Entrepreneurs grow with incubator’s help

  • By Debra Smith HBJ Freelance Writer
  • Thursday, November 15, 2012 8:08pm

SULTAN — Cindy Todd moved with her family to Snohomish County and couldn’t find work.

So she got creative.

With a little help, the Snohomish mother of four turned a passion for handmade soaps into a small thriving enterprise. She’s hired an employee, and she just sold 45 cases of soap to Haggen Food and Pharmacy.

While her own energy and drive is part of her success, she also credits a local nonprofit called GROW Washington that’s devoted to turning people’s passions in rural and small communities into profitable businesses.

“This helped give me the support to get to the next level,” Todd said.

The nonprofit’s first store is in downtown Snohomish on 1204 First St. GROW just opened a second location in Sultan at 403 Main St.

Here’s how it works. The nonprofit leases a retail space downtown. Entrepreneurs, in turn, rent a portion of the shop. In Sultan, each business owner pays $50 a month. They also commit to working two days a month in the store, selling not only their products but everyone else’s, too.

Entrepreneurs also get training on the basics of business, including how to create a business plan and where to find a loan. The goal is to get entrepreneurs to outgrow the storefront, just like Cindy Todd and her soap business.

The founder, Sultan Mayor Carolyn Eslick, got the idea at a business conference in Atlanta. There she heard from the founder of Grow Nebraska, who had set up a similar model. In Nebraska, vendors started by sharing booths at thrice-yearly markets and then the venture grew into one central store that sold products from multiple micro businesses.

Eslick owned the Dutch Cup restaurant for more than two decades and spent recent years working with business start-ups in Snohomish County.

“The thing that intrigued me was this woman started in a town of 300 people, yet she was touching hundreds of businesses throughout Nebraska,” Eslick said.

Entrepreneurs can get started with little money and risk. The community gets a store filled with lively, local products.

That’s a big deal in a small town like Sultan, where other merchants rely on a critical mass of vibrant storefronts to draw people to their businesses, said Susan Greene, owner of Flat Iron Gallery, a gift and home decorating store. The GROW store is located directly next to Flat Iron Gallery in the heart of downtown. For years, the space next to Greene’s business wasn’t used as a retail store; its windows were covered up.

“You don’t want to look like a ghost town,” she said.

The GROW store in Sultan is a fun place to window shop. Handmade chocolates are the best sellers so far. There’s also — just for starters — jewelry, soaps, art, granite signs, aprons and American Doll clothes. The woman making that last one had been selling her creations from her front lawn.

At GROW, entrepreneurs receive mentoring, support and feedback.

Take Darlene Griffin of Marysville. Her fabric baskets weren’t selling well, so others involved with the nonprofit anonymously critiqued the product.

Griffin learned some people didn’t like the stiffness of the baskets and the price was too high. She made changes and now her products are beginning to sell.

There’s a strong focus on helping entrepreneurs understand their passions and follow them. Those who participate are required to set goals.

“That helps them to stay successful,” Eslick said. “Anyone can open a shoe store but in two years you won’t be successful if your heart and soul isn’t in it, because you will be eating and sleeping that business.”

Eslick hopes to expand the concept to other small communities in the area. The nonprofit needs a nucleus of about 20 entrepreneurs to make another store work.

The nonprofit is raising money to help support the venture. They received an $8,500 grant from Washington State Micro Enterprise Association and sponsorship from Columbia Bank. Eventually, Eslick expects the nonprofit to be self-sustaining.

Learn more

Those who are interested in becoming an entrepreneur with the program can call Carolyn Eslick at 425-327-2093 or go to www.growwashington.biz.