Club E fosters small business in College Park
The following is a reprint of the article found in the Atlanta Business Chronicle by John Manasso, Contributing Writer:
A 480-member entrepreneurship organization dedicated to fostering small business in College Park has a new headquarters on Main Street.
Club E, “an incubator office environment,” is the brainchild of serial entrepreneur and Atlanta resident Bob Johnson and his friend Peter Burns III, who first got the concept off the ground in Phoenix.
Club E–College Park, which held its first meeting in June 2011 at the city council’s chambers, recently opened its doors in part of the former home of College Park Furniture. The city of College Park is hoping the venture will help revitalize its historic downtown area.
Club E International’s website describes itself as “an on-earth and on-line network bringing entrepreneurs, experts, and executives together to discover new opportunities and grow their business.”
Johnson said that to become an entrepreneur, one must go through the school of hard knocks. He said business school classes — accounting, finance and marketing courses, etc. — don’t teach people how to become entrepreneurs and he wants to break the cycle of the failure rate of small businesses, which he pegs at 90 percent.
As a result, he teamed with Burns to found Club E, which is designed to help “innovative startup businesses.” After launching in Phoenix, Johnson in 2010 began looking for a metro Atlanta club site. Burns put Johnson in touch with Barbara Coffee, a member of the Phoenix Club E who had relocated to metro Atlanta as director of economic development for the city of College Park.
From there, a public-private partnership was struck. U.S. Rep. John Lewis, whose district includes College Park just south of Atlanta, helped to secure a $150,000 Small Business Administration grant for the project. Johnson said he also put up $800,000 of his money to get the project off the ground, as he could not find banks willing to loan him the money to renovate a building in College Park, which has suffered through years of economic woes.
Club E Atlanta is a for-profit venture, but Johnson also helped start the nonprofit College Park Entrepreneur Fund, which provides initial funding for startup companies. That nonprofit helps the Club E members to get their companies started. The funds for the nonprofit comes from “local citizens and businesses that want to support the new startups in the community,” he said.
Coffee, who in June became economic development director of Henderson, Nev., said her goal as College Park’s economic development director was to help create jobs and wealth, two things that she thinks Club E’s presence will do.
“If we can grow our own companies in a community then those companies tend to sort of come out of the nest and launch their businesses in your city and take office space or industrial space,” Coffee said, “so they become long-term tenants of your city and certainly contribute to the economic growth and prosperity of the community that way, providing jobs for people.”
What differentiates Club E from other organizations offering aid to would-be entrepreneurs is that it acts as “an entrepreneurial resource center,” Johnson said.
The club is very hands-on, he said, noting as an example a seminar it recently held on how to write a business plan.
As the commercial real estate market tanked in 2008 and 2009, Burns and Johnson used the concept of providing practical guidance to entrepreneurs to get landlords to offer space on the cheap to startups in the hope that they would grow into companies that eventually would fill the vacant space.
“It’s a great environment,” Johnson said. “It’s great energy in the room. We had monthly meetings with the Club-E Network. As it evolved people said, ‘Why don’t you have a place where we could come every day and we could network and collaborate and do something?’ ”
Johnson said when he first visited College Park with Coffee, he saw nine empty storefronts in one block. He said he questioned whether the city was the right location. But Coffee convinced him College Park would support the project.
“She said, ‘Bob, really we’ve got good bones,’ ” he said. “’We’ve got Woodward Academy, we’ll get people behind us. Just go with me on this thing.’”
At the first club network meeting in 2011, about 40 to 50 people showed up, Johnson said. That has now grown to 480.
Club E Network is free, he said. To be a member of Club E and use the facilities for conducting entrepreneurial businesses, members pay $50 a month.
“We currently have signed up 50 paying members in the first month of our membership campaign,” he added.
In addition to Club E, the renovated building has a few other businesses in it, including the furniture store’s now smaller office (Coffee said it does most of its business via catalog now) and a coffee shop, which the city had lacked and is a helpful addition to the club.
Johnson is also incubating a printing and photocopying business in the location, using members of two local high schools’ young entrepreneur organizations.
Coffee said Johnson is “full of energy and certainly very passionate about bringing people’s dreams to life in a way that’s realistic and in a way that supports them as small-business owners and proprietors.”
Club E’s influence on small business formation remains to be seen. The city of College Park issued 234 business licenses in 2010, 233 in 2011, 216 in 2012 and 138 through July 17 this year, said Gary Young, interim director of economic development. If that pace holds, the year-end total could reach 331.