Monthly Archives: August 2013

Strength in Coopetition

This past Wednesday morning FAME participated in a breakfast sponsored by the The Business Council of Fairfield County at the Stepping Stones Museum for Children in Norwalk. The purpose of the meeting was to bring together for the first time all of the various business incubators and coworking spaces in Fairfield County to share experiences, relate best practices, and look for ways to collaborate.

SteppingStones082113

All told, there were 12 enterprises represented, each with its own way of doing things. On the one hand there was the Danbury Hackerpace adjacent to the Danbury Public Library and Comradity in Stamford, community-based efforts that seek to foster creative collaboration in a stimulating communal environment. At the other extreme was ColoDesk in Stamford, which specializes in tech startups and takes a direct financial and operational stake in the small stable of companies it sponsors. In between were various community projects (Norwalk 2.0), coworking spaces (The Hub, the B:Hive, Conclave Labs, and SoNo Spaces), and incubators (The Bridgeport Innovation Center and The Stamford Innovation Center). There was even another university-affiliated effort, The University of Bridgeport CTech IncUBator, which appears to operate primarily like a traditional on campus incubator to supplement faculty R&D projects.

As is common at such meetings, each participant was given a few minutes to introduce themselves and expound on the background and operating philosophy of their enterprises. No one was shy about sharing what they knew, with an hour passing by before the last people had their say.

The diversity of interests and potential for collaboration was striking, often making it hard to sit quietly and not play matchmaker with people who had only just been introduced. While one group specialized in creative design and promotion, another was devoted to technical innovation and research, with a third having access to funding sources needed for implementation. If we all just shared the load, it seemed like we could really make a difference.

But of course it doesn’t always work out that way. It was certainly not lost on any of us that our client companies would ultimately be competing with one another for press coverage, access to funding, technical resources, talent, etc. Thus to some degree there is a classic zero-sum game (Startup Poker, anyone?) playing out in our little corner of the Fairfield County business community. We are all startups and not everyone will be successful.

Unless … we could bring more opportunity for everyone by working together. If we could bring more money to the startup ecosystem, then everyone could get funded. If we could promote every company, then the entire region could become a celebrated business corridor with a cachet of its own. If we could refer potential client companies to one another based on fit and opportunity, then everyone could benefit accordingly.

In essence, what we need is an open market for startup services, where service providers both compete to provide the best service for their clients and cooperate to expand the market for everyone. It’s called coopetition, a strategy found in any industry with a shared infrastructure (transportation, energy, telecommunications, commercial banking, etc.) but not commonly found in the venture capital markets where so many startups find themselves.

Coopetition works but you’ve got to be smart about it. Now that we have been introduced to our peers, we plan to work with the others when we can, starting with Stage 1 of our open application process. If we find that we are not a good fit for a given company we will try to refer them to another service provider that may be a better fit. If one of our Stage 2 or Stage 3 clients needs a service that we can’t provide then if possible we will refer them to companies housed at one of our peers.

That sounds a lot like what FAME was founded to do in the first place.

Starting Up

Welcome to the new FAME blog, which will chronicle the hopefully long and accomplished history of the Fairfield University Accelerator & Mentoring Enterprise (FAME). This first post is a bit of pre-history of what motivated us to start FAME in the first place.

The Fairfield Store, Borders Books, etc.

FairfieldStore

While FAME may be in its infancy, with yet another month before we welcome our first client companies, the idea of having a business incubator here in downtown Fairfield has been discussed on and off for decades, at least since the Fairfield Store closed in 1996. For much its 75-year history, the Fairfield Store at 1499 Post Road was the anchor that brought people and business to downtown. Thus many people saw its departure as a major blow to the Fairfield business community. Others, of course, saw it also an opportunity, with many thousands of square feet of prime commercial real estate available to attract new and different businesses to town.

After a major redevelopment effort the Fairfield Store building was subdivided into multiple retail outlets and office space, with Borders Books as the anchor tenant. This then led to a decade of relative prosperity, bringing with it a variety of successful eateries, shops, and other businesses.

FairfieldUniversityBookstore

When Borders Books closed two years ago, Fairfield University stepped into the void, partnering with Kleban Properties (the property owner) and Follett Higher Education Group (the bookstore operator) to open the Fairfield University Bookstore in the former Borders location. While some people at the time were skeptical of the idea, the partnership has been good for both the town and the university, and everyone involved is proud of how well it has worked out.

The Founding of Fame

With that success behind them, the Town of Fairfield, Kleban Properties, and Fairfield University began in May to discuss how they could further their partnership and bring even more life to an already vibrant downtown. One idea that naturally came about was to start a business incubator that would benefit everyone in downtown Fairfield. The idea was to ‘raise the tide’ and elevate all the (metaphorical) boats.

FAME_Logo_Short

Thus FAME came into being in June, with each of the three partners making a unique and significant contribution. Fairfield University would provide access to its extensive alumni network and educational resources. Kleban Properties would provide 1300 square feet of state-of-the-art office space and day-to-day operational support. The Town of Fairfield would work with local business leaders and seek out potential grant opportunities.

FAME_Floorplan_SmallThe weeks and months since have been a blur, with each partner challenged to meet a very ambitious goal of starting up the enterprise before the end of Summer. Design and construction of the office space started almost immediately, after a frenzied survey of successful incubators and coworking spaces. Meanwhile, we collaborated on a variety of business decisions on everything from branding to funding models to the composition and role of FAME’s advisory board.

Today marks one month until we expect to officially open our doors, and there is still so much left to do. It seems that every day we hear from someone else who wants to get involved. Each one helps us build our team but also makes us think a little harder about what we want to do next. There are just so many good ideas that we can’t follow through on even a tiny fraction of them all.

Come to think of it, we are just like every other startup, with more than we can possibly do today but we still have to find a way to do it all anyway. And we could not be happier about that!