How Mark Farmer is helping Gwinnett County’s Entrepreneurship Base Grow and Thrive

Gwinnett County is the second-most populous county in Georgia and there’s a growing need for entrepreneurial support services. On this week’s episode of The Playbook, host Mark Collier, business consultant for the UGA Small Business Development Center, is joined by the Gwinnett County Economic Development Manager, Mark Farmer. Mark is part of a team of three charged with enhancing economic development in Gwinnett County. Mark’s area of focus is on small business and entrepreneurship, and he’s going to share details of a groundbreaking county sponsored project to assist Gwinnett County’s growing entrepreneurship base.

Transcription:

Mark Collier:
Welcome into The Playbook, Mark.

Mark Farmer:
Thank you, Mark. I appreciate you having me in today.

Mark Collier:
All right. Listen, there are no shortage of support services out here and with Gwinnett County growing the way it is, that there’s always room for more. You’re an entrepreneur yourself kind of with a deep background in entrepreneurship. So kind of share some your entrepreneurial journey and experience.

Mark Farmer:
Sure. Thank you. Well, you’re right. I was an entrepreneur sometime ago. I was actually a freelance photographer for many years.

Mark Collier:
Oh, fantastic.

Mark Farmer:
So I had a taste of that for a few years. I’ve done quite a few other things. In the past few years, I’ve been an economic developer in Gwinnett County. For a while, I was with about, actually about 10 years, I was with the Partnership Gwinnett initiative, which is the economic development wing of the Gwinnett chamber. In that role, I was director of entrepreneurship and I was charged with creating programs and so forth for entrepreneurship support, and then about five years ago, going on five years ago, I moved to over to the county economic development office, and shortly thereafter, the county identified this entrepreneur center as a priority project and it landed on my desk because of my background. I was excited to take it on and we’ve been developing it ever since.

Mark Collier:
All right. So the Gwinnett Entrepreneur Center, brand new project, kind of tell me a little bit what it is, where this area of focus is going to be, and some of the core services you guys will be offering.

Mark Farmer:
Oh, thank you. Well, we have high ambitions. Essentially, the Gwinnett Entrepreneur Center is two things. It will be a regional education center and resource hub for entrepreneurs in the area. We will have programs, services, support, information, connection to other resources in the area for any entrepreneur who wants to avail themselves in that. So for instance, they could get on our calendar of events, they might see a class or a lunch and learn or something that they want to attend. They can click on that and register and attend it in person, or of course, these days we’re also working on getting the equipment in for hybrid offerings because there’s widespread acceptance of that now to receive content over video platforms.

Mark Farmer:
So we’ll be looking at hybrid education offerings as well. So that’s on our education and resource hub side, but we’re also an incubator accelerator, meaning we will have a membership model. So we have an application available on our website and anyone who is interested in being considered for membership can go there, fill out an application, and we will look at their application, consider it, interview them, and see if they are a fit for what we’re trying to do. We have two categories of membership. We have what we’re calling resident membership and affiliate membership. Both get similar sets of services, but with one key difference. The resident members will have actual workspace in the center.

Mark Farmer:
They will have a co-working desk or an office commiserate with whatever their business model is and what their level is and that sort of thing. Affiliate members, that is for entrepreneurs who have workspace somewhere else already or intend to. So they may already have an office somewhere. They may have a co-working desk at another facility, or quite a few of them will probably be home based businesses. We didn’t want to to forget about those folks. They’re an important part of the entrepreneur ecosystem. So we wanted to have an offering for them as well, but even our affiliate members, as part of their membership benefits can come in and utilize the space. So what does that mean? We have a training room that they can book if they want to do presentations, if that’s part of what their business entails.

Mark Farmer:
We’ll have conference rooms. So this particularly important for everyone, but particularly important maybe for a home based business who, if they’re going to meet with a client, they don’t have to go down to a coffee shop. They can come into a nice professional conference room and have a meeting. They get access to printer, copier, these sorts of things, wifi. So they can come there and work as well, even if they don’t have a dedicated workspace there, but very importantly, both members, whether they’re resident or affiliate, will have a graduation plan. What that means is when they apply for membership and we interview them, we will take a very close look at what their business is and we will work with them to create a goal, an end game.

Mark Farmer:
So the graduation plan is designed to get them from point A to point B. It will have a list of tasks they will have to do, milestones they’ll have to hit, excuse me, in an estimated duration that they will be with us, duration of time that they will be with us. Now, this will be a living document. As we go, we will do a regular assessment of how that’s going and if we determine we need to add or delete tasks or milestones, we’ll do that. If we need to shorten or lengthen the time they’re with us, then we’ll do that as we go. Membership is not permanent. It is an incubation or an acceleration model. So they will be with us for a period of time and then we’ll graduate them out and make room for the next one.

Mark Collier:
So these customers going through the incubation model, there will be new businesses primarily, or there will be businesses who are kind of nascent in nature.

Mark Farmer:
Well, we see a mix of all kinds of businesses at all stages. We want to be open to a good cross pollination of the entrepreneur ecosystem in Gwinnett. So we’ll be looking at early stage, but we’ll also be looking at, let’s say there’s a business that’s been around for a few years, but they see a market opportunity to grow. So startup and growth are both fragile times in the life course of a business, and so if we can step in with support, then the goal is to graduate out businesses that are stronger because we help them through those fragile times. So a small business that’s been around for a while is looking to grow is just as viable a potential member as is a startup.

Mark Collier:
Okay. So growing revenue, growing employees, that’s kind of the goal in terms of moving them along the continuum.

Mark Farmer:
Right. And I’m glad you brought up the employee part because that’s another distinction between the resident and affiliate member. We have limited space and we expect to get more applications than we have room for.

Mark Collier:
How many square feet?

Mark Farmer:
We’re about 6,000 square feet, a little over with room for probably about, depending on the size of the company and some other factors, we have room for about 15 to 20 resident members. The rest would be affiliate. We’re probably capped out at around about 50, a little less than 50 members for physical space reasons and other reasons, and so we have to optimize those resources. So one of the things that we’re looking at is if you’re going to be a resident member, we want to see the potential for job creation because it wouldn’t make sense for us to have a home based business that has one employee or the sole proprietor who’s always going to be that.

Mark Farmer:
Nothing wrong with that. Again, I was that myself when I was a photographer. It wouldn’t make any sense to have them come in, take up an office only to graduate out a year and a half later and go right back into a spare room in their house and not hire anyone. Again, absolutely nothing wrong with that model. There are plenty of those that are an important part of the economy, but to come into our space, we’re going to look for an expectation of at least some job creation when they graduate out.

Mark Collier:
No, I mean, that makes perfect sense. Similar to what we do at the UJSBDC, we’re an impact agency. We’re looking to deliver impact and impact is, and that revenue growth as well as that employee growth. So I totally get that.

Mark Farmer:
Right. And it speaks to you, why is the county doing this? Part of it is, it’s just a service back to the citizenry like any government service, but it’s also an economic development strategy. Again, if we can strengthen those businesses and create jobs, then it’s an investment in that community.

Mark Collier:
Yeah. And as we always say, when you grow your revenue, grow your employees, guess what you do? You pay more taxes.

Mark Farmer:
Exactly.

Mark Collier:
And that helps Georgia’s, the economic wellbeing of Georgia.

Mark Farmer:
Well, it helps everyone and then that’s again, more delivery back to the community.

Mark Collier:
Absolutely. So differentiation is the holy grail of all business models. So there is some other entrepreneurial support service offerings out here. How are you guys going to be different? What’s going to be kind of your differentiators that’s going to set you apart from the market?

Mark Farmer:
Well, we do offer something similar to other entities, of course. I mean, there’s certain things that all entrepreneurs need and so we will be in the business of doing some of that as well, but there’s a variety of ways we’re different. Some of the other support entities don’t offer space. We will be offering space. Some other types of incubator accelerators are maybe industry specific. We are not. A lot of them of course are technology based or some other niche industry.

Mark Collier:
And so you’ll take any business-

Mark Farmer:
We’re looking at just about any sector that makes sense. I mean, logic dictates there would be some that we might have fewer, for instance, retail, not that we would never have retail. In fact, I fully expect that we will, but because they will have a storefront, it may not make sense for a lot of them to be in our space, but again, that just because they maybe are not a fit for membership, we’re still going to have a lot of other services for basically any entrepreneur.

Mark Collier:
Very good. So you mentioned membership, so you’re currently taking memberships. Are you officially open now, and if not, when is your official opening date or projected date?

Mark Farmer:
Well, yes, we had hoped to be open before now, but like so many things because of the pandemic, we were delayed and we even up until recently, we were experiencing some of the supply, same supply chain disruptions that everyone is experiencing. We’re on a trajectory now to be operational by the end of the year.

Mark Collier:
Okay. Good deal.

Mark Farmer:
And a lot of things still have to line up to make that happen, but I do almost a daily check in with all the departments and my colleagues at the county who are handling pieces of this because really, it’s been two projects up until now. It’s been the entrepreneurship offerings that I’m working on with my center manager and our partners, but also the building itself. We were renovating a county owned building, which actually, for 20 some odd years was a daycare center for low income families.

Mark Collier:
Interesting. Okay.

Mark Farmer:
And we were repurposing it for where this entrepreneur center. It required quite a bit of renovation and that is still part of what we have to do between now and the end of the year. We decided to go ahead and open the application because we knew that it would take a while to do this initial evaluation of a large applicant pool. We’re at a juncture that will never be at again, meaning we have zero members in a big applicant pool and that’s going to take some time also because we’re doing it the first time and so we want to be very deliberate and make sure that we are creating our process as we go. We’re hoping, and we think, again, we do an ongoing assessment of how this is turning out, that about the time that we have some members ready to move into the center, the renovations and the technology and so forth that we’re installing and the building will be ready.

Mark Collier:
Well, so as they wait to kind of cycle through that process, what should they be doing in the meantime while they’re waiting for the center to open?

Mark Farmer:
There’s a variety of things that people interested in the center can be doing. One is if you’re interested in applying and being a member, go to the website, GwinnettEntrepreneurCenter.com, and read the material there. We put quite a bit of effort into trying to answer all the questions that we might get. There’s a lot there and we encourage everyone to read it because your question is probably answered there.

Mark Collier:
Yeah. Big, big FAQ page, right?

Mark Farmer:
Yes. That’s in the works. The FAQ, we’re kind of fine tuning right now and hope to post because we’re actually now getting FAQs now that we’re live with an application, but we have a member handbook there, we have the application, we have a document that’s a guide on how to fill out the application, and so there are a lot of material there that could be answered. We encourage members to look at that and be deliberate about how they fill out the application. We’re also scheduling tours. AWe have a temporary pause on the tours. We’re kind of assessing the current Delta variant. So we have a very short term. We expect to start it up again soon, but for just a moment, we kind of pressed pause on that.

Mark Farmer:
But We’ll be scheduling tours again. We encourage people to come take a look at the center so that they know if it’s a fit for them. Our application is pretty rigorous and so we wouldn’t want anyone to go through that if it turns out it’s not a fit for them for whatever reason. There’s also what we’re calling an engagement form, meaning if there’s someone in the region who wants to participate, not as a member, but maybe as a contributor in some way, teach a class, do something else, coach entrepreneurs, they can fill out an engagement form and that’s helping us manage. We’ve had a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of interest in this, and so-

Mark Collier:
Well, that’s great.

Mark Farmer:
Fill out an engagement form.

Mark Collier:
Well, I know my colleague out of Gwinnett office, Glen Cruz in his office, I’m sure there’ll be contributors to your content out there.

Mark Farmer:
Absolutely. I’ve known Glen for quite a while now and we have had very extensive conversations about how the SBDC might participate and we have a small advisory team and Glen is on it.

Mark Collier:
Okay. Well, fantastic. Right. I guess we get down to brass tax now. What does it cost to become a member?

Mark Farmer:
Right, right. I always get that question, and again, what I would encourage everyone to do is go to the website because it depends on several things as to what your actual cost is. It depends on, do you want to be a resident member? Do you want to be affiliate member? If you’re a resident member, do you need an office? Do you need a two person office, a one person office? Do you need a co-working desk?

Mark Farmer:
There are different dues amounts for each of those levels, and then it also changes. There’s a small increase each year you’re with us, and so all of that is spelled out in a chart and so it would be virtually impossible to say all of that here. So very much go… I will say this, that it is very reasonably priced. So everyone should take heart in that and feel free to compare it. We did a lot of research in the area to make sure that we were at a good place price wise.

Mark Collier:
Well, there are a subset, unfortunately, of entrepreneurs who don’t have a great deal of cashflow. So do you guys have any special programs for entrepreneurs who are potentially facing economic hardship where they can still participate in this entrepreneur center?

Mark Farmer:
We do. In fact, we are partially grant funded. We have a federal grant and one of the grant requirements is that we work with low income families, and so there’s a program we’re calling the opportunity program and there’s a box applicants can check on the application if they feel like they may be eligible for that, they can check it, and then that’ll be part of their onboarding process. We’ll explore whether they qualify and the income levels are set by the federal government, not by us, but we are charged with the responsibility of adhering to them. So we would go check that and make sure, and if the applicant does qualify for the federal income levels, then they would get 50% off of their membership due. So it’s a pretty generous program.

Mark Collier:
Okay. Well, I like it. All right. So you mentioned programs that are potentially available to non-members too. So let’s talk a little bit about that. Can you elaborate on what programs for non-members are available?

Mark Farmer:
Absolutely. So that would again be our sort of regional education and resource hub. So one of the things that we aspire to be is the place that people start in the area if they want to start a business or grow a business and they’re not sure where to turn. If they already have a great connection like the SBDC and Glen Cruise’s team and so forth, or some of the other great programs we have in the area and institutions we have in the area, fantastic. We don’t want to step in the middle of that. Most of those entities are our key partners anyway and the ones who aren’t, we are trying to get to know them and bring them into the fold.

Mark Farmer:
But it’s really, the way I always say it is if you or someone you know is starting or growing a business in Gwinnett, you need help, you’re not sure where to turn, the Gwinnett Entrepreneur Center will always be a first stop because we’ll either do it or we’ll know someone who does, and if we don’t do it and we don’t know someone who does it, then we will look at that as a market intelligence for us to perhaps create a program. If we see a pattern of need and no one’s doing it, then that’s a mandate for us to look at developing something.

Mark Collier:
Well, it sounds like you got a lot of content on tap, a lot of great programming. Now you’re going to have an internal staff that’s going to deliver all this content, or you’re going to reach out to other community resource partners, folks like us and others to help deliver the content? Talk a little bit about that.

Mark Farmer:
All of the above. We have our key partner is Georgia Gwinnett College. In fact, last year, the county signed a contract with the school, the business school actually, to staff and operate the center and that’s going to be our key partnership. We’re going to work very closely with them. There’s a three person management team. I’m one third of it. I bring the county perspective, and then there are two members, employees from Georgia Gwinnett College who are actually on the three person management team. One is our center manager. Her name is Stephanie [inaudible 00:19:22]. She will be there all day, every day at the center, running the show. She’ll make sure everything goes smoothly.

Mark Farmer:
She’s also a certified mentor. So she will be the one who monitors the graduation plans, meets with the members and so forth. The third member of our management team is a faculty member at the business school, Dr. Philip Hartley, and his role will be to be a liaison between the two institutions. So he will bring value back and forth between the school and the center, but in addition to that again, again, SBDC, the Score Organization, Gwinnett Chamber, ACE, Access to Capital for Entrepreneurs-

Mark Collier:
I’m well aware of them.

Mark Farmer:
Those representatives of those entities are all on our advisory team and then we have a large Rolodex of people beyond those folks who want to work with us, and so we’ll have a lot of partners and we’ll bring in a lot of value and a lot of content. We’ll do our own things, but we’ll bring those folks in as well.

Mark Collier:
All right. Mark Farmer, Gwinnett County economic development manager. I want to thank you for taking time out of your busy day. The Gwinnett Entrepreneur Center sounds like it’s going to be a fantastic addition to a much needed resource base that all entrepreneurs need and I wish you guys best luck.

Mark Farmer:
Thank you, Mark.


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