Investment, Innovation: How Small Is Too Small?

InnovateLIVE

The micropolitan of Staunton, Virginia asked something audacious recently: “what is innovation at the intersection of very small cities and entrepreneurship”?

What I learned applies to many people interested in, or actively involved, in the local investingĀ movement.

InnovateLIVE (Local Innovators, Visionaries, and Entrepreneurs) was loosely structured around central a startup pitch night. Here, a group of hopefuls competing for local startup funds made the case for their projects moving forward. The funding was a grant through the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, and awards will be announced in late May. The Traipse app was voted the crowd favorite.

From that hub sprang numerous other formal and informal conversations hosted around the city. Some asked:

  • What happens when technology entrepreneurship meets place?
  • How can we improve investment and capital access at the local level?
  • What new opportunities exist for Main Street entrepreneurs?
  • How can we educate people so we can create a more robust entrepreneurial community?
  • What can we learn from people already forging paths?

As a Main Street entrepreneur I spoke at two panels and attended two more. Here’s what I learned.

Doing Good while Doing Well: Social Entrepreneurs Building a Local, Sustainable Economy

This talk was lead by Rick Johnston of Richmond’s ImpactMakers!, a digital consultancy group. ImpactMakers! differentiates itself in the market in part because it is a B Corp. B Corps have a triple-bottom-line charter. Unlike a non-profit, B Corps are for-profit entities. Johnston explained more about the power of B Corps, a relatively new corporate form.

Unlike more traditional business charters a B Corp’s corporate charter include a requirement that all net profits are donated to charities. (“B Corp is to business what Fair Trade certification is to coffee or USDA Organic certification is to milk,” is a simplified explanation.)

It works like this: after all business expenses are paid a B Corp’s revenue is distributed to charitable causes. ImpactMakers! is a great example. After profits the company recently surpassed their goal of $1M invested back into the Richmond community.

Key learning:

  • All businesses can benefit from the short-form, Quick Impact Assessment tools available at B-Labs. It is confidential. (20 minutes; Free)
  • Optionally, traditionally structured business entities (inc., llc, s-corp, etc.) can do a more in-depth review and become “B Certified”. Benefits of “B Certified” are two-fold: you can quickly benchmark your contribution against others and use B Certification to back up “green” marketing claims. (90 minutes; fee.)
  • You don’t need to change your corporate structure to write “triple bottom line” giving into your charter. B Corps must.
  • In contrast to non-profit structure, B Corp retains for-profit status. The annual review of social and environmental measurements against peers in your industry. B Corp structure allows your business to directly contribute to charitable causes while pursing profit.

 

The answer to the question “what is too small to be innovative”: no such thing! Johnston explained that it is even possible to form a one-person B Corp.

This discussion also featured local entrepreneurs Eric Walter of Black Bear Composting, and my friend Corrie Park of Made; By the People, for the People, an American-made general store featuring clothing and crafts. Neither of these businesses are B Corps, but, sustainability and social good are a focus.

(Fashion-worthy side note: I wore my “No Rules Crowd” tee-shirt purchased at Made, for two reasons. First, it is a trackable “dirt-to-shirt,” made of American grown, organic cotton and locally designed. Secondly, the slogan is a geographically-specific inside joke — demonstrating the intersections of American commerce, entrepreneurship, and placemaking all in one soft shirt.)

Next, I joined a conversation hosted at the offices of our local microlender, the Staunton Creative Community Fund.

Funding the New Economy: Putting Our Investments to Work on Main Street

Invest-Local-Logo-RECTANGLE-RGB-300x160Local investment is the heart of Locavesting, and, the three people kicked off the discussion.

Hannah Vargason visited from the Natural Capital Investment Fund (NCIF), a private equity and venture capital investment firm serving nine states in the Mid-Atlantic region. NCIF is a part of the Conservation Fund and “supports market-based solutions that bridge the gap between the economy and the environment.” Hannah discussed the role of the phrase “social entrepreneurship” to describe the role and benefit of many locally-based businesses.

Key takeaway: The U.S. Treasury has funds marked for approved CDFIs (Community Development Financial Institution) that lend to organizations like NCIF, and then lend to you. Look for approved CDFIs in your region, including NCIF.

Brent Cochran spoke about Community Sourced Capital (CSC), a crowdfunding platform for business loans. Brent talked about the advantages of combining crowdsourced funds with traditional financing options. He also discussed how CSC differs from better known Kickstarter and IndieGoGo.

Key takeaway: One way to directly invest in your community is to use a crowdfunding platform like CSC. You are repaid balance and interest, and, you can choose to roll your earning back into new projects. “Small” here is just $50.

Jim Rutt talked about local efforts to start and maintain an investor’s club. The group’s site, invest-local.org, offers a comprehensive Investor’s Toolkit, a suitable primer for any community. The toolkit provides an overview of local investing options here and across the country. The site also features the stories of local investment club members, such as Marion.

Key takeway: Many smaller communities would greatly benefit from an investor club, especially if that club has a particular focus (Rutt spoke of investing preference for tech and agriculture industries, for example). Yet, attracting talent to an area also depends on place-based businesses, who themselves can be innovative.

What is “too small” to be innovative when it comes to investing locally? Not a single thing. Every contribution matters.

 

 

Katie McCaskey is co-owner of George Bowers Grocery in Staunton, Virginia. She shares micro-business money lessons in her book, Per-Money: Permaculture Principles for Indie Biz Growth.