CHANDLER – Trying to establish his marketing firm, Forty Design Agency, James Archer has worked out of his mother-in-law’s dining room, a spare bedroom and a garage.
But for five years now, he and several employees have worked rent-free, surrounded by other entrepreneurs and mentors brought in by the small-business incubator Gangplank.
And it’s made all the difference, said Archer, Forty Design Agency’s CEO.
“It just gave us a great opportunity to learn about small businesses at an accelerated rate,” he said. “Most people who run small businesses learn that stuff on their own. Here, we’re surrounded by business owners.”
Established in 2007 by Jade Meskill and Derek Neighbors, owners of the consulting firm Integrum, Gangplank’s philosophy was inspired by their own struggles connecting with like-minded innovators.
“That’s where the magic is, is getting these disparate ideas and concepts and occupations and mixing them together,” Meskill said.
In Chandler, Tucson, and Avondale, Gangplank offers individuals and small businesses free workspace, Internet, meeting rooms and other resources.
The incubators in Chandler and Avondale have professional services agreements with the cities. As part of the deal, Gangplank must meet numerous requirements, such as providing free services and hosting events and helping advertise a city’s businesses.
In exchange, the cities provide Gangplank with annual stipends to cover operating costs, including things such as electricity and Internet.
Prior to its 2010 partnership with Chandler, Gangplank’s space was located in an industrial building, where Meskill and Neighbors first offered unused office space to Forty Design Agency.
Gangplank purchased its current building, in converted downtown retail space, using a city facade grant.
Gangplank Chandler has helped cities and leaders recognize the value of small businesses when it comes to launching Arizona into the next economy, said Christine Mackay, Chandler’s economic development director.
“I can’t even begin to imagine where Chandler would be today if we hadn’t created that relationship,” Mackay said. “It’s so intricately woven into the fabric that’s become Chandler over the last four years.”
In Avondale, Gangplank uses a city-owned building, said Sammi Currless, economic development specialist for the city.
Avondale has budgeted as much as $60,000 annually for its Gangplank facility, which launched in March, Currless said, and is leaning on the incubator to act as the city’s small-business development group.
“People don’t associate the West Valley with high tech and programming, but we do have folks here,” Currless said. “It’s just that before Gangplank they didn’t have a place. They were at Starbucks or our libraries.”
The building for Gangplank Tucson was donated by Bookmans, a bookstore with six locations throughout Arizona, said Aaron Eden, director of Gangplank Tucson.
And though it has less cash to spare, Eden described Gangplank Tucson as a catalyst for the community.
“By creating some of this momentum we’re able to attract more venture capitalists and investment groups,” Eden said, adding that this encourages entrepreneurs to stay in Arizona.
Sidnee Peck, director of entrepreneurial initiatives at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business, said incubators such as Gangplank encourage students with ideas for businesses to stay in Arizona.
“It’s most certainly fostering entrepreneurship within the Valley,” Peck said. “Because we’re shifting from becoming a less physical good-focused globe to an online-based globe, it’s absolutely crucial that Phoenix keeps up in the tech-base, startup world.”
Gangplank is now focused on expanding beyond Arizona, Meskill said, noting that it already has operations in Henrico, Va., and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
“I think the mistake is to try to emulate what Silicon Valley is because we’ll never be Silicon Valley,” Meskill said. “We have a different culture, we value different things. We should embrace that for what it is.”
Next year, Forty Design Agency will become the first company to graduate from Gangplank’s Chandler workspace.
“We have been very successful. We’re hesitant to move,” Archer said. “But we’re just at a stage where it’s probably time for us to move in order for us to progress as a company.”