Prize winners for Hartford’s Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) Challenge were announced at the end of May 2015. A critical part of the Obama Administration’s SC2 Initiative, the SC2 Challenge is designed to help cities create economic development plans. The awards were funded by the U.S. Economic Development Administration.
It’s All Here received a fourth place, $50,000 award for its an asset-based economic development model that will build wealth and raise incomes in Hartford’s neighborhoods by giving access and visibility to new markets and service providers using an interactive website, a multilingual call center, physical market locations and turnkey digital street signage.
Steve Yanicke, President and Founder of MakeHartford, told Innovation Destination: Hartford about the organization’s plans for the future of Hartford’s economic development.
IDH: Tell us a little about your background.
YANICKE: I’m a serial entrepreneur living in Hartford for more than a decade. Current projects include MakeHartford and investigation into digital security hardware services.
I’m also Founder and Lead Design Consultant of Hatters Workshop, a web development firm I started when I was still in college. I’ve maintained some of those clients for about 10 years now. The company is myself as business, PM, as well as developer and designer. It’s a sole proprietor one-man shop.
IDH: How did you get the concept for your economic development model?
YANICKE: Working with entrepreneurs every day at MakeHartford I constantly meet people who just need a little help or support while developing their ideas.
The research we did showed that Hartford has added several thousand incorporated companies since 2008, the worst period of the Great Recession. Around that time, many people nationwide decided it was good for them to found their own business, but in Hartford the number was actually double the national average, per capita. This means people in Hartford thought that founding their own business was the best way to make ends meet.
You can either see that as a negative way to say that Hartford residents were the first ones cut from payroll, which I don’t believe. Or, the more positive view is that people saw this as a good opportunity to work for themselves.
In talking with people who are in the process of working on their startups, Hartford sometimes gets a bad rap for entrepreneurialism and innovation, but I don’t see that. I see a population of people who have a can-do attitude, who believe that they can make a difference and believe that, with a little support, they will be successful, whether they’re doing aquaponics and looking for a local food solutions or they’re looking for aerospace and high-tech manufacturing opportunities. I hear the negative things people say, but that’s not the world that I see and that’s not the community I serve.
So, how did we get this idea? It makes sense. The data supports this economic model and it made sense to lean in on the national trends, which are more prevalent in Hartford. If all of the incorporated companies that are currently within the city limits hired one extra person there would be no unemployed people in Hartford. The number of companies incorporated in Hartford roughly equals the number of people in the workforce who are currently unemployed. So, if you want to end unemployment in the city of Hartford, you need to find a way to allow these companies to hire just one extra person. And if all 6,000 companies did that, then you’re not looking for one company to hire 6,000 people, you’re looking for 6,000 companies to hire one person, which is seemingly a much more achievable target. Again, just looking at the data, that makes sense.
IDH: And that is that sort of the whole concept of “It’s All Here.”
YANICKE: Yes. We were looking at what Hartford needed to be successful. It turns out, statistically, that immigrants are most successful in startup businesses. Hartford has a lot of immigrants who are well-educated and financially successful and chose to relocate to Hartford. There is a large population that’s multi-lingual, has ties back to their home countries and has the ability to import and export, and we have access not only to the Hartford metro area but also New York, Boston, Providence, New Haven, Springfield.
Hartford has a highly educated workforce and we have a lot of excess capital. So, it’s all here. The part that’s missing is to get these sort of disparaging communities to talk to each other. We’ve got a lot of government support groups, a lot of non-profit organizations and a lot of groups like the MetroHartford Alliance and Hartford Young Professionals and Entrepreneurs (HYPE) that knit the community together. How do we do more of that? Hartford just needs to do more of what it’s currently doing. It’s all here. We’ve got the capital, we’ve got the non-profits and we have the right intelligent people. What we’re missing is a mindset that believes that we could be successful.
IDH: Describe It’s All Here and its focus on self-employment and small business ownership opportunities.
YANICKE: We looked at basic economic models for growth. One would be trying to import a new demographic of people. For example, if Hartford can attract the millennials, who are known for starting reasonably successful to mega successful companies, and those companies are headquartered in Hartford. So if we attract the right millennials than maybe we’ll be successful.
Another model was, if Hartford can attract a new or developing industry—like the state’s current $200 million effort to promote genetic research. Both of those are long-term plans that are very expensive and have a considerable amount of risk and uncertainty.
With It’s All Here we’re working with the resources that are already here, that want to be here, that have chosen to relocate here and are already doing economic development. We looked at the data and said, of these, which is most likely to succeed and have immediate impact in the first year and also still be most successful in 10 or 20 years?
The data suggested that we should embrace the trends that are strongest in Hartford; empower the people who are here and want to continue to grow businesses here. Yes it’s good that we can attract and keep large companies, but your average dollar spent at a large company will be distributed to wherever the footprint of the company is. For small businesses, if they’re based in Hartford and they’re exporting, then all that money flows into the metro area and that’s how you really build wealth in a metro area.
So our plan addressed the most pressing needs of entrepreneurs—access to markets and access to resources. The One World Market and Digital Signage components would provide immediate support to startups and the social vibrancy of Hartford.
IDH: How do you plan to use the SC2 Award money?
YANICKE: MakeHartford is currently exploring a regional unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) racing competition for the spring on 2016. We are working with our financial partners to leverage the prize money into additional funding for programs and services.
IDH: Where do you see your business goals in the next two to five years?
YANICKE: MakeHartford will continue to grow and serve an expanding membership with an increasingly diverse offering of equipment. We are currently working to grow programs in robotics, UAVs, information security and medical device and sensors.
IDH: What is the best thing about living/working in Connecticut?
YANICKE: It’s all here.
IDH: Any advice for those who are starting out?
YANICKE: Start today—now. “Someday” is already a very busy day.