Start It Up!

 In entrepreneur

Originally posted on Altoona Blair County Development Commission website, June 20, 2017 by Steve McKnight

We are a community of entrepreneurs. Just look around at the numerous family names that adorn our regional businesses. Forty-one Blair County born businesses employ more than 9,000 local residents. Since 2006, more than $450 million of capital investment in our community has resulted from Blair-born businesses. Those same businesses created more than 2,500 jobs. And big numbers come from small companies. More than 2,000 Blair County businesses employ less than 20 people. Together they account for 9,300 employees and more than $240 million in annual payroll.

Entrepreneurship is one of the 5 key pillars of operation for the Altoona Blair County Development Corporation. There is no better way to fuel and sustain an economy than by creating an environment and community culture that encourages and enables entrepreneurs to launch new endeavors and succeed.

As part of this key pillar, we are excited to be a part of the regional Startup Alleghenies initiative in cooperation with Southern Alleghenies Planning & Development Commission (SAPDC) to enhance the entrepreneurial opportunities in Blair, Cambria and Somerset Counties. The project will take advantage of the strengths of each of the counties’ economic developers, educational institutions, the Small Business Development Center and the newly hired coaches to:  develop entrepreneurs, provide spaces for project development, capitalize on local investment and generally provide a pathway to successful launches of new local businesses. (read the full press release here)

Several goals frame this operational directive at ABCD and as part of the Startup Alleghenies initiative. Here in Blair county we are focused on six directives for enhancing the opportunities for success of our next generation of entrepreneurs.

The first is recognizing and building upon our homegrown business tradition. Unlike many communities, we have many individuals and families with deep experience in starting up businesses. Some failed at first only to push forward and get eventually get it right. We can and must learn from both the successes and failures.

Second, we must continue to leverage the pipeline of opportunity that exists within Penn State Altoona and other key industries and institutions. The Sheetz Center for Entrepreneurship is a virtual breeding ground for new ideas and opportunity. Just last month, more than 40 student led business ideas were announced as part of the semi-annual Pechter Business Plan Competition. The winner was UNIS Brands, a 3D custom shoe manufacturer, led by Nicholas Unis. These are more than student projects, they are real world investment-worthy business opportunities that we need to launch and grow in Blair County.

Third, we need to ensure there are “Landing Pads or Pods” for new businesses to set up shop and call home. Co-working spaces are being created across the country offering flexible meeting and office arrangements. These are the new spaces where young companies can barter for services, meet investors, crowd-source for funding and connect in valued ways. In Downtown Altoona we are fortunate to have Catalyst Space and LaunchBox Altoona to meet these needs.

Fourth, we need to maintain a solid network of capital investors at various levels of experience and resources to fuel the pipeline of ideas. Sometimes simple referrals and mentoring is as valued as cash for young start-ups. Whatever is needed, we need to have it at the ready and we have created the First Frontier Network here in Blair County to begin to fill the needs of true start ups.

Fifth, while we have a deep history of family businesses, we need to ensure and invite the next generation of family members and leadership to take the reign. It is never a guarantee that a business will simply be passed on or managed by the next of kin. That can create instability and risk. We want to work with all of our legacy companies to encourage innovation, new market opportunities and leadership that will take these “Blair-Born” into future decades.

Finally, we need to tell this story. It needs to more than a notation in the column that we have such a deep and continuing history of entrepreneurship. We need to document and celebrate the successes as they happen and tell that story to the outside world. It is a business and talent attraction strategy. Success breeds success.

So, let’s Start It Up in Blair County – the starting point to rise up the Alleghenies and the nation’s First Frontier.