For nearly a decade, the Strate Center business incubator at Autry Technology Center has been helping fledgling businesses make a go at it in Northwest Oklahoma.

“We’ve had 27 businesses in the nine years and an 81 percent success rate,” said Brian Gaddy, director of technology and the Center for Business Development. “Eleven percent had trouble while in the Strate Center and made a conscious choice to stop … eight percent that, basically, they encountered a terminal event while in the center and were not able to continue while in there.”

The center offers applicants a chance at starting their businesses with a sort of safety net. Successful applicants can operate out of the Strate Center for three years, with rent beginning at a lower-than-market rate and increasing each year. Besides supplying space, the center offers clients Internet access, copiers, printers, scanners, software, furniture and office equipment, as well as advice from resident experts and networking opportunities afforded by the center’s affiliation with Autry Tech.

“I think when you look across the state, I think if we aren’t the top I’d say we’re in the top two or three incubators in the state with that kind of success rate,” Gaddy said. “I think that is pretty common. I think that’s what the goal is to be an 80 percent success rate. It think nationwide that’s what all incubators do.”

Learning the ropes

Maurice and Cassondra Allen are the owners of Premier Image Screen Printing and Embroidery and have been housed in the business incubator for the past eight months.

Maurice said he and his wife visited the center before but didn’t move their business in until June 2017.

“Initially, I had a lawn care service and someone said, ‘Hey, you should go out to the incubator.’ We came out a couple years before, around 2010, we came out and visited the incubator,” he said. “It was very new. We didn’t know what it had to offer. We didn’t know how to use it exactly.”

Years later, Maurice said he and Cassondra entered the Cherokee Strip Business Competition.

“We came out to that, and they had a class for small businesses to learn back-end office tools, to learn how to put a business plan together, advertising, marketing, benchmarking, business viability, target marketing. Lot’s of great intel,” he said. “They also gave us a manual and guide to make it through that, along with a teacher, a guide. We built this dynamic business plan and presented that plan at the CSBC. We had two presentations and made it all the way to the second round. I think we took fourth place. And from there we had a opportunity to go before the Autry incubator board.”

Maurice said their business was selected, and they moved into their current space.

“About once a quarter they like to find out how we’re doing and if we’re on task with our business plan,” he said. “The incubator has provided great support with not telling how to run our business or what to do, but in the event we have new ideas or process they’ve been a great support in thinking of different ways to hone in those processes.”

Honing the business

The couple said the decision to give up the lawn care service came when they received an order for 1,500 T-shirts in the middle of the lawn care business’ busy season and had to hire extra help.

“It was in the heat of the moment, in the fire, that we decided we were not going to do the lawn care business,” Maurice said. “Since we’ve been here in the incubator, and we have honed in on that business, we’ve been able to do some things in our business plan, as to automate doing business with us.”

As well as offering screen printing and embroidery services on more than a dozen products, Premier Image also offers groups and businesses the ability to set up their own web domains and sell their branded items from that domain site, http://www.premier

“You never have to come in to do business with us,” Maurice said of the business’ e-commerce offerings. “That’s been great in producing volume.”

In addition to offering clients the ability to sell their items from their own site, clients can use the Premier Image Embroidery site to design their own shirts and items. When items are ordered, the site calculates the cost for each item, can allow for discount codes and automatically calculates the cost of shipping.

“Our software, we use it to create subdomains to our website,” Maurice explained. “We have done some really great sub-domains that have some e-commerce that takes away from the heavy lifting for our customers.”

Maurice said the sub-domains can take minutes to create, depending upon how many items the clients want to offer. The Allens said they’ve found a niche market for the domain sites — sports teams and squads.

“The coaches no longer have to handle money and take a list of names and numbers,” Maurice said. “This is a site where they can earn money year round for their organization. That’s been excellent for them and excellent for us. This is what we want to offer to the community. We want to make it easy to do business with us.”

“I think the hardest part is people finding out what product they want on the site,” Cassondra said. “That’s the hardest part, I think, is the customer actually figuring out what product they want on the site, what they want to represent.”

Meeting milestones

The Allens said part of their business plan included milestones of certain dollar figures. “We have a dollar amount we want to reach at year’s end. I’m just happy to say that we’re on task.”

Premier Image employs a full-time screen printer, two administration positions and an outside salesperson.

“One of our biggest concerns would be just bottle-necking when it came to if too many orders came in at one time,” Maurice said. He said he took that concern and others to those at the incubator and got the advice he needed.

“They gave me some really great ideas,” he said. “Simulate yourself as a customer and make sure the customer is bracing exactly what they need and find out where your limitations are at and where your glitches are at and move forward from that. Right now, our workload, we’re taking care of it really well. My only concern is, when we scale, can we handle the logistics.”

Maurice said a few questions asked of businesses inside the incubator are how much money can you bring in from Garfield County and how much money can you bring in from outside of Northwest Oklahoma. He said Premier Image has had customers as far away as New York City.

Getting in contact

Gaddy said the Strate Center is more than just an incubator. He said those with business questions can call the center, and if their staff cannot answer they will find someone who will.

“We want to be the first business resource people think about if they have questions,” he said. “We do more than business incubation. If people come to us with those types of questions, I feel like we help them out.”

Gaddy said one criticism he’s received about the Strate Center is that it is too nice and might scare some potential businesses away. To counter that, he said the center is conducting weekly outreach.

“Every Thursday morning, we have an individual at Five80 Coffeehouse there to answer any business questions off-campus,” he said. “It’s a friendly place to be, and there’s no anxiety about coming into an official structure.”

He said the representative arrives at 8 a.m. each Thursday and has already made contact with several potential businesses.

Story provided by:  Enid News & Eagle