Can the historic town of Leesburg, Va., become a hotbed for startups?
That’s the hope of Marantha Edwards, economic development director for the town of 51,000 residents about 30 miles west of Washington, D.C.
The Mason Enterprise Center, a startup incubator run by George Mason University, plays a big role in that vision, as a “phenomenal catalyst for business, not just startups but business growth in general,” she said.
In its six years of operation, the center has graduated 25 companies, with more than half of them staying in Leesburg, Edwards said.
“It’s a poster child for partnership for a number of agencies and organizations working together,” she continued, adding that she would like to see it help Leesburg become more of a tech hub. Currently, the majority of tech jobs in Loudoun County are concentrated in the eastern portion, near Reston and AOL in Dulles.
The Mason center is one of four northern Virginia incubators affiliated with George Mason University’s Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which has been helping businesses get off the ground for about a decade.
Susan Henson, regional director for the Mason Enterprise Center, said the four incubators – in Leesburg, Springfield, Fairfax and Warrenton – tap into their communities’ resources, receiving financial support from their counties, cities and major corporations for their 125 to 150 clients. Leesburg, for example, provided $100,000 to underwrite the local Mason Enterprise Center’s operating costs when it was established in 2011 and has been providing $35,000 to $60,000 annually ever since.
Henson said Leesburg’s operation trends heavily toward small government contractors but also serves marketing firms, tech companies and other small businesses.
“We even had a food truck while they were trying to establish themselves in a kitchen. They had some office space,” Henson said.
She sees the Mason Enterprise Center as unique in terms of providing education and mentoring programs tied to the small business development center.
“Many incubators or accelerators have a set program,” she said. “Ours is geared toward the individual company. We have a three- to four-year graduation period where they receive the appropriate training, appropriate business advice [and] mentoring referrals. We have community volunteers who come in. We really try to provide a concierge-based program.
“Many companies grow faster than that. Some graduate within a year.”
Asked about major success stories, Henson pointed to two companies, one a small government contractor and the other a marketing company.
The contractor, B3 Group, took advantage of the program for about 10 months, in that time growing from four or five employees who needed 100 square feet of office space to a company that needed 1,000 square feet to service a multimillion-dollar contract for the Veterans Administration.
“It was a very big win,” said Henson, adding that B3 also relied on the Mason Enterprise Center for help with the government certification process.
The company is still based in Leesburg, as is Sparkfire Branding—another startup Henson touts as a success.
“They were a husband and wife. He was leaving government contracting. She was looking to leave her career. They wanted to start a company based on her background, working with local communities on branding,” Henson said.
Within nine months, the company graduated with several large contracts and two new employees, Henson said. Today, they’re up to 15 employees.
“The kind of expertise they needed from us was some help in setting the operation up correctly and financial management – when do I hire my next employee, growth strategy, things like that,” she said. “Both wanted to do it the right way. We were also helpful in connecting them with potential customers.”
Jaimee Reinertsen of Sparkfire said the Mason Enterprise Center allowed her to start her company risk-free.
“It didn’t bind us to a long-term lease. We could afford it. It helped us believe in what we were doing,” Reinertsen said.
“They kind of cheerleaded us. We would tell them when we got a new client, and they would celebrate with us. It was sort of a legitimizer.”
She also said it was invaluable to have a resource that could point them in the right direction if an issue came up like workers’ compensation.
“We could have started the business from our home—it’s easy enough to do—but there’s a credibility factor,” she said. “This way we had access to a conference room. We could take meetings. They [prospective clients] wouldn’t have seen us as a legitimate company if we were running it from our home. We attracted new clients because we had a professional appearance.”