Tom Sullivan of the Princeton Partners marketing company in Forrestal Village is looking for companies to join the “Princeton Innovators Guild,” a new kind of collaborative workspace in which companies not only share a building but also devote some of their time to helping one another.
In some ways it is similar to a business incubator, but with a twist: it’s not just for startup companies, and the collaboration between companies there is formalized, rather than happenstance as it is at most incubators.
The scene of this not-quite-an-incubator is the 10,250-square-foot space that was once occupied entirely by Princeton Partners, but which got more and more roomy as the marketing firm has downsized over the years. “We’ve been in this space for seven years,” Sullivan says. “We re-upped our lease, and we have contiguous space right next to us.”
Currently two other companies share the space: SureTech, an IT consulting company, and Predict, a data analysis company. The three firms are also the founding members of the guild. Other small business owners interested in joining this arrangement can check it out at the Princeton Innovators Guild kickoff event, Thursday, June 29, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at 205 Rockingham Row in Princeton.
“Anybody who has a desire to disrupt something, change an existing business model, or who has a whole new twist to bringing insight to one industry from a completely different industry is an innovator, and we would like to work with them,” Sullivan says. “What we need is the ability and capacity to innovate in this changing environment.”
Sullivan hopes to fill the space with around 8 to 10 like-minded companies that have complementary talents. “The first thing we expect is an alignment of philosophies, and the devotion of some percentage of time to the common interest,” he says. For example, a company that has expertise in financial planning could spend a certain amount of time advising other guild members. “We expect all members of the community to come together on a regular basis to identify opportunities that we have in common. We feel we can gain value from each other,” Sullivan says.
Sullivan says the model would be similar to the Vistage network, in which high-powered CEOs advise one another. (Unlike Vistage it would not cost $10,000 a year to be a member.) Princeton Partners, SureTech, and Predict already collaborate extensively, with Sullivan and Predict CEO Jeff Marcus meeting once a week to advise each other. Together the two companies have jointly built a piece of software for cross-referencing clients between different businesses.
In a conventional incubator such relationships exist, but they are not formalized. One of the reasons for incubators existing is to allow leaders to bump into each other, share ideas, and work together. “What we intend to do is structure time for collaboration on business problems,” Sullivan says. Ideally, the mix of companies would include a healthcare technology firm, a financial technology company, a communications and marketing firm, and perhaps some support services like an accountant and a lawyer.
Sullivan imagines expanding this guild beyond the confines of Forrestal Village. “We want to build a community of like-minded entrepreneurs and innovators and open that up to the community at large. By doing that we could use the space we’ll have, including conference rooms and a presentation area, for monthly forums and thought leadership. We will begin to build other connections in the region.” Sullivan says Trenton could be the next place for another incubator-type building.
Branding his organization a “guild” is a throwback to the organizations created by medieval craftsmen, who joined together to control the markets for their services. But Sullivan’s idea is more similar in execution to modern-day artists’ guilds in New York and Trenton, where painters, sculptors, and others work in the same space and learn skills from one another.
The Innovators Guild is not Sullivan’s first attempt to re-imagine the incubator at Forrestal Village. In 2012 he founded the Princeton Innovation Garden together with investor Scott Sipprelle and hotelier Glenn Fratengelo. The Innovation Garden combined investment, incubating, and business development coaching for startup companies. (U.S. 1, September 26, 2012.)
Sullivan grew up in Bergen County, where his father worked for New York Telephone. “He was a community builder himself, in his own way,” Sullivan says. “What I learned from my dad is to be interested in other people … other people are fascinating. They give you a different perspective on the world.”
He went to St. Joseph’s College, married his high school sweetheart, and raised four children in Ewing and West Windsor. “My wife [Jan Sullivan] became a nurse and was head of labor and delivery in Mercer Medical Center at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in Hamilton before I begged her to come join me at Princeton Partners,” he says. Eventually her part-time job became full-time work. “She blames me for taking her out of nursing,” Sullivan says. Today she does HR for Princeton Partners.
Sullivan went into marketing in 1981 and joined Princeton Partners in 1989. In 2001 he bought the company. He has represented clients like AT&T and Phillips Lighting, as well as local clients like Peapack-Gladstone Bank. “We don’t advertise soap,” he says. “We market ideas and services.”