Accelerator, Mentors Strengthen Startups

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Windsor Star/Ellen van Wageningen

It’s a simple idea: create a supportive hub for new businesses to get off the ground.  The Windsor Downtown Business Accelerator, a former bingo hall on Ouellette Avenue, is a bright, open office where budding entrepreneurs rent desks or small offices by the month and share meeting rooms and other services.

Two years after the non-profit organization first opened its doors with the help of a federal grant, it has 35 tenants and has said farewell to five others who have moved on, said Arthur Barbut, the Accelerator’s managing director.

A few, including the anchor tenant WEtech Alliance, are also non-profit agencies that encourage and assist entrepreneurial and innovative businesses. Most tenants are one or two-person startups paying from just over $100 to just under $800 a month depending on whether they have a desk or shared office and how often they use it.

“We’re almost at capacity and we’re almost covering all our operating costs through rent and other services we provide,” said Barbut, whose salary currently comes from an Ontario Trillium Foundation grant. The operating costs include $10,000 a month in rent the Accelerator pays the building’s owner.

The Accelerator has come a long way from the drawing board three and a half years ago, said president and board chairman Jeff Flacks. Like other board members, he is a volunteer and has to find time to nurture its progress outside of his job as a financial adviser for National Bank.

It is worth it if the Accelerator is successful in attracting and keeping bright, young entrepreneurs in Windsor, he said.

“These are the types of jobs we can have. This is the way to maintain our grassroots economy,” he said of Accelerator tenants who have businesses that range from designing websites and apps to coordinating weddings and events.

The Accelerator’s latest step has been to bring on-board successful local business owners and leaders who have made donations and agreed to mentor tenants. Leading that initiative is Jack Jorgensen, the energetic owner of Advance Business Systems, who is among the original 12 business leaders to step up.

“We don’t want one in 10 people who give it a try in the entrepreneurial world to succeed. We want nine in 10 to succeed,” he said of the mentor group that has grown to almost 50. “With the group we’ve put together, if you have any shot at success that mentor group will probably help you get there.”

From a business owner’s perspective the Accelerator is an investment that makes more sense than some publicly funded initiatives aimed at helping budding entrepreneurs, he said. “We have yet to find a government agency, including the city, the province, anybody, who has been willing to give anything to it (to cover operating costs) because they can’t see the business plan. I can’t see anything but business plans. So that’s why I got involved to the point that I’m at and I’m going to keep on chasing it until we figure out how to succeed.”

Flacks said tenants are encouraged to take the initiative to make connections with the mentors, some of whom run enterprises with an international reach – like Barry Zekelman, executive chairman and CEO of JMC Steel, and Marty Solz, executive vice-president and chief operating officer for Windsor-based Valiant Machine and Tool Inc.

Tenants are also urged to work together to make the services they receive from the Accelerator and government-funded agencies better, Flacks said.

“If the Accelerator can do one thing beyond providing cheap space for aspiring entrepreneurs, it’s providing a more business-minded thought process around the use of these resources, to create more synergies,” Flacks said. “We’re kind of the X factor.”

The Windsor Downtown Business Accelerator is located at 720 Ouellette Ave. and can be reached at 519-997-2871.