Co.Lab program targets Chattanooga micro businesses

photo Lane Ford, near right, facilitates a meeting of Co.Starters, a class to assist people in getting a new business off the ground.
photo Co.Starters students Alex Jump, left, and David Wright talk about their dream of opening a ramen (noodle) restaurant prior to the start of their second week of class at the Co.Lab on East Main Street in this 2013 file photo.
photo Mary Alice Cråpo, right, a medical professional, outlines her goals before a Co.Starters class. Jennifer Jackson, back, listens.

About Co.StartersNext program: Starts Tuesday, Jan. 14Fees: $100 to $500 on a sliding scale and includes materialsLength: One night a week for nine weeksFind out more: Email: info@colab; Call 423- 648-2195; or by: LAUNCH Chattanooga, Glass House Collective, UTC, Covenant College, The Urban League, Co.LabSource: Co.Lab

When the business planning course asked would-be entrepreneur John Nelson to describe his potential customers, he had to pause and really think.

They'd be in their 30s, he decided. They'd have a little excess money. They'd want to do something more exciting with their lives.

"I realized I was describing myself," the 31-year-old licensed pilot said.

It was a bit of a lightbulb moment.

He hopes to start a helicopter flight school in Chattanooga that focuses both on graduating immediately employable pilots and igniting a love of flight in high school students. To get started, Nelson enrolled in business-incubator the Co.Lab's new business planning course: Co.Starters.

The reinvented program kicked off this summer and focuses on micro-business support, said program director Enoch Elwell. Co.Starters will replace SpringBoard, a small business course developed in 2008 to help entrepreneurs launch and scale new businesses.

"We've been taking notes on what works and what doesn't work," Elwell said. "And a lot of the stuff that worked wasn't built into the [SpringBoard] curriculum."

SpringBoard, which graduated over 700 participants during its five-year run, walked entrepreneurs step-by-step through the process of writing a business plan. But that wasn't always good enough, Elwell said, because sometimes the assumptions behind the plans were never questioned.

"Unfortunately, that process doesn't necessarily question whether you have the right answers, it's just focused on getting answers on paper," he said. "We've found most of the value they found was not writing a business plan, but it was in interacting with customers, getting a product out and testing it, and in the community relationships they built."

So the Co.Starters program is focused on cultivating business relationships, examining the assumptions behind the business model and getting as much customer feedback as possible early on, Elwell said. The nine-week program is offered on a sliding scale from $100 to $500.

Nelson, who is at least 18 months out from getting his flight school up and running, said he was on the fence about doing the program at first, but said Co.Starters helped him hone in on his idea.

"I answered questions I didn't know I needed to ask," he said. "It's thinking about your potential customers' needs as opposed to being very excited about something you're selling that you think is super amazing but other people might not agree with you."

Other local Co.Starters graduates include a sewing business, an all-natural hair product line, a raw juice bar and a brewing company for computer geeks. And while Co.Starters is one of several start-a-business resources available in Chattanooga, it is unique in that it caters to small-business startups, Elwell said.

"The accelerators and incubators throughout the state are primarily focused on supporting high growth potential companies," he said. "Companies that are trying to change the industry, requiring venture capital and focusing on high growth. Co.Starters is focused on the other half of businesses: small local creative businesses."

But Co.Lab isn't sequestering the Co.Starters program in Chattanooga. Instead, Co.Lab is selling the licensed model in cities across the nation. Pilot programs are already underway in Detroit, Cincinnati and Phoenix, Elwell said.

The program is designed to scale and work as a break-even program - the participant fees pay for the program - which Elwell hopes will help speed its adaption across the country.

"We see it being in emerging start up communities all over the country," he said, "and even throughout the world."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or

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