Virtual business incubator to offer services nationally
A year after its startup, the New Hampshire Virtual Business Incubator is poised to expand across the country by the end of June. Dr. William Osgood, one of the creators of nhVBI, announced the plans last month at the National SBA Small Business Expo in Washington. “We are pleased to report that results have significantly exceeded our expectations,” Osgood told New Hampshire Business Review. “During its first 12 months as a pilot, nhVBI has served over 8,000 visitors and has 87 registered users. Of these, 64 are from New Hampshire, but 20 are from other states and three are from other countries.” Osgood said that he spoke with many state SBA directors who said they were very interested in the site, and “SBA national was so impressed, they’ve invited us back to meet with senior officials to discuss how to collaborate.” Osgood — president of the Knowledge Institute, an entrepreneurial development think tank located in Kingston and parent company of nhVBI - said the virtual incubator is an attempt to address the large failure statistics of new businesses. According to Osgood, 75 percent of new businesses fail within five years, largely due to lack of knowledge, skills or expert advice. Conversely, 85 percent of businesses started through an incubator are still operational after five years, he said. “The real tragedy for failed businesses is that the resources they needed usually exist, yet could not be found, understood or effectively utilized,” said Osgood. “Businesses started through an incubator tend to succeed far more because of the networking and mentoring opportunities — with customers, suppliers, legal, each other — than because of cheap office space.” The virtual incubator’s first-year goal was to see if these supporting factors could be translated from the physical environment to the virtual environment, he said. “We kept it pretty quiet with a small test group to make sure that our ideas were grounded in reality,” said Osgood. “That more than proved to be the case.” 'Robust environment’ The virtual incubator was rolled out in three phases. The first involved creation of the basic structure and tools of the Web site. This included such free resources as access to training programs, accounting, human resources, payroll and technical support, reference information, funding sources and links to counselors from SCORE, the SBA, the Small Business Development Center and other organizations. “We partnered with a Florida-based technology company, IBS Group, to handle all the back-end technology. It’s been a significant partnership for us, and them too, to create this project,” Osgood said. The second phase supplied fee-paying “virtual tenants,” as they are called, with a suite of higher-tier services, such as e-commerce support for online ordering processing, pro bono legal support and the “virtual water cooler,” where business owners with similar interests can share information and experiences. The final phase is expected to roll out in late June, when nhVBI will be rebranded for a national audience as myVBI.org. For $19.95, tenants will be able to get access to further enhanced services that are already available as well as other services, such as Web seminars on demand, the ability to upload infomercials about their business for prospective customers, on-line accounting functions, contract version management and even an RFP/bid center. “It’s a really robust environment. You can literally run your whole business online,” said Osgood. “And we can do this so affordably because of the advanced technology we use and the way we’ve bundled it. The more we can use technology in smart ways, the more it becomes frictionless.” He said he is even looking into offering group health insurance for VBI tenants. Much of the virtual incubator’s development was funded through the Knowledge Institute, Providian, New Hampshire Community Technical College, Ocean National, Berlin City and First Colebrook Banks, grants from Public Service of New Hampshire and private investors. “Membership fees and resource partner memberships help to support the incubator in the long term,” said Osgood. Similar to the Knowledge Institute’s other business resource Web portal, BUZGate.com, each state will have its own site within myVBI and will use much of the information available at BUZGate. “Going national will provide an opportunity for a lot of businesses to use the tools. It creates its own self-sustainability,” said Osgood.