An expanding program based out of the University of Wyoming is giving small and start-up businesses crucial aid to expand and attract funding, backers of the initiative say. Boosters agree that this is creating jobs, all the while helping to diversity the state’s economy.
Formerly called the the Wyoming Technology Business Center, UW’s IMPACT 307 program was rebranded in 2020 in the midst of working to cast a wider geographical footprint around the state. Today, IMPACT 307 has a presence in Casper, Laramie, Sheridan, and, as of last month, Cheyenne. Additional staff and outreach are established to serve the city of Gillette, as well as Fremont, Sweetwater and Goshen counties.
All these offices act as business incubators and provide mentorship, critical evaluation and practical support that would be otherwise out of reach for a fledgling business.
Scot Rendall is director of IMPACT 307’s Sheridan location. He said the “incubation” assistance he and his staff offer starts with sorting the seeds of future successful firms from the chaff. In order to meet the program’s goal of identifying true potential for statewide economic diversification, his first priority is to find startups, growth-oriented businesses, and early-stage entrepreneurs that could feasibly go far.
“We are looking for business ideas that have bigger potential,” he explained in a recent interview. “We are not the best solution for lifestyle or primarily local businesses like restaurants, gift shops or most franchises. We are looking for something that can grow into a larger market, take on employees, and expand into the region, the state or even nationally.”
“We’ve launched 210 companies,” said Fred Schmechel, IMPACT 307 interim director, in a separate interview. “Of those, 109 were launched in the last three years.”
“Our clients and graduates over the years have created well more than 1,000 jobs,” Schmechel said. “However, with assorted acquisitions, and growing the companies to compete across the world, it is difficult to track exactly how many employees in Wyoming are employed today because of IMPACT.”
The deep-level advising from IMPACT 307’s business experts generally takes place over a series of meetings. After establishing an understanding of a business proposal, the idea is vetted extensively.
“We see a lot of ideas, but then we start to poke holes in them and realize the idea isn’t as big as the founders had hoped,” Rendall said. “If possible, we try to anticipate issues and see if we can modify the idea to make it fit. It’s good to identify any issues early on so as to avoid wasting time.”
Once an idea is shored up, IMPACT 307 takes the most viable propositions and walks those business owners through the process of building a sound foundation. Services available at this step are highly individualized, and might include things like in-house advising, looking over an operating agreement or a referral to have intellectual property patented. There is sometimes office space that can be rented out at a little less than market rates.
The overall emphasis of this program is to simulate a real-world scenario, so there isn’t a lot of coddling.
The initiative’s locations around the state enjoy most of their respective local publicity during their annual Start-Up Challenges, which pay out significant cash prizes to the winners.
The UW program is now seeing an increase in what’s known as serial entrepreneurship.
“This is where the founder of a company, or some of their key staff, decide that they want to spin-out or launch a new effort,” Schmechel said. “These companies tend to have a little savvier, and, frankly, resources, as they get up and running, and they don’t necessarily come through the incubator for a second round of the same training.”
Jason Hodges of Sheridan took home $33,000 in October 2020, and that win inadvertently changed his entire professional life.
“When people ask how I started my business, I say it was a fluke,” Hodges said. He was referring to his business, Wolf’s Cosplay Shop, where he manufactures fantasy-themed props.
He makes necklaces that feature an interface of LED lights and crystals, custom leather accessories and various niche items that can be used for things like role playing. He initially started making the items for himself to wear while attending a hobbyist convention out of state, and spontaneously sold some of his items to other attendees.
Shortly afterward, he was invited to be a vendor. During that time, he was holding down a day job, but he pitched what was then his part-time hobby business to IMPACT 307 during that year’s Start-Up Challenge and shared a first-place nomination with two other businesses.
“The day after I won that contest, my boss at AgTerra (Technologies Inc.) shook my hand and said, ‘Congratulations, I’m laying you off so you can go after your dreams’. It stung a little bit, but it did set me free to focus on this,” Hodges said.
Since being somewhat begrudgingly nudged into self-employment, Hodges has been able to refine his business to an extent that it supports 23 employees, along with locations in Las Vegas and Utah, all while remaining a Wyoming-based business. Last year, Wolf’s Cosplay Shop made roughly $500,000, and this year, it is on track to hit $1.5 million.
“When people ask me how I do what I do, I tell them I’m a dog,” Hodges said. “I go after the bone and don’t stop. You have to decide what is the most important thing in your life and only work on that.”
The enormous market of fantasy artifacts stands in contrast to the conventional Wyoming economy. It has nothing to do with energy or tourism, which are respectively the state’s No. 1 and 2 industries.
Even if a successful startup is acquired by another company outside the state, this doesn’t mean the end of its effect on Wyoming’s economy.
“One of our incubator graduates, vertical farming startup Bright Agrotech, was acquired by Plenty in 2017,” Schmechel said. “And while Plenty is headquartered in California, it still has about 70 employees working in Wyoming.”