Leaders at MWSU look to capitalize on small business growth

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Walk into the doors at 1712 Main St. in Kansas City, Missouri and you’ll likely mistake it for a standard office. Groups of people are talking near a coffee bar; someone is taking an important phone call near the elevator; a team is working diligently on a project around a conference table.

At first, everything about the space seems like a normal office; but, Sarah Fustine, director of coworking for the company, says the office is anything but standard.

“It’s a shared work space,” Fustine said. “So if you can think of a gym membership for an office, it’s a chance for people to rent by the day, by the month, more of a permanent office style.”

The company is called Think Big KC, which helps communities in the Midwest startup and maintain “coworking” spaces. Except for a number of startup companies that have grown in employees, and the Think Big executives, few people in this office work for the same company; some don’t even work in the same professional field — and that’s by design.

The principle of coworking is that if you provide an open working space for professionals, they will engage with one another, network and make connections that will help them grow.

“When people come here, it’s as small as ‘I just need a place to work because I have kids and I can’t get anything done,’ or ‘I’ve been working out of coffee shops with my clients and it’s not a very professional look for my company’ to ‘I have a very professional home office, but I’m a social recluse and I need to plug into a social community,’” Fustine said.

At Think Big, the focus is bringing entrepreneurs together and provide them connections to grow their business — and helping small businesses thrive is especially important for Kansas City. FiveThirtyEight, a national data-based media group, released a study in September showing that KC has the 12th highest level of small business growth out of all U.S. cities.

But climb a little further on that list, and you’ll likely find a surprise — although KC ranked in the top twenty for startups, the booming city’s little brother to the north ranked higher.

St. Joseph, Missouri ranks fifth in U.S. cities producing high levels of small business growth — which is why community business leaders are looking at innovative ways to help business flourish.

“A co-working space would help entrepreneurs in the community. So we retained the services of Think Big KC to help us think through the issue a little bit.”

The Chamber partnered with efforts from the Center for Entrepreneurship at Missouri Western State University to plan out exactly how to bring the idea of coworking to the community. Annette Weeks, director of the center, says the space could provide resources for technology startups.

“Technology entrepreneurship is huge right now,” Weeks said. “We don’t have a whole lot of that opportunity here in St. Joseph, but we’d love to have that, as well. A coworking space would that synergy to happen here.”

Past efforts of the Chamber and the Center have already laid the foundation for the coworking space. Last year, the two helped initiate “Cup of Joe,” a community of business owners from around northwest Missouri that come together and network. The group meets every Wednesday and host a business speaker to discuss different elements of entrepreneurship.

Fustine says that organizations like Cup of Joe can help form the framework for a coworking space.

“Cup of Joe could be a great contributor,” Fustine said. “The community of people that attend that and have attended that and plan to attend that all would be all be potential customers for a coworking or shared space of any type.”

Detailed plans for the space are still multiple months out; but Fustine says that, once built, the coworking office would prove beneficial to St. Joseph.

“It would help with talent staying and the youth staying in St. Joe that would give people a taste of the coast, if you will,” Fustine said. “They are an economic driver. They spit out jobs from the community that’s there.”