Participants will quietly slip into the building at 605 Austin Ave. on Wednesday and Thursday evenings, hoping to unlock the door to success.
They operate food trucks, microbreweries and small retail shops. One visitor, a member of law enforcement, someday would like to open a bakery.
Like other actual and would-be business owners, they face challenges rooted in COVID-19 that are foreign to entrepreneurs who made their mark during times not so interesting. They are willing guinea pigs in Startup Waco’s new incubator that focuses on one-on-one mentorship during a six-week cram session.
The program, dubbed Incubatex254, takes into consideration the increased strain faced by minority- and women-owned ventures during the pandemic, according to a Startup Waco press release.
“The rules for running or starting a business have been tossed out the window. It’s a new environment, a different world,” Startup Waco executive director Jon Passavant said by phone. “The best way to enact change, to make a difference, is to be really specific in our approach. You can watch webinars and access general information almost anywhere, but we’re going to focus on your specific need.”
Startup Waco is providing the service free to 20 businesses participating in a pilot program, one launched just as the entity emerges from an almost 90-day pandemic-induced hibernation. Startup Waco occupies 5,000 square feet in the former Woolworth building on Austin Avenue, which it opened in December 2018 and formally unveiled in March 2019. Startup Waco operates “Hustle,” a public-private collaboration providing coworking space, office amenities and business counseling to entrepreneurs for a subscription fee. Waco and McLennan County allocated $750,000 from their shared economic development incentive fund.
“We made the call to close our doors on March 13, and shortly after that, the state’s stay-at-home orders came down,” Passavant said. “We’ve continued to operate at limited capacity, but things have been pretty slow. All members are welcome, if they’d like to come in, and we’re accepting new members. We’d like to offer passes good for a day, week or month, with social distancing.”
Of immediate concern was helping small businesses ease back into their comfort zone, if there is such a thing these days, Passavant said.
He assembled an advisory team, including representatives of the three local chambers of commerce — the Cen-Tex Hispanic Chamber, the Cen-Tex African American Chamber and the Greater Waco Chamber — and went to work identifying businesses that might want to take part in their incubator experiment.
“This is community driven. We’re not paying a bunch of business advisors. We’re using local volunteers to serve as mentors and coaches, creating a beautiful picture of coming together,” Passavant said. “We have successful entrepreneurs, business owners, people who own businesses similar to those represented by our participants. They will walk through operational challenges, stabilizing after COVID-19, figuring out ways to move forward.”
He said Baylor University business students also may get involved.
Startup Waco will reimburse participants in the pilot program for child-care and transportation costs, and even assist with staffing costs if they have to hire people to cover for them while away.
“We acknowledge the dignity of their time and effort,” Passavant said.
Organizers took stock of which businesses might have been hit the hardest by COVID-19, settling on retail and food services. From those sectors, they sought out ventures owned by women or minorities, which traditionally and during the pandemic have faced unique obstacles to staying afloat.
If the pilot program performs well, and if Passavant proves successful in his fundraising efforts, Startup Waco may offer additional classes, possibly focusing on supply chain management, manufacturing and technology.
“Money to keep Startup Waco going truly comes from private individuals and corporations. I’m going out nationally and locally,” Passavant said. “The survival of these small micro-businesses is as instrumental to our growth here in Waco as huge corporations moving in. They help create a culture, a fabric of the city. We would cease to be Waco if they were lost.”
He said he hopes to involve McLennan Community College and Texas State Technical College more in the Startup Waco initiatives.
Justin Crossie, a regional administrator with the Small Business Administration, said he visited with Passavant during a visit to Waco.
“We talked about small businesses that may not have a formal relationship with lenders, may not have all the resources needed to access the Payroll Protection Program,” Crossie said, referring to a forgivable loan program for businesses that was part of a federal coronavirus relief package. “We certainly applaud Jon’s efforts to reach out even further with his incubator. The SBA and its resource partners stand ready to assist in any way we can to map out a path forward.”
Concerned about COVID-19?
Sign up now to get the most recent coronavirus headlines and other important local and national news sent to your email inbox daily.