarks, Grismer announces the addition of PowerUp!, a series of lunch-hour, mini-workshops with guest speakers on a variety of professional development topics such as accounting, marketing and social media. Grismer partners with the local chamber of commerce and Main Street Frankfort to serve the business community.

Lionel 'Bo' Beaulieu
Small companies are predominant in Indiana but are often overlooked as economic drivers, says Lionel “Bo” Beaulieu. Purdue Extension is committed to helping businesses already embedded in communities thrive. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

Purdue Extension's involvement in community development initiatives like this one helps individuals, businesses and communities acquire the knowledge and skills to make sound decisions on how best to move forward. Stage 0 (sole proprietors), stage 1 (2–9 employees) and stage 2 companies (10–99 employees) predominate in Indiana but are often overlooked as economic drivers, says Lionel "Bo" Beaulieu, director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development and leader of Purdue Extension's Community Development program. "We're less involved in attracting new businesses to Indiana and more involved in helping those businesses that are already embedded in Indiana's communities," he says. "Also, we want to inform policymakers of the important contribution that entrepreneurs, start-up companies and small businesses make to our local and state economies.

"We try to create a community environment that helps these companies thrive," Beaulieu says. Purdue Extension is ramping up its capability, putting five regional community development Extension educators in place and strengthening the synergy between Extension and the PCRD. "With these additional investments, we're probably one to two years away from being one of the premier programs in the country," he says.

Community Catalyst

"I think about the implications of networking groups like this popping up all over the state under the community development wing of Extension," Grismer says. "We have the unique position of ‘community convener and catalyst' in our counties or municipalities. That's a great position from which to forge lasting relationships and move community projects forward."

Purdue Extension's Community Development programming provides support and resources to help our state's vital small business sector continue to grow. One example is the Frankfort Small Business Network in Clinton County. (Video by Kelsey Getzin)

The Frankfort Small Business Network is free to small business owners and operators, franchisees and potential entrepreneurs. Member Robert Lane opened Northwest Travel in 1979 and since then, has seen the other three travel agencies with Frankfort storefronts close. "I'm a believer in networking and have been for 30 years," Lane says, and he appreciates that his county Extension office backs him up. "To have the power of Purdue University behind you and what Melinda brings to the table is so important to our group," he says. "We really need her resources."

Those resources are directed at the members' shared need for professional development, community information and connecting.

"It gets us all on a level playing field," says Grant Gangwer, service manager at Del Real Automotive Group in Frankfort. "It gives us a safe environment in which to approach each other and talk business. We're here for the common goal of improving our community and the business landscape." The 30-year-old, born and raised in Clinton County, believes a stronger economy will allow his family to stay there.

Grismer provides printed referral sheets to help the network generate business among its members. The meetings thus far have resulted in more than 100 referrals. "You build camaraderie and trust with people and give a referral to someone you trust," Lane says. "We could go to our networking meeting once a month, drink coffee and sing Kumbaya, but I want to be able to learn something or meet someone new."

At each meeting, networkers introduce their market niche and make their "ask" for the month. An ask can be as simple as trying frozen yogurt, considering the value of life insurance, supporting the county fair or volunteering for a fundraiser. Grismer's ask: Bring another small business owner to the next meeting.

Entrepreneurial Frenzy

In Vigo County, innovation and entrepreneurship are put to the ultimate test at Startup Weekend Wabash Valley. Purdue Extension partners with the West Central Indiana Small Business Development Center to offer the competition for people with an idea for a new small business.

In a Friday evening "pitchfire," 15 to 20 contestants have a minute to pitch their idea for an innovative product or service. "Ideas are all over the board," says Heather Strohm, Community Development Regional Educator with Purdue Extension's Southwest District and former Wabash Valley regional director with the West Central ISBDC. Audience members vote for the pitch they think has exceptional promise.

Six to eight teams form around the top ideas. "We encourage people who aren't going forward with their own idea to join a team," explains Richard Pittelkow, business advisor with the West Central ISBDC and a coach at the two Startup Weekends held so far. "They will learn an awful lot about what it takes to start a business."

A business-creation frenzy follows. Teams work all day Saturday, with only occasional breaks to eat or listen to short talks. Pittelkow and his fellow coaches, who include business owners, university faculty and Extension educators, circulate among the teams, offering both encouragement and specific assistance in such areas as budgeting, marketing and website development.

Shelley Klingerman
Shelley Klingerman coaches new entrepreneurs at Startup Weekend, a program for people with an idea for a new small business.

"There are so many lessons, tips and experiences someone can garner in 72 hours," says Shelley Klingerman, executive director of Downtown Terre Haute, Inc., which promotes the event, and co-founder of Tech Haute, which is involved in its planning and execution. Klingerman has helped as a planner, coach and speaker. "It's an incredible experience for a student, entrepreneur or anyone looking to learn and add to their skill set," she says.

And they apply those skills quickly. "Some teams start on Friday and by Sunday noon have impressive websites," Pittelkow says. Other teams validate their business ideas by conducting surveys at a nearby mall. On Sunday, they work uninterrupted from morning to mid-afternoon, before wrapping up their product or prototype and preparing a five-minute presentation. A panel of judges listens to each team's presentation and selects a top team. Winners receive products and services to support the development of their business.

an open, collaborative workspace for area freelancers, independents and start-ups
Tech Haute provides support for emerging businesses. Launch Terre Haute is an open, collaborative workspace for area freelancers, independents and start-ups. (Photo courtesy Tech Haute)

The 2013 winner was a product—Beach Ez 360, a circular blanket weighted to stay in place at a windy pool or beach. The 2014 winner, eFactory Solutions, was technology-oriented.

eFactory Solutions' founder, software development consultant Brian Lakstins, participated in both Startup Weekends Wabash Valley, as a team member just willing to help in February 2013 and to pitch his own idea in January 2014. The second year was far more nerve-wracking, he says. He struggled to make his idea—helping small businesses with technology and, through a central portal, providing access to other useful services—understandable to the audience.

"I wrote down every single word in my one-minute pitch. I revised it to be less technical, practiced it in front of my wife and then just read it," he says wryly. "It was a pretty dead presentation. I had a good number of votes, but nobody came over to join my team." Lakstins almost gave up until one of the organizers offered to help him. Then, a few other team members came on board, and together they went to work on eFactory Solutions.

The Sunday night presentations are everyone's favorite part of the weekend. "It's surprising to see how much can be accomplished when you're working intensively over a three-day period," Pittelkow says. "They start with bare bones ideas on Friday, and it's really fun to see the flesh they've put on the bones."

Lakstins says his Sunday night presentation was far better than his over-rehearsed pitch." He has spent much of the time since developing his company. He has some customers and is working on the platform that will expand his services to them. And he plans to pay it forward at the next Startup Weekend as a coach and mentor.

"Purdue is critical to the success of Startup Weekend because it offers resources such as data reports and expertise in specific fields," Strohm notes. "If someone is interested in community leadership or economic development, Purdue has a lot of resources available through its county Extension offices, including people able to assist them."

Regional Educators to Strengthen Extension Community Development Programs

Purdue Extension has hired five new regional economic and community development educators to expand delivery of ECD programs throughout the state.

They will primarily serve their geographical districts, but each has an area of expertise and will also serve as a statewide resource.

Tanya J. Hall
Tanya J. Hall

The new appointees and their areas of expertise are Tanya J. Hall, economic impact analysis and decision making, Southeast District; Tamara Ogle, local and regional government, East District; Kris Parker, leadership, civic engagement and collaboration, Northwest District; Heather Strohm, economic and business development, Southwest District; and Steve Yoder, natural and environmental resources, Central District.

Tamara Ogle
Tamara Ogle

"Purdue Extension is on the cutting edge of a nationwide Extension push to provide sound information that will help local leaders make smart decisions about community development," said Jason Henderson, Purdue Extension director. "These five diversely talented educators will allow us to more effectively deliver on the tremendous demand for such support in Indiana. They will help us get expert resources and data to leaders who need it most and help them discover opportunities and realize successes."

Hall comes to Purdue University from the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University, where she was an economic research analyst. She served as lead researcher of the Indiana Workforce and Education Intelligence System, published nearly 40 reports on economic development, provided economic forecasting and analyzed the life sciences, "green" jobs and agriculture industries.

Kris Parker
Kris Parker

Ogle, a Purdue Extension educator in Cass County, created an educational curriculum to help local elected officials understand property taxes, finance and budget processes. She also coordinated the statewide program On Local Government and produced an informational video series about local government finance.

Parker has been an ECD Extension educator in Porter County for nine years. During her tenure, she became an expert resource on community issues for local chambers of commerce and economic development organizations.

Heather Strohm
Heather Strohm

Strohm has more than 14 years of experience in economic leadership, management and development. She previously served as the regional director of the Small Business Development Center at Indiana State University in Terre Haute.

Yoder brings two decades of experience in environmental planning, nonprofit direction and public programs management, most recently as a Purdue Extension educator in Tippecanoe County. He previously served as executive director of The Arboretum at Flagstaff, a 200-acre ecotourism operation in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Steve Yoder
Steve Yoder

Each educator brings specific strengths to help Extension meet strategic goals in five key areas - leadership and civic engagement; community and organizational planning; economic and business development; local government; and quality places, said Lionel "Bo" J. Beaulieu, associate director of Purdue Extension and community development program leader.

"By collaborating together, they will help local leaders understand all drivers of community development and build on those key components," he said.