Area growth spurs small businesses

In 2009 Bruce and Kathleen McMordie were considering building a facility for their business, Texas Swim Academy, but the project was daunting.

"We were at the point where we either needed to get bigger or smaller," Kathleen McMordie said. "We decided we really enjoyed what we were doing and wanted to expand our current business."

She had been giving infant aquatic safety lessons in their backyard swimming pool for five years. The next step was a big one—with a price tag of about $1.6 million.

But the McMordies did not just dive in blindly. Instead they spent three years working with several groups in the Katy area that offer workshops and small business counseling.

There are now a number of such resources for small businesses in the area, including a new incubator for start-ups opened in October called Technology Incubator West Houston, as well as existing programs, such as Service Corps Of Retired Executives (SCORE) and the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program at Houston Community College. All operate under the principle that raising the local economic tide through small businesses will raise all ships.

"This is a great area as far as having a lot of educational opportunities available at a nominal price," Kathleen McMordie said. "I think we used them all."

One key mentor for the McMordie's was Ron Consolino, a business counselor with SCORE, a nonprofit organization of volunteer advisors for small businesses.

"In a growing area like Katy, you need all types," Consolino said. "You just have to be at the right place at the right time."

In 2011, with a solid business plan in hand, they began construction of a 7,800-square-foot aquatics facility at 3514 Greenbusch Road that has been open since September 2012.

Timing and location

With scores of homes being built, there is a growing need for a variety of services—fence companies and swimming pool builders, dentists, auto repair shops and many other businesses that cater directly to residents, said Consolino.

Consolino consults with the owners of about 100 such businesses every year at the Katy Area Chamber of Commerce in his role with SCORE.

In general, there are more business start-ups now than there were four or five years ago, he said. Many of them are standard businesses but are serving areas that are just opening up.

"It's prime time for people who want to get into small business," said Doyle Callender, vice president at Amegy Bank in Katy and former mayor of Katy from 2001–07.

Callender attributes some of the activity to the perception that the economy has improved. People are more willing to spend their money and take risks, he said.

Still, many entrepreneurs seem more careful than they once were, Callender said. The McMordies are indicative of this attitude, having taken their time to research and plan before making a large investment.

"Everybody is more cautious, with the national news they are hearing," Callender said. "They come in more educated and asking more questions."

Getting started

One new resource geared to helping out very early stage businesses is the Technology Incubator West Houston, which formally opened Oct. 1. The organization, based in the Brazos Valley Schools Credit Union building, adjacent to the Katy Area Economic Development Council, provides consulting and even some office space.

"New businesses usually need a constellation of help," said Jeffrey Linder, business advisor with the University of Houston Small Business Development Center in Fort Bend County.

Linder, who is on the TIWH board of advisors, said that not every start-up company will need close-proximity help, but most businesses need some guidance in building a realistic business plan.

After an initial review fee of $250, the incubator charges $150 per month for consulting. The board, which the group hopes to continue to expand, is comprised of experts in business law, venture capital, insurance and a variety of other facets relevant to starting up a business.

TIWH also offers about 2,000 square feet for rent to start-ups in an attempt to help them defray overhead costs. Each of seven cubicles is available for $450 per month.

The group, which is a branch of the nonprofit Katy Technology and Education Foundation, hopes to attract businesses that are not yet able to qualify for support services through programs like Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses, said TIWH's interim executive director and CPA Art Beatty, who is also an instructor with that program.

The advisors at TIWH hope to be able to intervene in such cases with their clients, said Frank Lombard, KAEDC vice president.

"One of the most valuable services they can provide is keeping businesses that are not ready from launching," he said.

Many entrepreneurs in the early stages do not have access to outside investors, he said, which causes them to overextend the resources of their family and friends. Efforts like TIWH not only help counsel but can connect start-ups to capital—including so called "angel investors."

Cathy Landry, executive director of Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business Initiative at HCC, said that program, in operation since 2011, is not trying to discourage applicants by their selection process. It is geared, however, toward businesses that have operated for two years and are poised for growth.

"This program is for the in-betweens," she said. "Maybe the business has plateaued and we are able to connect them with the opportunity that is out there."

Building a network of fellow business owners is one key function of the Goldman Sachs program.

"Often people come in and say, 'Wow, other people feel the same way I do; other people have the same struggles that I have,'" Landry said.



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