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Homegrown startup class blooms in western Wyo

Homegrown startup class blooms in western Wyo

Two years ago, Jennifer Anderson commuted an hour from Etna to Jackson for her job doing code enforcement for Teton County. 

“I had to deal with the people who did things wrong on their properties,” she said. “I was the mean guy of the county, and I wasn’t happy in my job.” 

In 2016, she’d finally had enough of the tough job and the long commute, and she wanted to be closer to her young child. 

“I needed to make a change,” she said. “I had an idea and I went for it. 

She enrolled in Etna’s free JumpStart program for entrepreneurs and spent every Wednesday evening for eight weeks at the Etna Community Center – partially funded by a 2010 Wyoming Business Council grant – writing a business plan, doing market research and learning about customer service, accounting and business development from local business owners and fellow entrepreneurs.   

A former hobby artist, Anderson envisioned a brick-and-mortar children’s museum and after-school art program in Etna. 

“But JumpStart forced me to come up with a business plan and hard numbers, and the numbers weren’t exactly coming together,” she said. “I kept hearing ‘start small’ from the instructors, so I changed my plan to a mobile art studio that moves around from town to town for classes throughout Star Valley. That way, I could meet more of my market where they are. Then, the numbers started to make sense.”

At the end of the eight weeks, Anderson won JumpStart’s pitch contest and earned some seed money to get her idea off the ground. 

“Giving that presentation convinced my family – my husband, in particular – that this idea could work, and they supported me 100 percent,” she said. “And really, I convinced myself. I don’t know that I would have had the confidence to start my business without the JumpStart program.” 

JumpStart is the brainchild of Ken Schaible and Ty Green, both entrepreneurs who found themselves on the advisory board of the Etna Community Center in 2012. The board was responsible for the activities happening at the Center, and the two worked together to create JumpStart to support entrepreneurs and new ideas in Etna. “We reached out to Elaina Zempel, the regional director for the Business Council, as well as a handful of business leaders in Star Valley to create this education program we hoped would give people a leg up when it came to actually running or starting their own business.” Schaible said.

The program began in 2013 with classes on topics that every business owner should know, such as marketing, accounting, sales, customer service, writing a business plan, building a business and having an exit plan, he said. It has continued every year since. 

The classes are free to attend and taught by volunteer instructors from the community. Some participants come to just one or two of the classes that interest them. Others come to every session. Classes have averaged about 20 per class, Schaible estimated. Most come from nearby, but they’ve had a few come from as far away as Afton and a ranch north of Hoback nearly an hour’s drive away. 

Anyone that comes to all eight classes can participate in the pitch contest at the end of the eight weeks for a chance to win grant money. About 25 have competed in Etna over the years.

Two years ago, Green – Schaible’s JumpStart cofounder – moved from Etna to Pinedale and immediately set to work standing up the JumpStart program there. 

“I reached out to business owners, told them about the concept and asked if they’d like to be involved,” Green said. “No one told me ‘no.’ They all offered to help without hesitation.” 

The JumpStart Pinedale program just wrapped up its second year, with an average of about eight to 12 participants per class and seven total pitch competitors. 

“It’s a little too soon to see the impact it’s having on Pinedale as a whole, but people seem to love it,” Green said. “When a small business does well in a community, no matter what it is, I think everybody benefits. And small towns don’t take new businesses for granted. People look forward to new services or offerings in a small town, and they try to support them.” 

Word continues to spread about the success of JumpStart. Officials in the City of Evanston reached out to Zempel last year when they sought to improve the support network for entrepreneurs in their town. 

“Elaina (Zempel) did a really good job of connecting us with a program that would fit Evanston,” said Rocco O’Neill, the city’s director of community development.

While other communities may be able to jump right into a startup weekend or something similar, the eight-week program works well for communities without an existing, strong entrepreneurial foundation, O’Neill explained. Plus, it’s all run with volunteers. 

“We’re not set up with a community college or university here in Evanston, so we don’t have that existing group of entrepreneurs or startups. We needed to build that network from the ground up,” he said.  

JumpStart Evanston just wrapped up its third session with about 35 participants attending each session so far. O’Neill expects about 10 will attend all the sessions and end up competing in the pitch contest.

Green encourages any community that wants to replicate JumpStart to reach out to himSchaible or ZempelThey will send the program template and offer guidance to anyone that asks, he said. 

“It’s really easy to get the program going,” he said. “The hardest part is marketing it to as many people as possible to fill the classes up. But it’s a free course that offers the opportunity to get information and resources, and even earn some seed money in the end, and that’s huge.” 

For Anderson and her mobile art studio, JumpStart provided the foundation she needed for a whole new career that – besides making her much happier – brings a new service and adds to the economic portfolio of Star Valley. 

“The JumpStart program helped me understand and prepare for the initial growth phase where I probably won’t break even for a few years,” she said. “But I’m headed in the right direction, and I’m an artist again. My heart is happy.”

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