In the beginning entrepreneurs often turn to friends and family for money to help get a business off the ground. Between his or her own finances, checks from family, and maybe a bank loan, an entrepreneur might raise $100,000 to start a new venture.
The alternative route is to apply for angel funding. Venture capitalists are always on the hunt for promising ideas that can turn their investments into a return many times over, and they often invest generously — as in several million dollars.
The trouble is that a lot of promising enterprises will take more than $100,000 to get off the ground, but are not yet worth the size of the investments venture capitalists would typically like to commit. So there is this new-business no-man’s land that can swallow great ideas and promising companies whole.
One of the solutions new companies often take to help stretch their dollars is the business incubator, which typically is a low-rent starter space that allows companies to develop without too much overhead, and often amid similar companies that can offer support and insight.
And while these spaces are valuable, Tom Sullivan, CEO of the marketing firm Princeton Partners, believes they ultimately offer limited returns. Yes, the rent is cheaper, and yes, companies have proximity and access to colleagues who can offer some guidance, but often, Sullivan says, that guidance is coming from other companies that are trying to figure things out themselves.
Hence the birth of Innovation Garden, an amalgam of investor, incubator, and business development coach founded by Sullivan, Scott Sipprelle, the private investor and former congressional candidate (U.S. 1, September 8, 2010), and Glenn Fratangelo, a 10-year veteran of the hospitality industry.
Launched in January, Innovation Garden (IGA) is based out of Princeton Partners’ Forrestal Village headquarters. It aims to support “promising entrepreneurs who are leveraging technology, digital, and/or social platforms to create new value by disrupting existing markets or creating new ones,” according to the IGA website.
At the moment, IGA sponsors one company, Wasabi 3D, a marketing agency specializing in interactive 3-D art installations that is run by Sullivan’s son, Chris (see sidebar). Sullivan says IGA has been approached by more than 100 prospective clients and is in talks with several. Two in particular strike IGA as viable projects, but Sullivan cannot discuss who they are yet.
The idea for IGA, which has been brewing in Sullivan’s head for close to 10 years, is to take the concept of a business incubator into unchartered territory, and to be what Sullivan calls “the gap between $100,000 and $10 million.” IGA expects to provide funding in the range of $125,000 to $250,000, typically, and it will offer something incubators do not — expertise from established businesspeople.
New businesses, Sullivan says, get a lot of encouragement and support but little experienced guidance. Entrepreneurs are often left to learn the ropes through costly trial and error. It is one of the central aspects of IGA that any business it sponsors will be brought in-house for two years or so, and while there be given the benefit of the experience of IGA’s founders and business partners.
IGA is meant to be collaborative at all levels. It is not simply a funder and incubator, Sullivan says. It is a more holistic business partnership that takes the experiences of Sullivan, Sipprelle, and Fratangelo, IGA’s COO, and combines them with outside business partners who can advise sponsored companies on budgeting, branding, strategy, and whatever else is needed. Too often, Sullivan says, companies are given funds but have no way of knowing how to use them.
It often plays out like this: A company makes up a business plan that predicts a certain amount of growth and development. It factors in all the people needed to turn an idea into a viable company and figures projected returns. Then the investor hands over a check and the company now has to get down to work, only to find it is spending a lot more time and money than it has to on the day-to-day.
One of the biggest and most frequent mistakes Sullivan sees aspiring companies make is factoring in too many people. They plan for a big infrastructure — from receptionists to CFOs — when the business isn’t even off the ground. “Businesses need to get their products, services, and solutions right,” Sullivan says.
In other words, new businesses expend an awful lot of energy dealing with business management issues when they should be focusing on building the products or services they want to market. And the problem isn’t just the money spent on salaries that are not yet needed, Sullivan says. It’s also that one mistake in hiring, amid all those new people a company brings in, can throw a fledgling enterprise into a tailspin. “Suddenly companies get very conservative,” he says. “They stop taking risks.”
So few investors want to get their hands dirty by getting involved in the businesses they invest in, Sullivan says. And this strikes him as odd, since it would be in the investor’s best interest to see a new company do well on all fronts. “We’re broadening the idea [of an incubator] by bringing in hands-on people,” he says. “For instance, every company needs smart, innovative marketing, and Princeton Partners can offer that because we do that.”
Akin to marketing, Sullivan often sees companies have the most trouble with their branding messages. There are scads of companies out there in any given field, and standing out among them has always been a major blockade. Today, with the digital and social media environments bombarding us with ever-changing messages and a consistent barrage of new information, standing out takes more than just a new approach, Sullivan says. It takes a deep knowledge of what message a company is trying to put out about itself.
Here’s a hint: Your branding message should not be that you’re “the best there is.” It should reflect your key differentiator in your market. What Princeton Partners can bring to companies sponsored by IGA is how to find and exploit that differentiator; and what IGA’s other business partners can bring is a set of solutions to common business issues (such as accounting and legal matters) so that portfolio companies can stay focused on the work they’re trying to build, Sullivan says.
IGA is looking beyond New Jersey for portfolio companies. It is in talks now with a company that has a partner in California, Sullivan says. But one of the key factors for becoming an IGA company is that it must be based within IGA’s (read: Princeton Partners’) office space. This way, Sullivan says, the partners will be able to stay with the companies at all times.
This is part of the Accelerator Program (IGAP), the structured advisory program that provides strategic business development, operations management, brand marketing, and digital marketing services to help scale promising companies to the next level.
There also is IGA Smart Space, which is shared space where entrepreneurs can operate their companies amid other companies. The goal here is to have companies that create an ecosystem of support for each other and can help each other grow. Finally, there is IGA Labs, which Sullivan says is a very-early-stage development concept where good ideas can be developed into actual companies.
The ultimate goal is to get companies independent in two to three years. At that time, they will exit the IGA space and be self-sustaining. That is not, however, to imply, that IGA expects any company to be flush enough after just two years to repay IGA’s investment.
Angel and VC investors usually expect a company to take five to seven years to be fully on its feet, and IGA is no different. It just expects that with its help, both in the “gap” funding range of $125,000 to $250,000 and through its hands-on help, companies will be able to move out of the nest sooner than later.
IGA is ultimately looking for about 20 companies to sponsor, and Sullivan’s vision for several years from now is to have a campus building that will house IGA, Princeton Partners, and all portfolio companies. The idea, like an incubator, is to put companies in with collaborators so that ideas can grow. There will just be the added bonus of IGA’s resources, which Sullivan likes to say will “make a quarter million dollars look like a million.”
Sullivan has spent a career trying to turn ideas into bigger and better ideas. A graduate of Trenton State College (now the College of New Jersey), Sullivan earned his bachelor’s in business and public administration in 1980. His father spent a career in operations management and strategic planning at NY Bell Telephone and then AT&T and BellCore. “We never worked together but he was my mentor and best friend,” Sullivan says.
Sullivan spent his first five years as an account executive at Weightman Advertising before spending two years as a group team leader and account supervisor at MRM Gillespie.
In 1989 he joined Princeton Partners as an executive vice president specializing in business-to-business, consumer services, and healthcare. In 2001 he bought the company and became its CEO.
As a baseball fan, Sullivan splits his allegiance between the Yankees (he grew up in Bergen County and used to go to games with his father a lot) and the Phillies (because his job at Weightman was in Philadelphia).
He had always dreamed of going to a World Series game and was finally rewarded with a Game 5 seat in 2009 — the year the Yankees and Phillies played. His Phillies lost, but he at least got to shake the hand of a hero of his, Rudy Giuliani, and got to sit behind home plate for a while after the occupants left early.
Sullivan’s interest in the Phillies stretches to his son’s work with the team. Wasabi 3D got a lot of attention for a ground installation image of Citizen Bank Park last season. And his love of baseball shines through in how he describes his vision for what IGA represents to companies, compared to other financiers and incubators.
“We plan to hit a lot of doubles and triples and a few home runs,” he says. And he relates the approach to that used by the Oakland A’s, as related in the book and film, “Moneyball.” The A’s built a contender with a roster of nobodies because they looked at who could get on base more than anyone, whether through hits or walks.
Sullivan sees the correlation with companies: Maybe you will not be the all-star CEO of a billion-dollar global enterprise, he says. But you will be able to read the pitch count, get on base, and generate enough runs to build a winning team.
Innovation Garden, 205 Rockingham Row, Princeton, 08540; 609-651-8242, fax, 609-452-7212. Glenn Fratangelo, COO. www.innovationgardennj.com
Princeton Partners, 205 Rockingham Row, Princeton, 08540; 609-452-8500; fax, 609-452-7212. Thomas M. Sullivan, CEO and owner. www.princetonpartners.com