(Editor’s Note: In the interest of full disclosure, Siuslaw News was invited to participate in the panel portion of the Entrepreneurial Activation Event reported on in this story.)
Nov. 23, 2019 — On Nov. 14, Oregon Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network (RAIN) held the Florence Entrepreneurial Activation Event at City Lights Cinemas. The event included speeches by Florence and RAIN representatives, an eight-person panel, updates from some of the area’s successful entrepreneurs and business pitches by brave residents.
Florence City Manager Erin Reynolds summarized the City of Florence’s relationship with RAIN, which began four years ago and continues with additional city and grant funding.
“We’ve been able to increase the number of startups and living-wage jobs, and increased the level of awareness of the importance of entrepreneurs and innovators in our economic development strategy,” Reynolds said. “We’ve been able to see the amount of revenue generated by startups grow and, most importantly, we’ve seen capital and mentorship grow in our area because of our efforts with RAIN.”
The event had more than 80 attendees, who ate dinner catered by Hukilau Florence while mingling with other entrepreneurs and community members who are part of western Lane County’s startup ecosystem.
Inside the cinema’s Chaplin Theater, Florence Mayor Joe Henry welcomed people to the event.
“If you’ll recall, we’ve progressed from our first meeting at City Lights, when we had maybe 25 people, and meetings at Homegrown with 10 to 15 people. … We’ve been delighted to work with RAIN over the last four years, especially with our economic development efforts,” he said.
Henry then spoke about the city’s efforts to make economic development a city priority, especially in regard to skilled workers, jobs and housing.
“We’ve made a little bit of progress in all those areas, and we finally figured out that we had to have some help in some of them,” he said. “As far as entrepreneurs and developing businesses and jobs in our local community, the biggest successes we’ve had have been through RAIN.”
Reynolds continued this by talking about the importance of funding RAIN’s coastal venture catalyst, a position currently filled by Ariel Ruben, so that RAIN’s meetings with entrepreneurs and many events can be free to the public.
“This project has helped us create a long-term, economically stable system for new businesses and has helped ensure that our Florence startups are connected with statewide resources that are here, in Florence, and that we hope we can grow and keep those businesses here with resources from all over the state and nation,” Reynolds said.
Next, RAIN Executive Director Caroline Cummings talked about the many partners working to fund or support RAIN and its efforts across five counties and in 21 rural communities. These included City of Florence, Lane County, U.S. Department of Agriculture, The Collins Foundation, The Ford Family Foundation, Oregon Pacific Bank, Small Business Development Center (SBDC), Siuslaw News, Siuslaw High School, Florence Makerspace, Oregon Coast Visitor’s Association, Florence Area Chamber of Commerce and more.
“We exist to partner with small and rural communities to catalyze an entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Cummings said. “There are new economies being built on a regular basis, and it’s through the people in this room who are the job creators and are the people supporting those job creators.”
RAIN currently has three venture catalysts — Ruben on the mid-coast, Corey Wright in Linn and Benton counties and Raj Vable in rural Lane County — with plans to hire one more for Grant County. These people connect entrepreneurs with people, programs, physical assets and capital through RAIN.
“All of us venture catalysts are entrepreneurs ourselves, and we know how hard it is and the struggles,” Ruben said. “Actually, Caroline Cummings was the CEO of two startups, and the first one failed. … I know more about the failure because she says she learned so much about business and life through that failure. Entrepreneurship is hard — so we are here to be your biggest cheerleader. That’s what we do.”
Ruben then introduced the next portion of the night, when Florence entrepreneurs gave highlights about working with RAIN in the past four years. These included:
• Rick Dreiling of Oregon Float Homes: seeking to fill some of the area’s housing needs with tiny floating homes in a brand-new startup. He is currently looking for investors as he launches this new business.
• Patricia Immel and Sarah Butte of Rose & Crown Apothecary, 1845 Highway 126, Suite G: planning to continue to grow sustainable horticulture and sell natural healthcare and home products. In addition, they are rebranding and plan to launch an online store. “We’ve been busy bees,” Butte said.
• Kassy Keppol of Dragon Art: continues to teach art projects to all ages while offering subscription craft boxes with all the tools and supplies inside. A portion of every sale goes to supporting art opportunities for area youth.
• Patrick Looney of Florence Makerspace, which opened this summer at 1230 17th Place, Suite D: hopes to tie into the larger makerspace movement and bring on team members, as well as promote the workspace and tools to other “hobbyists, entrepreneurs and other do-it-yourself creative types.”
• Lyndsey Phillips of Meant Manufacturing, who won The Register-Guard Small Market Triumph Award in 2018: has one employee and wants to hire a second part-time employee, possibly through Lane Workforce Partnership. RAIN is helping her raise money through grants and angel investors now.
• Jayne Smoley of The Studios at Jayne Smoley Design, 1458 First St.: began RAIN with an idea for a product that could utilize her fused glass art pieces, then pivoted to creating a studio space in Historic Old Town Florence. Plus, she has launched special curated gift and art boxes catering to a variety of needs and seasons.
“RAIN provides incredible opportunities for knowledge, growth and support,” Smoley said. “If you’re an entrepreneur or thinking about starting a business, I would definitely recommend that you become involved with RAIN. ... We couldn’t be where we are today without them.”
The event’s signature sponsor was Oregon Pacific Bank, with CEO Ron Green leading a panel of “ecosystem players,” as Cummings described.
Green first spoke about the bank and its history.
“People don’t think about banks as small businesses,” he said. “Oregon Pacific Bank is the product of five entrepreneurs in this community who got together 40 years ago this month. Whether you’re a tire shop, an art studio or a bank, you’ve got to start somewhere and you want to do something that creates value for everyone you interact with. So they came together and said, ‘How can we do something materially different for this community?’ Forty years later we are a considerably larger bank, but we’re still a small bank headquartered here.”
He added the opportunity to partner with RAIN for events like this one “is absolutely what OPB is all about. It’s not just a financial sponsorship; it’s an honor for a company like ourselves to say we are part of this.”
Green then moderated the eight-person panel consisting of the partners who help with Florence’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. The speakers were Lane County Community and Economic Development Manager Austin Ramirez, Lane Community College Florence Center Dean Russ Pierson, Lane SBDC Director Robert Killen, Florence Chamber Executive Director Bettina Hannigan, Siuslaw News Features Editor Chantelle Meyer, Reynolds and Smoley.
“These are folks that help drive what we’re doing in this ecosystem in this community,” Green said.
Each participant answered two questions from Green: each organization’s role in small business development and how Florence’s ecosystem has changed in the past four years.
For Reynolds, she said the City of Florence’s role is leadership. Thanks to the city council, she and city staff have been empowered to lead the community path on the path to innovation. As to the second half, she said awareness is the biggest change while people learn of and connect to economic development resources.
Hannigan reiterated the chamber’s role as “conveners, catalysts and champions:” bringing people together with resources, helping people take their dreams to the next level and championing business. For the second part, she said that she loves that “Businesses are seen as answers to a lot of questions and needs in this community. … They are heroes here.”
Smoley said her role is offer a creative space to bring entrepreneurs, artists and creative people together, and that has shifted to include mentoring others. In the past four years, “an incredible support system” has developed.
As to the Siuslaw News, Meyer said in 2020 it will be celebrating 130 years of supporting residents, organizations, businesses and nonprofits through stories, advertisements, press releases, events and publications. In the past four years, she has seen the hand-off from RAIN and the city to the entrepreneurs, who took ownership of their own path and helped create such a thriving ecosystem.
For Pierson, he emphasized that LCC is “this community’s college” as it offers education and resources, as well as connections to additional partners like the SBDC. He said Florence’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is giving people a way into something new as they follow their dreams and actually make money. With so many Oregon residents underemployed, resources available now can help them achieve a living-wage job.
Ramirez said that for Lane County Community and Economic Development, “Our goal is to create economic opportunity from the coast to the Cascades. That’s for everyone.” In his 18 months of living in Oregon, he has seen Oregon entrepreneurs dive in, have grit and get things done with a lot of momentum.
Killen has been with Lane SBDC for five months. He said the center will be more present on coast in 2020 as it works with residents. He said that economic development results from vision and courage across the board, especially through community buy-in.
“All of you who are entrepreneurs, or who want to be and have a vision — man, do it,” Green said. “Because you will not be sorry. Yes, you will work more, you will sweat more, you will grind your teeth and lose all your hair, but the rewards to the benefit of the community and yourself are going to come back to you tenfold. … I think the idea of local reinvestment, whether its nonprofit, volunteering, having a small business with one employee or having a small business like we do with 65 employees in Florence, you give back and reinvest. It’s what’s going to sustain this community for generations to come. I just applaud all of you for what you are doing.”
Afterwards, Ruben invited community members to stand and give one-minute business pitches. People’s ideas ranged from new business and studio space to high schoolers’ ideas for a customizable clothing store and rural food delivery.
As Florence’s venture catalyst, she is in the area two days each week to meet with entrepreneurs and business owners. She can be contacted through [email protected] In addition, RAIN is accepting applications through Dec. 6 for its 12-week 2020 Florence Pre-Accelerator Program.
Earlier in the night, Cummings said, “I can’t believe it’s been four years since we were in this same exact room launching this work. To see so many faces, and so many new people, is really what this event is about. Not only celebrating the companies we’ve helped in the last several years and the ecosystem, but all the new faces. … I always say it takes a community to raise an entrepreneur, and it does.”
For more information about RAIN, visit oregonrain.org or www.meetup.com/Startup-Florence-Oregon-Coast. The organization’s next event is Thursday, Dec. 5, for “Angel Investing 101” at 5:30 p.m. at The Bodega, 180 Laurel St.