Innovative Entrepreneurs

Competition helps foster small local business

LAWRENCEVILLE - Like most upstart businesses, Wi-Ex Inc. was looking for all the extra money and help it could get.

So last year, the Norcross-based company entered a new competition for the county's entrepreneurs - The Gwinnett Innovation Challenge.

The competition offered cash and service prizes worth $80,000 for small local companies with the best business plans. Winners would be chosen in two categories - seed stage businesses (revenues of less than $250,000) and growth stage businesses (revenues of more than $250,000 but less than $2,000,000).

Wi-Ex entered. Wi-Ex won as a growth stage business. And a year later the company has taken off.

Sharon Cuppett, Wi-Ex's vice president of marketing, said the company increased sales nearly 400 percent last year and took in millions in revenue.

"Winning the challenge has been very important because we were able to take the money that we would have spent on those things like accounting and marketing and use those resources in other areas," Cuppett said. "It would have cost us thousands and thousands of dollars to do that otherwise."

Wi-Ex, which creates cellular phone signal boosters, was able to focus resources on setting up distribution channels for the company's products. That has paid off, with the company's products being carried in retail stores such as RadioShack and Internet stores such as Amazon.com.

The Gwinnett Innovation Challenge, which has returned for a second year, is one of a number of programs within the county designed to encourage the growth of small businesses like Wi-Ex. Here are a few others:

• The Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce honors companies each year with the Pinnacle Small Business Awards.

• The Chamber also offers a Small Business Academy and a Small Business Resource Center to encourage entrepreneurship.

• Intelligent Systems, the company sponsoring the Gwinnett Innovation Challenge, has long supported innovative companies in the county with the Gwinnett Innovation Park - an entrepreneurial incubator designed to help small businesses get started.

But Intelligent Systems still wanted to do more to foster entrepreneurship in the county. The company had supported entrepreneur competitions in Atlanta in the past and decided it could be done in Gwinnett as well.

"We wanted to do some good locally and give back to our community," said Bonnie Herron, vice president and chief financial officer for Intelligent Systems.

These kind of efforts to help small businesses led the Georgia Department of Economic Development to name Gwinnett as an Entrepreneur Friendly county in 2005. Only one-fifth of the counties in Georgia have received this designation.

But why have the Chamber and companies like Intelligent Systems taken it upon themselves to encourage small businesses?

"Entrepreneurs and new companies really drive economic growth in an area," Herron said. "They're the companies that stay and make long-term contributions to a community."

Small businesses can create a number of job opportunities and economic growth, Chamber Vice President of Communications Demming Bass said.

"If you are creating an environment for small businesses to be successful and you have thousands and thousands of companies that are 5 to 10 employees growing to 25 to 50 employees every year, that ends up making for a strong economy," Bass said.

Bass also said small businesses help create a diverse group of employers within the county.

"If you are relying on one or two or three companies and one of them pulls out, that can have a very negative impact," Bass said. "If you create an environment where small businesses are nurtured and grow and thrive, that really is the backbone of the economy."

UGA offering small business classes

The University of Georgia Small Business Development Center in Gainesville will be offering several classes during the month of March. For additional information visit www.sbdc.uga.edu/ce/gainesville.

•What: How To Write A Business Plan/Financing Your Business Venture

•When: 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesday

•Summary: Learn how to develop strategic components of a business plan and how to determine financial needs by covering cash flows, personal balance sheets and income statements.

•Cost: $35

•What: Strategic Planning for the Manufacturing Industry

•When: 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Thursday

•Summary: Cover the essentials for creating and implementing a strategic plan.

•Cost: $139

•What: How To Start Your Own Business

•When: 6 to 8 p.m. March 21

•Summary: Learn the basics of starting your own business, including market research, legal structure choices, start up cost estimates and more.

•Cost: Free

•What: Personnel Power for the Manufacturing Industry

•When: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 23

•Summary: How to recruit, select and retain the best people possible.

•Cost: $139