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Start-up Culture is Growing in Utica

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

MVCC thINCubator : A Vibrant Culture of Collaboration

Oversized bean bag chairs, round stools on wheels, and sofas decorated in pale blue, gray and chartreuse surround two chairs positioned behind a high-tech microphone. Moveable walls create a temporary room. Three dozen people of all ages and a wide diversity of backgrounds introduce themselves and ask each other about projects they’re working on and what they like about Upstate NY.

This is MESH, one of MVCC thINCubator’s most popular programs. It stands for “Makers, Entrepreneurs, Students, and Hackers,” and aims to build an atmosphere where “creative collisions” can happen.

After 30 minutes of networking, MVCC thINCubator Director Ryan Miller sits down behind the microphone with Hugette Montesinos, the CEO and Creative Director of Disfunkshion, a magazine and multi-brand online business. After meeting Montesinos through mutual friends and working with her remotely, the MVCC thINCubator team was able to fly her to Utica from her home in Miami, FL.

In the relaxed atmosphere, Montesinos tells her story beginning in Honolulu, HI, with 1000 printed magazines and growing to a readership of 70,000 worldwide with more than 200,000 Instagram followers. As she shares insights she gained by experience, Miller and audience members ask questions.

Montesinos said she’s seen co-working spaces in Los Angeles, New York, and Miami. “A lot of co-working spaces in larger cities are run by corporate companies such as WeWork or Bureau. But seeing this sort of grassroots, nonprofit, community-funded co-working space at thINCubator is really unusual. I’m sure there might be some, but I’ve never come across such a culture and such a dynamic as the one here. thINCubator is a hub that promotes a ‘for us - by us’ type of culture. There’s this horizontal camaraderie of building while helping build.”

ThINCubator Director Ryan Miller hosts a MESH event with guest speaker Hugette Montesinos.

This culture, nurtured by MVCC thINCubator’s Director Ryan Miller and Assistant Director Stacey Smith, is attracting innovative people and bringing exciting ideas to life in the Utica area.

Founded in 2014 under the Mohawk Valley Community College Foundation and funded by a combination of state, federal, and private grants, MVCC thINCubator grew from an idea originated by local entrepreneur and Comets hockey team owner Frank DuRoss. Working with MVCC President Randall VanWagoner and Silicon Valley entrepreneur and Little Falls native Martin Babinec, they recognized the need for a startup ecosystem in the Mohawk Valley. The name, “thINCubator” was DuRoss’s idea. “thINC” stands for The Home of Innovative New Companies.

In only four years, the incubator has grown from a small room above the current location of Utica Bread into a newly renovated building at 326 Broad Street in Utica and has helped found or push toward profitability 27 new small businesses in the Mohawk Valley and worked with more than 150 entrepreneurs through its programs.

Its success recently attracted praise from SUNY Chancellor Kristina M. Johnson when she visited MVCC thINCubator in August. Herself an entrepreneur who holds 118 patents, Johnson took time to talk with some of the entrepreneurs and said she was impressed with what she saw.

“She’s incredibly interested in what we’re doing here,” Miller said.

The Refinery: A Business Boot Camp

Most of the 27 new businesses went through The Refinery, an eight-week intensive program with an emphasis on accountability and mutual support. Every other week, the six teams who make up a cohort meet to share progress reports on what they accomplished the week before. On the opposing weeks, team members meet individually with Miller and Smith for a deeper dialog specific to their business. Since Refinery began last year, four cohorts have completed the program and another is starting this fall.

The teams must check-in every 48 hours, Monday through Friday. “They need to tell us a win, an anchor which is holding them back from their SMART goal, and what they’re working on accomplishing during the next 48 hours,” said Smith. The entire program is free of charge and includes free use of MVCC thINCubator’s space after completion in exchange for metrics.

Among these Refinery startups are such success stories as FMN Creative, The Upstate Experience, and Active Joy.

Francesca Orsomoso owner of FMN Creative

Founded by Francesca Orsomarso, FMN Creative is a boutique digital marketing agency based in Utica with local, out-of-state, and international clients. Orsomarso joined the first Refinery cohort in the spring of 2016. “Refinery changed my thinking and allowed the creativity to flow,” she said, adding “Ryan and Stacey do a phenomenal job of bringing a community together. We all share each others’ successes and failures. It’s one of a kind.”

Johnny Quest owner of The Upstate Experience

The Upstate Experience, launched by Johnny Quest, takes groups on hiking, camping and other adventures all over Upstate NY. Quest heard of MVCC thINCubator through Orsomarso last summer and joined Refinery’s fall 2017 cohort. “Stacey and Ryan just do a great job of telling it to you straight and holding you accountable,” Quest said. “They have an open honest platform.” He said he also appreciates the spirit of community over competition at MVCC thINCubator . “Everyone you meet in there is passionate about something.”

Agi Letkiewicz owner of Active Joy

Agi Letkiewicz created her company Active Joy to bring her sustainable activewear designs to the market. When she was ready to launch her first product, leggings made of recycled materials, she knew she needed accountability to help her manage the many business components involved. She joined the Refinery cohort in the spring of 2018 which helped her achieve a successful pre-sale. “It’s an awesome space and organization,” she said. “It’s so flexible to adapting to what the entrepreneurs need, from mentoring to hanging out and being able to talk through ideas. It’s incredibly valuable.”

Giving Every Idea a Chance

At MVCC thINCubator all ideas have a fair chance to be heard. “The first thing we do when we talk to entrepreneurs is reassure them we’re not going to tell them their idea is bad,” Smith said. “That’s an important piece of it. We get a lot of people who are kind of coming up against a wall. So the first thing we do is try to equip them with confidence in knowing how to test their idea on their own. We try to be upfront and objective about ideas. We say anything is possible, but we’re realistic about what tasks will need to be done to get there.”

Sometimes objectivity means discovering a product idea is not going to be profitable. When that’s the case, Miller says, “We want you to fail fast and cheaply.” To do this Miller said he encourages startups to test the market through minimum viable products (MVPs). Instead of opening a full restaurant, they encourage people to introduce their product on a small scale first with a pop-up event. For other service or product ideas, they advise building an online landing page and gauging interest by seeing how many people sign up for an email list or pre-buy the offering. “If you can’t get a dozen people to say yes with their dollars, you might want to rethink your idea before you build it,” he said.

MVCC thINCubator serves two types of entrepreneurs, those with an idea and others who have tested an idea and want to grow it bigger. This makes MVCC thINCubator complementary to other Utica resources for small businesses such as the Mohawk Valley Small Business Development Center (SBDC) based at SUNY Polytechnic Institute. While MVCC thINCubator serves businesses in the ideation and acceleration phases, the SBDC helps people complete practical tasks like writing a business plan for funding, applying for certification as a Minority and Women-owned business, and bidding on government contracts.

Co-Working and Culture

An important part of the culture that helps foster the creative community spirit and collaboration on projects is the co-working space. “When people join the co-working space we make sure they’re well aware of the openness,” Smith said. They also encourage members to give back by keeping the space tidy and volunteering to present workshops on topics they know.

“This is a collaborative workspace,” Miller said. “You get to work wherever you want. You bring a backpack in and a backpack out. There can be at any point 20 other people working here and there can be some background noise.”

“We encourage people to work in different spaces,” Smith said. “We make sure that because the furniture is mobile that it’s moving. We want people to get used to change, to be adaptable and embrace the flexibility that we have in the space.”

Kathryn Karl, an international development consultant, has been co-working at MVCC thINCubator for a year and a half and finds it a helpful alternative to working at home. “I thrive off of being around other people and the energy of the social interactions,” she said.

Each co-worker pays a fee from $100 - $150 a month and receives access to the building at any time through a phone app. “The flexibility is great,” Karl said. “I’ve come in at 5:00 in the morning to start projects. And I’ve come in and worked late on weekends if I’ve needed that too.” This flexibility is especially important for her work with clients in different time zones all over the world. But she says it’s also helpful for some of the other co-workers she sees working on side businesses after their full-time job hours.

Gathering people with a wide variety of backgrounds, professions, and projects in this culture of collaboration, flexibility, and generosity produces results. “Being in the company of entrepreneurs and people who are trying to build something and being able to share your challenges is incredibly helpful to other folks,” Miller said. “In a lot of ways companies that are getting spun out of here become the first customers of other companies that are getting spun out of here.”

He cites several examples. Companies in the MVCC thINCubator community have hired FMN Creative to help them with social media. Others have hired co-workers Kristy Lenuzza of Sow to Speak to help with creative writing, and Justin Miller of Universal Bookkeeper to do their accounting.

“People are fulfilling needs for each other in a professional sense but also everyone wants to see each other succeed,” Ryan Miller said. “It happens a lot. Just the fact of being here causes people to support each other and collaborate on things.”

Stacey Smith and Ryan Miller Directors of ThINCubator

Developing Conditions for Tech Startups

Startup ecosystems in large cities are supported by the major technology companies based there. Seattle, WA, is a good example. As the headquarters of Microsoft and Amazon, it draws a large population of developers and technologists who then create smaller tech companies nearby. Without a tech giant in the Mohawk Valley, Miller said the MVCC thINCubator team is building strategies to make the most of what we do have and work towards attracting larger tech companies in the future.

“Obviously we want to attract larger businesses and highly scalable technology,” Miller said. “These are the jobs of today and the future. But what if thINC was instrumental in seeding and creating 30-50 small businesses in the next 5 years that each employ 1-5 people who skew younger and creative? Even if very few of those are scalable technology companies, I want to make the argument that it’s those businesses that are also going to provide the case studies that will encourage other young people to stay in our area. They are the businesses that will also define the culture of the Mohawk Valley for the next generation. It’s the lifestyle businesses that will create the vibe of downtown and this area. That in itself can attract larger companies.”

Although there are some scalable tech companies based here, the Mohawk Valley’s strengths lie in services, media, and the arts. But even those can import dollars into the area through the internet. As a digital agency FMN Creative for instance serves clients in other parts of the country from their base in Utica.

At the same time, MVCC thINCubator is developing programs to grow that necessary developer base by inviting students from nearby colleges and others interested in technology to attend programs like Hack Mohawk Valley scheduled for Nov. 3-4. Co-hosted with Hack Upstate, the two-day hackathon will bring together computer programmers, hardware engineers, graphic designers, interface designers and project managers to collaborate on new products and companies.

“We’ll fill up on pizza and Red Bull and sleep on the floor at thINC for 48 hours,” said Miller. “We’ll see if we can we spin out a couple companies in two days.”

Growing into the Future

Miller and Smith, together with the entrepreneurs at MVCC thINCubator have created a thriving community and continue to expand its low-cost or free programming, relationships, and success. They welcome local people of all ages and backgrounds who have ideas for businesses and those who would like to offer resources to help entrepreneurs.

“This all comes down to creating the culture,” Miller said. “People will come for the culture. That’s the thing that’s going to make everything else fall into place. That’s going be the thing that allows people to trust one another and collaborate with one another. It’s going to be the thing that will attract more people and put this area on the map.”

“I want thINC to be known as the place that’s helping this community become its own,” said Smith. “Not trying to be Austin, TX. Not trying to be NYC. But to become its own creative place where people want to be and where people can sustain their business.”

Considering how far his idea has come, DuRoss said, “We’re very proud of the results and we know we can do more.”

(This article first appeared in the September 2018 issue of ACCENT Monthly magazine, published by the Utica (NY) Observer-Dispatch.)

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