Starting and growing a business is not for the faint of heart.
The federal Small Business Administration (SBA) reports that about two-thirds of new businesses survive two years, and about half survive for five years. Survival rates tend to stabilize after this volatile period of time.
As the ICELab on the campus of Western Colorado University is about to finish up its third local business accelerator, companies from the earlier cohorts are still working to gain the footing they desire — and are experiencing varying degrees of success. Yet, all agree that the experience they gained in the ICELab program has given them what they need to continue to plug away toward success.
The 12-week program has one goal in mind — to match the starry-eyed enthusiasm of entrepreneurs with the realism of seasoned professionals from around the country. The aim is to bridge the experience gap and subject the new concept to rigorous scrutiny before someone’s life savings is lost.
Perhaps one of the most successful businesses to participate is First Ascent Coffee. Owners Mark and Ali Drucker began in a coffee shop on the west end of Elk Avenue in Crested Butte. They participated in the first accelerator and pitched their idea to investors at “Trout Tank Uno.”
The Druckers went on to launch their own freeze-dried instant coffee offered in stores throughout Colorado. Their company also was named as one of the 13 finalists for Something Independent’s Wright Award. The award, offered since 2011, honors outdoor businesses and products.
Problem-solving part of the process
Wheelies and Waves owners Braden and Courtney Burton are still forging ahead with their newly branded company. The accelerator helped the Burtons transform their enterprise — formerly known as CB SUP, a stand-up paddle board company — to be more recognizable.
“We knew we had pigeon-holed ourselves as CB SUP, but we wanted to be this all-encompassing adventure company in the valley,” said Braden Burton. “They helped us navigate that process.”
Burton expressed excitement about a new location for his company — on Elk Avenue in Crested Butte. The Burtons admit the rebrand was a huge undertaking, and they face challenges from new growth. But they want to create sustainability in the business for both staff and themselves.
“They helped us learn that when you have a problem, just take massive action and figure it out,” said Burton. “That’s what we did.”
The Burtons are getting ready for a big summer, with an abundance of water — something they hope attracts throngs of outdoor adventurers.
Vermont Sticky owner Krista Powers said she has seen a 60 percent growth in her company’s revenue since last year. The company harvests sap from Vermont trees and makes maple syrup which also can be used as a natural sugar substitute.
Powers has focused her product marketing in Colorado — it’s sold in Gunnison, Crested Butte, Carbondale, Hotchkiss, Montrose and Paonia. The greatest gift she received was the confidence in running a business, and learning how to expand her company’s market.
Currently, Powers is exploring the possibility of producing a sports hydration drink using maple sugars. She said one addition to the accelerator that she would make is to add food industry-specific mentors.
Still, she said she has a good idea of how she wants to grow her company.
“I have a path forward,” Powers said. “I wouldn’t say it is clear, because I’m going into unknown territory. … I’m having a wonderful time learning everyday.”
Success not always in the cards
Other companies are testing beta products, receiving rounds of investments and selling their operations to larger companies. Yet, not every accelerator experience ends in landing a big investor, receiving a business award or increasing sales.
One aspect which is discussed in the accelerator his having an exit plan, or making adjustments to the business model.
Paonia-based Get Savvy was a company offering a program designed to help college students and trained advisors connect through a specific app. ICELab Director of Programming Dan Marshall shared the concept was abandoned because partners have gone in different directions.
However, owner Merrily Talbott is now free to focus on a new company called Placebos — “mints you can believe in.” The mints act like placebos to “treat” issues, such as procrastination, perfectionism and self-doubt.
“She’s now in 40 stores,” said Marshall. “She’s really gained traction on that. It was more of a secondary product when she went through our program but it’s actually evolved.”
However, Rachel Alter — who was hoping to create a shared commercial kitchen space to boost the community’s access to quality, local food — has ended her quest for the business. Marshall said Alter was unable to find a suitable location to house the commercial kitchen.
Marshall said the ICELab continues to monitor the progress of the businesses and provide support through networking or answering questions about distribution.
Four businesses will be presenting their companies in the latest pitch session — Trout Tank Tres. It will be held at Crested Butte Center for the Arts on Wednesday, June 19.
(Chris Rourke can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
TROUT TANK TRES
Wednesday, June 19 at 5:30 p.m.
Crested Butte Center for the Arts
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