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park Tank can energize entrepreneurs

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2/4/2013 - Spark Tank can energize entrepreneurs
by Dale Neal - Asheville Citizen Times

If you're opening a new business in Asheville and think you have to do and learn everything all by your lonesome, well, think again.

You might just need a zap, stepping into the Spark Tank.

Asheville has always had plenty of resources for the entrepreneur launching a new venture or an established business looking to grow to the next level.

In fact, you almost needed a scorecard to figure out where to go for counseling or even some capital: Mountain BizWorks, the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, the U.S. Small Business Administration, the retired counselors at SCORE, A-B Tech's Small Business Center, the state's Small Business Technology Development Center at area universities or Self-Help Credit Union. Don't forget Blue Ridge Food Ventures, Eagle-Market Streets Development Corp., the city of Asheville's Minority Business office, HandMade in America, Land-of-Sky Regional Council, UNC Asheville's Family Business Forum or the Sequoyah Fund out in Cherokee.

For the past decade, representatives from those groups have been meeting informally, sharing ideas, trying to coordinate their efforts to help entrepreneurs or at least not step on each others' toes.

But imagine putting an entrepreneur in a room with all that firepower.

That was the idea that occurred to Pam Lewis, director of entrepreneurship with the Economic Development Coalition of Asheville-Buncombe County, and Annice Brown, with the SBTDC, when they were having coffee one afternoon at Karen Donatelli's in downtown Asheville.

But first, they needed a better name than the Support Service Providers Group. "Not very glamorous," Lewis admitted.

A mini-retreat in August led the group to rename itself as the Spark Tank, a play on the popular network reality show "Shark Tank."

"We expect this branding to help promote the resources we have here in Asheville," said Mike Arriola with the local office of the U.S. Small Business Administration, who has chaired the group for the past five years. "We've been on the quiet side and thought maybe we could do a better job letting people know that we exist."

Despite the appearance of duplication, each nonprofit or government agency has a slightly different angle or audience, from early startups, to growing companies to businesspeople ready to make an exit. Some are looking for help in creating a business plan, while others are looking for financing.

Most of the groups also cover much more territory than just Asheville. Arriola handles clients across 22 counties of Western North Carolina.

Spark Tank could help those providers streamline the process and help entrepreneurs find the particular help they need more quickly, said Jane Hatley, western regional director with Self-Help Credit Union.

The group also came up with a new program, Catapult, designed to launch a lucky entrepreneur faster into the market.

Spark Tank members will nominate a client with a startup idea or an existing small business. The member will then tap two or three other experts from the tank to form an advisory panel. The entrepreneur will go before the panel, pitch his or her business idea and outline current needs.

More brainpower in the room could be better than a series of one-on-one counseling sessions.

"It would almost be like creating a consulting group for that particular company," Hatley said.

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