MOUNT PLEASANT - Beginning next month, eight small groups working on ideas as diverse as high-tech toys that talk to kids through computer tablets to building a new and improved shoulder brace will begin gathering at Town Hall for a 14-week crash course they hope will help them strike it rich.
Harbor Accelerator's 14-Week course
Week 1: Who is your customer?
Week 2: Sell something to someone.
Week 3: Map out what Customer Development looks like.
Week 4: Dive into the Data - what is important for you to be tracking?
Week 5: The Team - what skill sets are needed on your team?
Week 6: From the customer's perspective
Week 7: How are you different from the competition?
Week 8: How do you tell your story?
Week 9: Pricing
Week 10: Go sell some more.
Week 11: Build a pipeline.
Week 12: Create your financial and operational plan.
Week 13: Understand raising capital.
Week 14: Tighten up the plan and go!
Dubbed the "Harbor Accelerator," the partnership between a nonprofit and town government aims to help entrepreneurs - in the words on its business cards - "stop writing a plan and start executing a business."
Harbor Accelerator mentors
Patrick Bryant, co-founder, lead mentor
Eric Bowman, founder, Sparc
Brad Ball, founder, Social Wine Bar
Adam Bernholz, founder and CEO, GreenWizard
Jim Bozard, founder, Coastal Corrugated
Dave Brown, founder, Cigar Row
Willis Cantey, founder, Cantey Technology
Cary Chastain, owner, Moe's Southwest Grill
Bobby Collins, partner, PURE
Tom Demuth, founder, IDEA LLC
Kevin Eichelberger, founder and CEO, Blue Acorn
Grady Johnson, president, S.C. Biz News
Jim Kindley, director, College of Charleston MBA Program
Gene King, partner, WRSequence
Noah Leask, co-founder and CEO, ISHPI
Robert New, founder, Charleston Port Services
Christine Osborne, founder, Wonder Works
Steve Parker Jr., partner, Levelwing
Mark Richards, founder, PolyClean USA
Geoff Shuler, retired Boeing executive
Mitch Smith, founder, Root Loud
Chad Walldorf, founder, Sticky Fingers
Tom Wilson, founder, Jack Russell Software
Adam Witty, founder, Advantage Media Group
It's the brainchild of John Osborne and Patrick Bryant, two entrepreneurs who co-founded the nonprofit and have spent the past 75 days launching it on a shoestring budget.
The idea began to form after several Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce members traveled last year to Nashville, Tenn., where a similar accelerator takes up about 20,000 square feet of space and helps launch about 60 businesses a year.
Osborne, who also runs the business Funding Charleston, and Bryant, who has started several businesses here, said they hope to create a similar success story in the Lowcountry.
"The beauty of being an entrepreneur is we don't always know what success will look like at the end," Bryant said, "but our current goal is to take those eight start-ups and put a lot of resources on them.
"If I had to define a master goal of the Harbor, it is clearly to create a collision among entrepreneurs in Charleston and those who support them," he said. "If we create collision, then the rest will happen. Success will be there."
Filling a void
When Osborne and Bryant started their businesses in the Charleston area, they did not experience the level of support they hope to provide for the next wave.
While their Harbor Accelerator is loosely based on a similar program in Nashville, Osborne and Bryant also visited San Antonio; Richmond, Va.; and Raleigh as they were putting together their plan. They were drawn to the idea as a way to give back.
"We're entrepreneurs ourselves," Osborne said. "Patrick and I have plenty to do. We didn't need a hobby."
The nonprofit has been backed mostly by volunteer help and in-kind donations.
Here's how it will work: Each of the eight businesses will be teamed up with three mentors, with whom they will meet once a week for an hour. "That's powerful," Osborne said, adding that the idea is to pack about 18 months worth of learning into 14 weeks.
The project received 31 physical applications - and about 80 more online, including submissions from a start-up company in Colombia, South America.
It has selected a team working on new technology for shoulder braces, while another will allow a venue to receive images, sort them and display them on a main video monitor - an idea Bryant calls "Instagram meets Jumbotron."
There is also a science-technology-engineering and math toy and a software platform for teachers that would let them give the same exam to students in different ways, so that "C" might be the correct answer for Question No. 5 on one test while "A" is correct on another.
Osborne said the final few will be chosen by Dec. 15, though it's not too late for other businesses to apply, if they're ready to launch.
"We do not want a concept," he added. "We do not want to chat about an app that might be cool."
Once selected, the teams are expected to move in to their new cubicle at Town Hall and start the program, which will finish up by April 10.
Bryant and Osborne met with mentors during a reception last week, and Bryant urged them to urge the businesses to embrace risk, adding there will be other specialty experts involved to provide guidance on marketing, the law and accounting.
"We'll let lawyers talk about mitigating risks - that's not our job," Bryant told the mentors. "Here's what we want you to do: Teach them how to be fearless."
The town gets on board
When the Great Recession began, Mount Pleasant Town Council tried to revive its economy by forming its first business incubator program in 2009. The town has sought to diversify its economy and change its reputation as a bedroom community.
Dubbed Biz Inc., the program was given about 2,500 square feet inside part of the town hall complex - the newer building at Ann Edwards and Houston Northcutt. It aimed to help new businesses in a creative cluster, such as culinary arts, landscape architecture and interior design, but the town began to wind it down last year.
"The occupants of the space never quite got scalable, never located to the community," said Councilman Chris O'Neal, chair of council's Economic Development Committee. "We never had the growth that was hoped for."
The Harbor Accelerator is different for two reasons: The town isn't running it but instead is contracting with a nonprofit. Also, the point isn't to provide office space to start-ups as much as to give them an intensive four-month course to get them up and going.
O'Neal called the Harbor Accelerator's 24 mentors "a who's who of folks who have been there, done that in Charleston."
Across the Cooper River, the city of Charleston has run its Digital Corridor and Flagship incubator, which cater to emerging high-tech and digital companies.
Mount Pleasant's Harbor Accelerator is open to all types of businesses, though Osborne said it may favor ideas that align with the Lowcountry's existing economic engines, such as aerospace, tourism, food and health care. What's important is that any idea can be scaled up quickly.
"We're right up front that we want the next Blackbaud or Benefitfocus to come out of this building," he said.
It's difficult to say exactly how much the town is subsidizing the nonprofit, but Town Administrator Eric DeMoura said it has a one-year agreement to provide office space and utilities for $1 a year.
"We don't have a use for that space right now, so it's not like we've incurred a tremendous cost," he said. "If even one business is successful and relocates here - and we hope they all are - they will pay property taxes, offer jobs and other opportunities. That's worth something. It's worth more than what we're providing them here."
Bryant said the town's space is perfect because it's accessible 24 hours a day, has several restaurants within easy walking distance and has plenty of parking.
Town Councilman Chris Nickels noted this town has had mixed results with incubator projects so far, and town officials hope this will be different.
"If it doesn't work this time," he said, "I think we're about done with these things."
Town Councilman Elton Carrier, a retired banker, said the sticking point for emerging entrepreneurs is getting their first loan. "Most companies can't get a bank loan initially to get going," he added. "It's just critical."
Osborne said he has reached out to venture capitalists in New York and Chicago to keep them updated about the project.
At the Nashville Entrepreneur Center, about 65 percent of the companies received an average of $800,000 for the first round of funding, Osborne said. That capital can help them rent real estate, hire people, pay for services, "and that's after just a 14-week process."
O'Neal said even if the Harbor Accelerator is only able to replicate 10 percent of Nashville's success, it will be worthwhile. Carrier agreed with the idea's merit, adding, "I just wish we could find some more space over here."
The Harbor Accelerator is expected to launch a similar 14-week program in the fall of 2014, and there could be more after that.
DeMoura said it eventually might have to relocate when the town needs that space as it builds a new Town Hall nearby. "I would hate to see a location problem damage the progress that's being made," he said.
Bryant said discussions already have begun about how the Harbor Accelerator might evolve in 2015.
Meanwhile, town officials, mentors and others will wait to see what the entrepreneurs can come up with early next year.
"The story's not written here yet. I think that's important to know," O'Neal said. "While we're excited about this . we don't know what the story is going to be. On some level, it's a leap of faith for this council that I think will be borne out."
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.