In Soap-Making and Landscaping, ‘Creative’ Entrepreneurs Get Help Building Business Skills from Co.Starters

Co.Starters’ Business Model Canvas

A designer, a scuba diver, an art curator, a furniture maker. They all share something in common – seeking and receiving help with the business side of their creative work from the Co.Starters program of Create Birmingham.

The Co.Starters program – prompted by research and aimed at unlocking economic potential – has 200 graduates and a new class of 15 people following their dreams to turn their passions into sustainable and thriving small businesses.

With graduates pursuing the business side of everything from massage therapy to landscaping, Co.Starters is a 10-week business training program designed to equip aspiring entrepreneurs with insights, relationships and tools to turn their business ideas into action, said Buddy Palmer, CEO of Create Birmingham, the nonprofit that administers the program. The organization is dedicated to the development of Birmingham’s creative industries that contribute to economic growth as well as enhance quality of life.

The 15 students, who meet on Monday nights, represent the 17th Co.Starters class since the program began in 2014 after a comprehensive study of the area’s creative industries and occupations.

Gathered around a U-shaped table at Woodlawn’s Social Venture building, members of Co.Starters’ fall 2018 class take turns telling about their week’s highs and lows and the number of customer conversations they logged for the week.

“My high for this week is this,” says Co.Starters student Joy Smith. She shows a glossy page of Birmingham Magazine’s food issue, in which a tempting slice of cheesecake from Smith’s Sorelle catering business is pictured as one of the 40 best treats in Birmingham. Her classmates applaud, then tell about their week’s progress, contacts made and business plans drafted.

The highs and lows and “customer count” sessions that begin each week’s class help students focus on and share progress in their quests and business plans, said this class’ instructor, Jacqueline Jones of Birmingham, a Co.Starters graduate and CEO and founder of One Degree MMM, a marketing service.

Customer count refers to in-depth conversations with potential customers, mentors or business people, not the number of transactions, explained Jessica Moody, Create Birmingham’s program manager, who is a training facilitator and administrator.

The three-hour sessions are from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays and include visits by local experts – including an attorney, an accountant and a banking and finance professional – plus local entrepreneurs who are usually also Co.Starters graduates. The program includes nine weeks of materials followed by a celebration night, Moody said.

Co.Starters 17’s Entrepreneurs

Current class members and their business ideas include Liz Wilson’s artist-run art gallery and shop, called Glorious Future; Aquilla Stanback’s Lily’s Cup tea room, named for her grandmother; Kristen Iskandrian’s At Last bookstore and gift shop; Michael Crowley’s Gelato shop; and Kelsey Week’s functional wood furniture shop, called The Grain Shop.

Others are Sanjay Kumar’s Kind Perks, a smart phone app that helps restaurants and food stores reduce food waste while offering app users’ half price dining discounts, and Dina Marble’s Family Dive Club in Pelham, which offers family dive outings, scuba camps and diving lessons.

There are two husband-and-wife teams in the class. Dontez and Jamie Heard are working on The Birmingham Creative Coalition, and Jermaine and Qshequilla Mitchell work with Greater Level Training, which aims at offering fitness for all.

Other class members and their businesses are Rebecca Dubinsky’s community engagement management company, Karen Gathany’s Trove design shop and Layla Hamilton’s Shak Bar.

CreateHere Helped Create Co.Starters

The Co.Starters program originated in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and embraces collaboration, networking and learning from experienced experts, plus tools and resources aimed at simplifying business concepts and offering practical steps to launching a business. It grew out of Chattanooga’s CreateHere initiative in 2008 and went national in 2013, according to the organization’s website. Co.Starters has trained thousands in the U.S. and abroad with the curriculum being used here.

Birmingham was one of the first communities to adopt the Co.Starters program that is known for applying lean business model methods popular with high-growth startups. “It’s based on the tech model of start small, fail first, back out, test and scale up,” Palmer said.

Buddy Palmer, CEO of Create Birmingham, the nonprofit that administers Co.Starters (Source: Jackie Romine Walburn)

Palmer, a Selma native who joined the Create Birmingham nonprofit 10 years ago, sees the contagious nature of the program reflected in the community as graduates become advocates. “Once a community adopts the curriculum, you begin to see business people speaking from experience about what they’ve learned and graduates of the program becoming mentors for life,” he said.

One Co.Starters tool, which now has a place on the office walls at Create Birmingham, is the Business Model Canvas. The canvas helps participants understand, test and refine their ideas. The canvas includes 11 aspects, presented as questions, to consider when planning a small business or most any project or endeavor. Aspects that canvas users address include who’s the customer, what’s your message and what are the revenue needs, distribution channels and startup needs and costs. Palmer said he uses the canvas to help with his own work.

Beginnings in Research

The genesis for Birmingham’s Co.Starters program was 2014 research and a resulting report on Birmingham’s creative industries, sponsored by the Cultural Alliance of Greater Birmingham, the nonprofit that morphed into Create Birmingham when the report’s results were announced in October 2014.

The 72-page report, “Stoking Innovation in the Magic City: Birmingham’s Creative Industries,” documented more than 22,700 people then employed in creative industries and occupations in Jefferson County, producing annual earnings that exceeded $558 million.

The report outlined eight core strategies and recommendations aimed at bringing together and leveraging creative sectors that include visual and performing arts, culture and heritage, culinary arts, film, media and design.

“One of the things that we kept hearing was how these creative people and businesses had more confidence in their craft than in their business knowledge,” Palmer said. “The sector was growing and getting attention, but the business end could be a real challenge to those just starting out.”

Hence, the first Co.Starters class began in October 2014, as Create Birmingham and its partners tackled a renewed mission of being a hub for the area’s creative industries, enhancing job creation and creating economic growth.

The class was never limited to “creative” business ideas, but many of the graduates and students are pursuing businesses that mesh with their talents and interests, Palmer said. One essential element that students have in common is having a concept or business that they are ready and willing to share and grow in a collaborative environment.

Once a Co.Starter, Always One

With more than 200 graduates of Birmingham’s program since 2014, most Co.Starters stay engaged with the program. Many are guest entrepreneurs for new classes; others end up teaching a class.

Whether the graduates’ business ideas involved juices or bagels, yoga or photographs, cycles or sneakers, private investigations or candy, success is not judged by how soon the business launches, Palmer said. Other standard benchmarks – like whether there is a website, a profit being made or a brick and mortar storefront – are not the measures for Co.Starters.

“How many graduates have launched their businesses is not an indicator for us. People enter at very different places, and they leave in different places,” Palmer said. “We look at who’s still working their concept, progressing in stages and making informed decisions, maintaining their confidence and empowerment and other metrics.”

Costs and Benefits

The cost to enroll in Co.Starters is $575 – $450 for the 10-week course and $125 for materials. Financial assistance may be available. Classes are held quarterly and are limited to 15 students. The fall 2017 and winter 2018 sessions had two classes to accommodate demand.

Class members receive one-on-one time with a facilitator, support from Create Birmingham staff during class and after graduation, membership in the alumni network and access to the Co.Starters Funds and Loan Program as well as Co.Shop + Co.Work.

One Graduate’s Perspective

“Collaborate and partner,” visiting entrepreneur and Co.Starters graduate Salaam Green told current class members when she visited in October.

A spring 2016 graduate, Green is founder and executive director of the Literary Healing Arts Foundation. She is also a writer, poet, blogger, featured author of two books and public speaker, appearing at the 2018 TEDx Birmingham. She serves as artist in residence for UAB’s Institute for Arts in Medicine, where she conducts writing sessions with medical students and uses poetry as a tool of compassion with patients and families in trauma units and waiting rooms.

“I can testify to starting small and keeping it simple,” Green told the 17 class members. “Starting small for me was one person at a time.”

“When I started here, I had no vision, but I had a story,” she said, referring to her path of using writing and the power of words to rid herself of some emotional baggage. She credits the program and facilitator Jessica Moody with helping her find a path to turning her passion into an occupation and mission. She founded the Literary Healing organization in 2016, a few months after she completed Co.Starters.

Today, Green has certificates and credentials, a website and a growing reputation in an unusual field. She works with individuals and with schools, colleges and nonprofit organizations. And, she keeps her services accessible to “all people who need healing.”

Green still wants to develop creative community spaces – her original Co.Starters goal – especially in rural areas where she already provides creative business coaching to women “who want to transform their lives and communities.”

“Co.Starters helped me find my vision and make it happen,” Green told the class.