Dar Schwanbeck doesn’t mince words. “Most small businesses don’t know what they need to know to succeed,” says the managing director of the Northern Alberta Business Incubator (NABI). “When you don’t know the way to the top of the mountain, you are going to spend a lot of time wandering in the forest.” After four decades as a business coach and eleven years at NABI, Schwanbeck may know what he’s talking about considering the huge growth the St. Albert-based incubator has experienced during his tenure.
Starting as the St. Albert Business Development Centre in 1989, NABI originally operated out of a single location: a converted school on Mission Avenue. When Schwanbeck came on board in 2006, the staff consisted of himself and two part-timers. NABI has since added two more locations (both in Campbell Business Park) and close to 20 staff. The Campbell Centre came online in 2008, while this past June, NABI Commons opened its doors across the street. This new drop-in centre offers counselling, co-working space and other services for people looking to turn their product ideas into successful businesses.
Incubators like NABI are sort of like nurseries for small businesses in that they take care of a start-up’s basic needs, providing advice, shelter (as in office space), administrative and IT support and connectivity with the community and other businesses. One vital service NABI offers is that of providing quick answers to the many questions that business newbies have about bookkeeping, insurance, registration, incorporating and the like. These questions are important, Schwanbeck admits, but they can also be a distraction.
“They consume an incredible amount of time in most start-ups, and frankly, most of it’s wasted,” he explains. “At the end of the day, that’s not what matters to growing your business.”
Rather, a start-up should be figuring out what exactly it’s selling and who its customers are. “If you can’t describe that pretty succinctly, you’ve got a problem,” Schwanbeck says with a laugh.
Of course, there’s more to NABI than helpful words. It also rents out small, affordable spaces where clients can anchor their businesses. This is crucial for many start-ups, whose initial space demands are not realistically matched by the supply.
“Most small businesses wildly over-invest in space because the only thing that’s available in commercial real estate is 1200 square feet or 1000 square feet,” Schwanbeck says. “The average start-up needs about 80 square feet. So we provide that little space.”
Renting office space also has a way of making entrepreneurs feel more accountable because the business feels more “real,” and as Schwanbeck points out, having to pay for that space tends to motivate business owners to work harder.
While all this sounds beneficial for entrepreneurs, there’s also something in it for St. Albert. Schwanbeck estimates that the incubator is home to 130 companies—100 working out of NABI’s buildings, plus 30 virtual tenants—who generated over $22 million in sales in 2016 and currently employ around 300 people. The tenant mix is a diverse one, too, representing almost every sector imaginable—everything from advertising to transportation, manufacturing to education, retail to non-profit.
So what separates those entrepreneurs who reach the top of the mountain from those who wander in the forest? In Schwanbeck’s experience, it usually comes down to drive and hard work.
“They’re passionate about a product or an idea or a service,” he says of successful entrepreneurs. “They’re prepared to succeed, and they have the discipline.”
NABI’s goal, then, is to supply the smarts and the know-how to make the most of this passion. “Albertans have a can-do mindset,” Schwanbeck says. “I just want to help them be smarter about that. We can do that.” t8n
Flavor Fork—A barbecue accessory, which made it onto Season 8 of CBC’s Dragon’s Den.
Proline Group—Livestock production packages, for sale to farmers in China and Southeast Asia.
Baleen International—Clean and efficient wastewater treatment systems.
NABI at a Glance
Location: 200 Carnegie Drive, St. Albert
Managing Director: Dar Schwanbeck
Mission: To guide and inspire start-ups and small businesses to new levels of performance.
Interesting fact: Over the years, some 300 companies have “graduated” from NABI, while another 4,000 businesses and entrepreneurs have received counselling.