Looking to learn how to cultivate small businesses statewide, U.S. Senate candidate Chris Murphy stepped into a New Haven company that’s a greenhouse of budding new ventures and two other companies that keep adding workers—with no government help.
The Grove, a co-working venue and entrepreneur incubator on Orange Street, was one of three downtown New Haven businesses that hosted visits by U.S. Senate hopeful Murphy on Friday afternoon. Murphy—who’s running for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated this year by Joe Lieberman—also popped in on New Haven’s new-media celebrity success, SeeClickFix, and a marketing company called Response. (Murphy faces Susan Bysiewicz and William Tong in the primary; Linda McMahon, Chris Shays, and Brian K. Hill are seeking the GOP nod.)
The question Murphy posed to all three downtown New Haven companies Friday: Can government help?
His question begged a different question. All three companies have thrived in the recession—without government help. Did his visit suggest that companies can thrive without government help? Or that government dollars should follow companies that have proved their viability in the marketplace?
Murphy’s tour of small businesses was followed by a campaign fundraiser at Anna Liffey’s Friday evening.
Murphy, the catcher on the congressional Democrats baseball team, was joined by New Orleans U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, who happens to be the team’s pitcher. Richmond, a member of the House Small Business Committee was pitching Small Business Administration (SBA) programs, while Murphy was hoping catch some votes.
Downtown Alderman Doug Hausladen served as tour guide.
They started at Response Marketing, which occupies the third floor of the old New Haven Water Company building at 100 Crown St.
It’s a “full-service integrated marketing company,” said Carolyn Walker, a co-owner. Response has been around for seven years and has grown from four to 20 employees in the last three.
Paul Lavoie, the other co-owner, walked Murphy, Richmond, and Hausladen through the offices, where tech-savvy young people were typing and clicking on their Apple computers.
Lavoie said the company has grown through the recent downturn in the economy despite a lack of cooperation by lenders. In 2009, the company was carrying a lot of debt but looking to expand, he said.
That’s right when the SBA was expanding, Murphy noted. “Was SBA any use to you?”
Lavoie said everywhere he went looking for capital he heard the same thing: “Nope. Sorry. Can’t help you.”
Response has nevertheless been able to succeed and grow and is now debt-free, Lavoie said. “Someone told us there was a recession. We refused to participate.”
Now banks are eager to work with Response, whose clients include Logitech and Black & Decker, Lavoie said.
“The more help we can get in creating more money for us ... we’re going to create jobs,” he told Murphy and Richmond.
“Small business is going to be the engine of growth in Connecticut’s economy,” Murphy said as he walked down Crown towards Orange. He said it’s problematic that Lavoie wasn’t able to find banks to work with him several years ago. “He should have been able to get an SBA loan in 2009.” Murphy said he’ll need to take a closer look at SBA to see how it’s working.
At the Grove, co-owner Slate Ballard met Murphy, Richmond, and Hausladen. He gave them a tour of the space and described how the start-up has expanded from 1,400 to 4,000 square feet in just 18 months. The Grove now has 65 to 70 co-workers, and five private offices rented. It’s a center for mentoring, networking, pitching and developing new ideas, and supporting entrepreneurs.
The Grove is “trying to create an ecosystem” the supports the development of entrepreneurs and their new businesses, Ballard said.
Richmond asked if the Grove has received any financial support from the government.
Not so far, Ballard said. That’s apart from the municipal government. Grove got its start through the city’s Project Storefronts program, which helps install new ventures into vacant retails spaces downtown.
Ballard said the state is looking to fund “innovation hubs,” which might be an option for the Grove. Ballard said he hasn’t looked at any federal funding options yet.
Richmond said the Grove would be a good candidate for “technical assistance” grants. He encourage Ballard to Google “SBA” and “teaming grants.”
“I think you’d fall right in the mix,” Richmond said.
“This is going to be the future of work,” Ballard said of co-working ventures like the Grove.
The tour next turned the corner onto Chapel Street and paid a visit to the offices of New Haven tech start-up darling SeeClickFix. The elected officials again got the rundown on a burgeoning local 21st-century business.
SeeClickFix has created a web platform for people in cities far and wide to identify and track problems of all kinds in their neighborhoods. It’s now working with 70 government clients and over 700 “media partners,” said Kam Lasater, co-founder and CSO. It has 50 million monthly page views and tens of thousands of users generating content each month, he said.
“It takes residents and turns them into citizens,” said Hausladen. He explained how he uses the site to receive alerts about problems in his ward.
Murphy asked if SeeClickFix has looked into applications at the federal level.
Lasater said the company is looking at what it could do with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, with state infrastructure planners, and with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“You should look at Homeland Security,” Richmond said. He mentioned the “If you see something, say something” campaign and said SeeClickFix could fit right in with that.
Jeff Mooney, SeeClickFix’s partnership director, said the company is already working with New Jersey railway stations on a way to help people report problems like unattended bags.
As he left SeeClickFix on his way to Newhallville’s Bartron imaging company, Murphy said he is taking away “optimism” from his swing through downtown businesses. “It just gives me more reason to try to make sure the recovery doesn’t stop in its tracks,” he said.
Murphy said he plans to study up on some of the SBA programs Richmond mentioned to see how they might be of use to Connecticut businesses.
Following his visit he was asked the question about whether or not the New Haven success stories show a need for government help.
His response: “Every business succeeds in part because of government investment. Some just need the schools and roads and public safety funded through the public sector, while other businesses need more targeted help, like the local government start up grant that The Grove received. The bottom line is that when it comes to the growth of small business, government should be viewed as a partner, not the enemy.”