In Loudoun County, the business of helping businesses grow is a booming enterprise itself.
For Vanessa Jozwiak, who serves as the small business and entrepreneurship manager for the county’s Department of Economic Development, the growth of incubators and co-working spaces is no surprise.
“Loudoun County is the fastest growing county in the Commonwealth of Virginia not only because of larger community players but because of small business and entrepreneurs,” she said. “I believe that seeing the sprout of incubators and co-working is because there is a market demand right here in our backyard.”
Loudoun got its first business incubator 5 years ago, Mason Enterprise Center in Leesburg. Today, the county boasts a growing number of similar shared workplace settings.
Jozwiak notes that 86 percent of the businesses in Loudoun have fewer than 20 employees. She said she is fielding calls “all the time” from entrepreneurs and small businesses looking for good places to set up shop and she often directs them to the nurturing environment of incubator space.
“All generations are enjoying a more open work environment, sense of community, and having those organic collisions,” she said. “It’s important not just for small business but growing a business as well.”
Here’s a look at some of Loudoun’s business starting spaces.
Mason Enterprise Center
202 Church St., SE, Leesburg
Loudoun’s original business incubator arrived on the scene in the fall of 2011. It quickly became a popular landing spot for start-up or established small businesses looking to take advantage of the expertise of Mason Enterprise Center staff, as well as the Loudoun Small Business Development Center and the Town of Leesburg’s Economic Development Department, which also share the space.
Over the past five years, 17 companies have “graduated” to space of their own. Of those, 13 stayed in Leesburg or Loudoun County to continue to grow their business. That’s according to Susan Henson, who has been director of Leesburg’s Mason Enterprise Center since it opened.
And interest in the incubator has grown, as well. With 28 available office spaces, the center houses 41 businesses. Henson said the MEC staff has been able to be “creative” when it comes to using its space to accommodate more businesses, with some companies sharing spaces or splitting offices. The MEC Leesburg also has 31 virtual clients, for a current total of 72 businesses.
A big boon for the MEC Leesburg has been the downtown area’s designation as a HUBZone, or Historically Underutilized Business Zone. Small businesses located in HUBZones gain access to federal set-aside contracts and sole source contracts, as well as a price evaluation preference in full and open contract competitions. In an area already rife with companies gunning for government contracts, having the incubator located in such a zone has only added to its success. In fact, 50 percent of the incubator’s current clients take advantage of the HUBZone designation, Henson said.
The HUBZone certification is “designed for a company at a stage that needs to grow,” Henson said. “When they get the big contract they usually graduate out. That’s a good fit for us.”
Typically, MEC staff members like to see incubator clients demonstrate growth within three years as they eye graduation from the center and expansion elsewhere. In addition to its large pool of government contracting clients, the center is home to a mixed bag of industries, from marketing to tech to biotech to financial services, and everything in between.
Going forward, Henson said a major goal of the MEC staff is to be “more deliberate about helping companies set goals and graduate in a timely manner.” Bringing the SBDC under the MEC’s umbrella—with that change formally announced last summer—was a big part of that strategy, she said.
AOL Fishbowl Labs
22000 AOL Way, Sterling
This venture by tech giant AOL launched in 2012 in an effort to help with the company’s brand recognition and see if its team of executives could help area entrepreneurs be successful. So far, Fishbowl Labs has supported 30 companies.
Nick Bagg has been the managing director of Fishbowl Labs for the past year. In his “day job,” he is chief of staff for AOL Core. While MEC’s incubator model houses companies that rely on the expertise, business counseling and assistance offered by the center’s staff, Fishbowl Labs’ incubator clients rely on the expertise of AOL’s countless executives, he notes. If the expertise cannot be found within AOL’s walls, Bagg will work to bring in outside experts to help guide businesses through their challenges.
And other times, “the later stage companies can function as mentors for some of our earlier stage companies,” Bagg said.
Fishbowl Labs caters its services exclusively to tech companies and has three general areas of focus—mobile, cybersecurity and B2B, Bagg said. As a sign of those industries’ growth in the past 12 months, Fishbowl Labs has received 75 applications from companies hoping to locate within the incubator and handled more than 200 meetings or calls from interested businesses. Many of those interested were referred from previous Fishbowl Labs’ clients, he said.
Today, the center houses 10 companies and will be at maximum capacity soon, Bagg said. Companies generally stay with Fishbowl Labs about a year, he said.
Going forward, hopes are to add to the success of its current and past clients. Bagg points out that the 30 companies that have called Fishbowl Labs home at one point or another have tallied nearly $40 million in profits over the past few years. Growing its investor pipeline, building its mentor network and offering more services to its clients—as well as making its model more scalable—are all on Fishbowl Labs’ to-do list in the years ahead, Bagg said.
Gramercy District, Ashburn
While the previous two incubators have their doors open, another could soon be popping up. Ashburn-based Solebrity CEO AJ Jaghori has announced plans to open an incubator in the planned Gramercy District development in Ashburn.
The Gramercy District will be located off Metrorail’s Ashburn North station and phase one, planned to begin construction this summer, includes 80,000 square feet of office and retail uses in two buildings. One of those would house the proposed incubator.
Jaghori said he has already received hundreds of applications of interest from businesses hoping to set up in the incubator, which he said may open in temporary space by year’s end.
Hello LoCo will be a departure from the traditional business incubator in some ways, Jaghori said. He plans to tap experiences gained in helping with the six start-ups. First, Hello LoCo will focus on “human capital”—aligning incubator mentors with the product companies in which they have an expertise. Jaghori said he will tap his experience with Silicon Valley investors to bring in expertise not traditionally found in Loudoun County, but much in need. While many of the incubator tenants around the county dabble in the government contracting or IT fields, Hello LoCo will work to entice entrepreneurs from different fields, some of which are more prevalent on the West Coast.
“There’s an inherent void here for having a truly Silicon Valley-type of incubator that’s not focused on federal IT,” he said.
Two other differentiators for Hello LoCo will be that the incubator itself will hold an equity stake in each of the start-ups it hosts; and these start-ups will be eligible for investor funding within as little as 30 days. Gramercy District developer Minh Le will be closely involved with Hello LoCo, bringing his expertise in tech and ventures.
Once the doors are open, Jaghori said he is optimistic that Hello LoCo will be able to serve 20 or more companies and as many as 400 employees at one time. While he said he is “happy to share the playbook” with others in the county who may want to use Hello LoCo’s incubator model elsewhere in the U.S. or worldwide, he said his focus on Solebrity and growing Hello LoCo will keep his feet firmly planted in Loudoun for the time being.
44927 George Washington Blvd #265, Ashburn
Ann Orem and Paul Singh came from separate industries, but shared the goal of catering to the suburbs’ changing workforce needs. A real estate executive with Clarke-Hook, Orem’s professional focus was on small business start-ups and mid-size businesses. She saw firsthand how both the workforce was changing and the nature of the work.
Singh is the founder of Disruption Corp. The two had a similar version in
mind for what an ideal co-working model could look like in Loudoun County. When they looked around, they didn’t see anything like it available.
“It’s either people are leaving everyday on a bus or sitting in cars or paying 15 bucks to get on the Greenway or working from home or at Starbucks. There’s no option to work here,” she said.
The Brickyard is designed to fill that void. It is a large, open space with long communal tables inviting enterpreneurs to work and collaborate with others. The 2,905-square-foot space, located across the street from Ashburn’s George Washington University campus, comes replete with all amenities needed to run a small business, telework, and most importantly, learn from and share with others.
“The community we’re building is a community of creative, liked-minded, tech-enabled people. Anybody who is acquiring customers on the Internet or service customers on the Internet. Anybody from entrepreneurs to startup founders to small business owners to employees of a Fortune 500 company looking for landing spots. Freelancers, web developers, independent contractors, designers. There’s a big community of people that we are hoping to service that I would say we’ve already reached a lot of them,” Orem said.
Just in its first few weeks, The Brickyard is “constantly growing,” she says. Sometimes, two to three members a day are in the space at a time. She and Singh are constantly fielding leads from interested parties and setting up tours. While Orem is at the center everyday, Singh is in the midst of a North American tech tour, where he will be looking for opportunities to expand The Brickyard model in different cities.
602 S. King St. #400, Leesburg
A father and son team are behind Leesburg’s newest co-working venture, Evolve.
Charles and Robert Matheson recently debuted Evolve in the Waverly Park space owned by the elder Matheson since the 1980s.
The idea for Evolve grew out of Robert Matheson’s frequent trips up and down the East Coast. Classifying himself a “serial entrepreneur,” Robert Matheson helped launch an apparel brand, in addition to consulting work. He traveled from his home in Charlottesville to New York, with frequent trips to Rhode Island and Florida. He and his business partners use a co-working space in New York City and he found the opportunities for collaboration among other businesses to be very inviting. When the fourth floor tenant moved out of the Waverly Park space, the Mathesons worked to replicate the atmosphere Robert experienced.
“I know this is a growing trend in the business world. There are more and more mobile users, more and more independent workers,” Robert Matheson said.
Evolve offers several levels of membership. One can rent a space daily, monthly, have a private office or use the flexible space. There’s even been quite a bit of interest in renting conference room space for events, Robert Matheson said.
Plans are already in the works to scale the Evolve business model, and open other Evolve co-working spaces along the East Coast. And Robert Matheson believes the desire for co-working space is only increasing.
“It’s the evolution of the work environment,” he said.