After earning a Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Drew University 10 years ago, one might expect to find Gwen Kohl in some obscure research lab or working her first few years as a medical doctor.
Instead, Kohl has spent the last decade traveling and working in some pretty varied career fields. In her first years after graduation, Kohl stashed most of her personal belongings at her mom’s house in Massachusetts, and lived out of a backpack — first for the Student Conservation Association, and later the Northwest Youth Corps.
“I ended up doing trail work with groups of peers in National Parks, U.S. Forest Service lands, and private lands,” Kohl said. “Through that, I just kind of traveled the country and fell in love with the Northwest.”
Kohl’s résumé also lists stints as an outdoor science educator at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, as well as a cook and photographer for the Gold Rush Sled Dog Tours company. It wasn’t until she decided to go into business for herself that her life really started to change.
With a great business idea on paper, Kohl looked for guidance. What she found was Tacoma’s Spaceworks business training program — she never left. Today, Kohl’s job as Spaceworks incubator coordinator is to provide workshops, coaching, and peer-to-peer mentoring to help prospective entrepreneurs start their own businesses. Meanwhile she’s earning a master’s degree and her own business continues to quietly simmer on the backburner.
— Joanna Kresge
What is Spaceworks?
Spaceworks is a small organization that does an incredible amount of work in the community. The two major programs are the incubator, which is the business training (what I do), and then the Artscapes program, which is all about public art and helping artists and curators get work displayed.
When you enrolled in the Spaceworks program all those years ago, what was your business idea?
My business was called The STEAM Vent, (which used) art to tell STEM stories. The first iteration was really about community building around science. I had three locations in Tacoma, Seattle, and Bellevue, and it was monthly events where people would come, hang out, and chat with someone who was doing an interesting research project, had an interesting presentation, or (had) ideas around STEM. As much as possible, it was a tangible show and tell. We had some great robots from the universities, and people could actually ask the researchers questions and get involved in it. There’s all these communities online, and you can watch YouTube videos and engage that way, but nothing face-to-face. I wanted to bring that back.
What was it that made you lean into Spaceworks?
I saw an opportunity to grow the program. We were only working with about 12 businesses at a time, and I realized that we could expand that to work with more businesses. I talked to the community and got feedback about where we could meet their continuing needs after they’ve launched.
What is it about the Spaceworks incubator program that makes it different from other similar business incubators?
It’s basically a business training program that really focuses on the micro enterprise and the mom-and-pop shops. A lot of business programs are really concerned with scalability and how can you grow it, how fast can you grow it. And that’s not the type of entrepreneur that we work with. It’s really the people who want to stay rooted in the community and use their business to support the community. So that means making money for themselves and their families, and working in the local ecosystem. I haven’t seen another program quite like what we do. I think it is needed and I think it is awesome that Tacoma has it.
What does an ideal Spaceworks applicant look like? How do you decide who gets into the program?
When people apply, they already need to have a pretty well fleshed out idea. It doesn’t have to be a reality yet, but they have to have thought through what it would take to launch. So (they should be able to state) what they are offering, what they are going to sell — whether it is a product or a service — a little bit of who their customer is, and what it will financially take to start. Through that application, the strongest ones are selected and join a business planning cohort.
What topics do you cover in the program?
First, we hone in the idea. (We start by asking) what are you selling? Are you selling a cup of coffee or are you selling an experience? Why are people going to buy from you?
Then we go through market research: How do you identify your customer? Define who your ideal customer is and define where they are located — both in Tacoma, if you are going to open a physical location, or online.
Once you have that research done, you can look at the market segment that you are going to go after and then create a marketing plan.
(Then we get them to think about) who are you depending on for your supplies? What does that supply chain look like? And what are the financials for all of this, both on the cost side and the revenue side. So, they create a financial plan.
What are some of your success stories of businesses that have made it through the program and are doing well now?
There are just so many. Stocklist Goods & Gifts came through the program a couple of years ago and she’s doing fantastic down at University of Washington Tacoma. She actually just branched out and is opening a second location … It’s great to see her expanding and pulling in local products and highlighting even more local businesses through both of her locations. Tinkertopia also is a great success story. They’re one of the first businesses that came through (the program). They also got a space down at UWT campus. They are just doing fantastic things.
It’s got to be so cool to walk into one of these businesses and have seen it go from this planning stage to fruition.
What should people know about Spaceworks? Anything new coming up?
I think people should know that Spaceworks is a resource for local businesses. We are stretched to capacity, but we help as many local entrepreneurs as we possibly can. Our programming is expanding and we’re kind of piloting a couple of things right now. As of 2019, we should have a lot going on.
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