For students, small-business owners, or any other prospective entrepreneurs with an idea, the Lewis Economic Development Council’s third annual Smart Tank, a startup entrepreneurial workshop series presented in partnership with Centralia College, aims to help in honing their vision.
Smart Tank is a series of four workshops, a networking event and a pitch competition that tentatively runs from March to November. According to Executive Director of Lewis Economic Development Council Matt Matayoshi, the only prerequisite is an idea for a business.
“Some people are at different levels,” Matayoshi said. “Like, we went from college students, to someone that had started several businesses, that participated last year. So, we try and meet people where they are and help them grow from whether they’ve just got an idea or if they’re in business and help them scale that up. They’ll be able to learn.”
The first workshop on Friday covers the “10 Principles of a Thriving Startup” with Paul Thomas, who served as a serial CEO and President for various global start-up organizations for 25 years. He currently works as a professor at Northern Arizona University, is the CEO of the Northern Arizona Leadership Alliance and Director of the Northern Arizona Nonprofit Entrepreneurship Center, according to a release.
Matayoshi said the final pitch competition will also feature workshops, while the workshops themselves will pertain to helping participants with their final pitch. He added the event has previously hosted additional speakers, such as Kiersten Hathcock, who was featured on ABC’s Shark Tank, to discuss their businesses.
“It’s interesting, when you frame it in terms of a competition, then people push themselves pretty hard,” Matayoshi said.
The access to successful entrepreneurs is an important aspect of the series, according to Matayoshi.
“Part of it is exposing our community to people that have built companies and done successful things as an example,” Matayoshi said. “Inspiration for people to look to as they get going with their idea or company. It’s nice as a 20-year-old college student, for someone to meet a Paul Thomas, and, ‘oh, gosh, Paul did this,’ or ‘Paul did this startup.’”
The Centralia College Foundation partnered with the EDC to help with the event over the last two years. While Centralia College is tabbed as the main partner this year, Christine Fossett, Executive Director of the Centralia College Foundation, has been involved with the series in years past. She cited Cynthia Murray and her business 4legz All Natural Dog Treats as one of the existing companies that found success after the program.
According to the 4legz website, the company aims to “help deaf, hard of hearing, autistic and other various differently abled while making the best dog treats in the US,” because of Murray’s own dog with special dietary needs. Matayoshi called the 4legz backstory “compelling.”
“Several people had existing businesses that were really on the very startup edge,” Fossett said. “I spoke with them last year as far as how this has really helped them gain ground much more effectively and much more quickly.
She immediately recalled 4legz when recounting the discussions she’s had with previous participants.
“I think they’re still here, in Centralia, and doing really well,” she said.
Murray said she was referred to Smart Tank by her banker, adding the fresh perspective on her business was beneficial.
“You get so involved in your own company, that you need outside help as well to make your company grow bigger,” Murray said.
When Murray participated in Smart Tank, Matayoshi mentioned improvements to the 4legz website as one of the company’s biggest areas of need. She ultimately got assistance with the website from Smart Tank staff, as well as some guidance with what Matayoshi called “the process stuff,” which has helped with the expansion of 4legz.
“Now, we’ve hired more staff and now we’re looking at actually starting a second shift, because we’re growing so much that we can’t keep up with the orders” Murray said. “So, now, we’re going to have to start looking into doing a second shift just to be able to keep up with the orders. Getting more equipment, looking into a bagging machine that’s more efficient than what we’re doing, because right now, we do a lot of it by hand. We’re really excited.”
Participants bring their own unique ideas each year. Matayoshi admitted the number of entrepreneurs in Lewis County has been a pleasant surprise.
“There are a lot more entrepreneurs in Lewis County than we had anticipated,” Matayoshi said. “Which is a good thing, we’d like to see what this year has to offer. Every year is a little different, we’ve had jewelry, clothing, testing devices for trailers and cookies. The principles are the same.”
He added the ultimate goal is to empower entrepreneurs in Lewis County, “so they don’t have to go elsewhere to look for support and resources,” which, in turn, contributes to the growth of the county’s economy.
“I think one of the most interesting and exciting things is when you’re in the room for the competition and for the workshops,” Fossett said. “You have someone who has an idea and they’re telling, they’re laying out their idea to these other people which is already a very vulnerable thing to do, then they see the recognition on other people’s faces, that this really is a good idea.
“Receiving that validation that their idea wasn’t just some crazy scheme that they had, that it really has merit.”