How to Create a New Silicon Valley in the Heartland
Muskingum County in Ohio is a pastoral of rolling hills, farmland and wilderness. Small diners and taverns burrow in the overgrowth along the roads, families of deer hopping out into traffic every now and then. It’s the kind of place that can only be found in the heartland of the country, where every storefront has an American flag unfurled from its awning.
But scattered over the land are signs of decay. The industrial plants that once exhaled steam along the river’s edge are mostly boarded up, the rows of condemned houses in once prosperous neighborhoods slant under broken roofs, and jobs are scarce.
In the middle of all that, there was an abandoned school.
For Larry Triplett, executive director of the Muskingum County Business Incubator, that empty middle school building was just as beautiful as the land on which it sat.
“There was no money to tear the school town, and no one interested in buying,” Triplett said. “That is, until we came along.”
Now that school, which once served as a symbol of the county’s declining economic future, has been refurbished as an incubator where start-up entrepreneurs can house their businesses cheaply and learn management skills to guide them through the difficult early years.
Formed in 2004, the Muskingum County Business Incubator was originally located in a small shop in the downtown area, where it offered business guidance but lacked the office space to house more than one or two companies at a time. That changed in 2011, when Triplett and his partners made an offer to the county commissioners to rent out and refurbish the 55,000 square foot abandoned middle school.
Four years later, the school is almost unrecognizable.
“Ideas are our biggest economic resource,” Triplett said as he strolled down the open halls. “You don’t have to be in a big city to come up with an innovative concept that will sell. All you need is the guidance to be successful from the business-end of things.”
He peeked into one classroom now occupied by the young employees of Disrupt Media, a start-up marketing firm. The room had the appearance of a hip office in Silicon Valley, the walls painted lime green with splashes of artwork, the furniture modern, and the young employees who sat typing behind high-end computers all looked up and waved.
With 40 successful local businesses and 400 employees expected to pass through the incubator by 2017, Triplett and his partners are on a mission to reinvigorate the downtrodden economy of Southeast Ohio.
Triplett, who ran his own successful start-up software company from 1980 to 2011, when it was sold to a larger company, said the energy and drive of young people in rural Ohio is invaluable.
“Modern technology allows these new entrepreneurs to research and market their product much more easily than ever before,” Triplett said. “This means that the barriers of entry for people in areas like Muskingum County are much less imposing, so why not shift our focus to this aspect of economic development?”
The way Triplett sees it, one successful company can change an entire town. He cited Redmond, Washington, the headquarters of Microsoft, as one such rural town that is now one of the most desirable areas in the country for young people seeking opportunity. And instead of constantly trying to entice large industry to come to town, he is more interested in helping fresh-faced local companies rise up and create change for themselves.
The school is a perfect location for that. A hall of learning, a place where futures can be made. And much the same way an ancient hunter would use every single bit of tissue and skin from a buffalo, Triplett is milking the school for all its assets, as any savvy businessman would do.
For instance: The decrepit cafeteria kitchen has been transformed into a culinary incubator, where young chefs and restaurateurs can develop a menu and a business plan, the result of which will soon be a cavalry of artisanal and modern food trucks across town. Further down the hall is the gymnasium, where now rows of craftsmen design and construct specialty softballs for Apex Sports, a company that will soon have more than 30 employees, selling its product in the thousands and making a name for itself as a top-tier brand for softball players around the world.
“They are a perfect example of what we’re doing here,” Triplett said. “The founder, William Wilson, was just a regular occupational therapist in town who came up with an idea for a softball core that would retain its form even in hot weather. Just an idea, and now he’s got a patent and is selling his product globally.”
In this school, Triplett plays the role of a kindly principle, always looking out for his students. It’s not about charity; each company pays rent to be here, and the incubator is run with sustainability in mind. But if Triplett’s philosophy is true — if the role of old-school industry in rural America will soon be overtaken by the weight of entrepreneurial and technological innovation — then perhaps the greatest resource of counties like Muskingum will no longer be the wide expanses of open land, but the expansive ideas of the people born here.
“Government is not going to cure our economic woes,” Triplett said. “We’re not about trying to cling to some old industry or to beg the government to bring in a big company that will keep the area afloat for another few years. Look around you. Opportunity isn’t just in Silicon Valley. It’s right here.”
Evan Smith is a contributor for Opportunity Lives.
Originally published at opportunitylives.com on October 16, 2015.