Listen, as Neil Singh, Director of business development and technology at TeamNeo, talks to us about how TeamNEO helps small and mid-sized businesses in NE Ohio grow and what it takes to qualify for their assistance.
Neil shares ways business owners/managers can get assistance to grow to the next level. Discover the innovations, business tools, and business resource that are available as your business or organization continues to evolve.
Transcript of Biz Chat Ohio’s podcast 1.1
We are recording.
Hello, everyone. Welcome to Biz Chat Ohio, the podcast bringing you big ideas for small businesses. Throughout this series, we hope to bring you the best of small business news and industry trends from Ohio thought leaders to you, the business owner.
I’m your host, Cathy Walsh, director of the Small Business Development Center at Lakeland Community College. And I’m joined by my co-host and soul sister, Gretchen Skok-Disanto, director of Lakeland Community College’s Entrepreneurship Center and business advisor for the Ohio Small Business Development Center. Hello, Gretchen.
– Hi, Cathy. So everybody who is joining us today, in our roles at the Small Business Development Center at Lakeland, I’m also known as the SPDC, so if you’ve heard that out there. Cathy and I often see that businesses aren’t aware of the numerous resources that are out there to assist them with their startup and, or growth in NEO. Excuse me, Northeast Ohio.
And I can tell you too– Kathy didn’t mention that I’m also a professor at Lakeland, and I teach entrepreneurship courses. And a huge part of what I do in those entrepreneurship courses is, I try to introduce my students to all the resources. So I’m doing that on the front end.
But then again we’re seeing these businesses come into the SPDC not understanding the scores, I’d say, of resources out there in the community. So we think they’re either unknown, and how that can be, we’re not sure. Because we know a lot of these organizations have great marketing.
But then oftentimes too they’re misunderstood. And folks may think, hey, this resource is only for a large business. And it’s not going to help my small business. So we’re on a mission, Cathy and I here, to shed a light on what we consider to be the most important of these resources in Northeast Ohio that small business owners absolutely have to know about to help them with either startup or with their small business growth.
Thanks, Gretchen. Today we’re joined by Neil Singh, director of business development and technology at Team NEO. Neil’s been able to support a number of growing companies here in Northeast Ohio. And we are really pleased that we get to tap into his knowledge and share some of his insight into how economic development resources can be used to grow small businesses. So Neil, welcome to Biz Chat Ohio. And we’re so glad that you can be with us today.
Thank you for having me, Cathy and Gretchen. It’s nice to be here.
Neil, can you just start out by sharing a little bit about your background. How you landed in Cleveland and at team NEO, and then what your role is there?
Yeah. So I’m originally from New Zealand. I had about a 16-year career in New Zealand in technology prior to coming to the United States. I came here in 2016. And I largely arrived here because of my wife– well, now my wife. Before we were dating. And she is born and raised in Cleveland. So that’s the story of how I ended up here.
But when I first came here, I had to sort of push the reset button on my life. You know, it was like, I was 35-something years old, and I had just left a long career in New Zealand. And I was starting from scratch here.
And so I had to reintegrate myself into the community and learn a lot about sort of Ohio and Cleveland and everything, you know, that was going on here. And it was interesting. Because I started actively networking, as soon as I was sort of able to get to grips with my situation.
I started networking in the community and started learning from everyone in the community that was helpful. And that’s one of the things that I found, which was really great, you know, when I first got here in 2016, 2017. My ability to connect with others in Cleveland was fantastic.
The community was very welcoming and warm. And then I started to sort of understand what opportunities were out there and what I needed to do to sort of put myself in a position to access some of these opportunities. So long story short, I went out. I started doing obviously whatever jobs I could get at the time.
You know, my paperwork was still going on. So I got my paperwork sorted out. And I am a U.S. citizen now, which is great.
That took about three– three years to complete. But I joined Team NEO in 2019. And I discovered Team NEO based on my connections with jump start and a few other organizations in the community. And what I was doing at the time before I sort of got this position at Team NEO was, I was doing workshops and training people and companies on emerging technology.
And when I refer to emerging technology, I’m looking at all the different sort of aspects of, how do these things impact on business? How do companies use these different technologies? You know, and how do they grow their business using some of the capabilities that these technologies bring?
So I was doing workshops in Ohio and Michigan and PA, a number of other places, with a small team of people. And then, as I was sort of pitching the idea to a group of people here about doing a workshop in Cleveland, they recommended me to Team NEO.
And they said, well, Team NEO is always talking about stuff like that. And they’re doing things in manufacturing. Maybe you should have a chat to them. So I contacted Team NEO. I contacted Joe Fran, who is now my very great boss.
And he, you know, he called me in. And we started talking. And I think he was trying to get to grips with who is this guy, and what is he about? And at the time, I didn’t know there was a position or anything. You know, I was just in there trying to promote my workshop.
And so I stroll in there, and I give him the fully fledged, here’s what I do. And here’s who I am. And how can you guys support what I’m doing in the community?
And he got, I think a little bit inspired, because of the fact that I was out there doing stuff, and I was putting Northeast Ohio on the map from doing that stuff. And then he called me in again for another meeting afterwards.
And I thought it was still going to be about the workshop. But it turned into starting to explore a project opportunity and starting to explore a position that they had an opening. And so, that’s how I ended up in Team NEO.
Basically through my own activities in the community and contributing back to Northeast Ohio in my own way. And developing that brand, a personal brand in the community. And then having organizations like Team NEO acknowledge that work and say, well, wow, he’s actually here, and he’s available, and he’s got the skills we’re looking for. I’ll be quiet.
That’s a great story.
It is a very important story.
I felt like I was rambling. I’m sorry.
Well, we definitely want to hear more about Team NEO. So can you tell us how you and your team at Team NEO use your expertise to help businesses solve problems, and maybe share an example with us?
Yeah. So first of all, I’ll start at the foundation. We’re economic development. And we are the official partner of Jobs Ohio in the region of Northeast Ohio.
What that means is, I cover personally 18 of 23 counties in Northeast Ohio. That’s sort of our geographic, you know, zone of Team NEO. And then we have five other economic development partners in the state of Ohio that cover all, you know, together we cover all 88 counties and cities and things spread across Jobs Ohio’s footprint.
So that’s how Jobs Ohio works with Team NEO. And then there’s one Columbus– really, Cincinnati, Dayton development coalition et cetera, et cetera. And we’re all part of that economic development landscape.
Now Team NEO’s function is basically to investigate all of the different opportunities that companies can have to grow and scale their business in Northeast Ohio. So what we term that as is a retention and expansion. We call it a business retention expansion process.
And I am part of what we call the BRE team. BRE is just an acronym for business retention and expansion. And there are about five or six of us in Team NEO that are dedicated to the BRE effort. And what that means is each of us cover two or three different sectors.
Jobs Ohio in total has 10 different sectors that it works with. It has finance. It has manufacturing, health care. Many other sectors that it sort of looks at. Military and defense, aerospace, automotive, et cetera, et cetera.
So our team covers the fulcrum of these 10 sectors with our different backgrounds and expertise. And what we do is, we connect with companies that fit into our portfolio within a certain sector. So in my case, that is information technology, logistics, and finance.
And so I talk to banks. I talk to IT companies. I talk to different types of companies, so like innovation companies, health-care innovation technology, manufacturing innovation technology, et cetera. So that’s sort of the type of stuff that I work with every day.
So we have these business retention and expansion meetings with companies. And within those meetings, we look for two or three very clear objectives and goals that the company might have. One is workforce and talent development.
The second is capital investment. So is the company growing its business and investing in infrastructure or investing in facilities? Things like that. And also things like site selection, which are part of that CapEx investment. And so in these two or three areas, what we try to do is identify what is the level of investment that the company has, and how can we support that company in its growth?
So if the company comes to us at Team NEO and talks to any one of our directors on the BRT team, and says to us, look, we’re looking at hiring maybe 30 people in the next three years. We want to grow by 10 people every year. And that’s our goal. And we’re adding this much payroll.
Then what we do is, we investigate that a little bit further and qualify that company, in terms of, yes, they want to add 30 jobs in the community. These are the quality of jobs that they’re adding. And this is the amount of payroll that they’re creating.
Therefore, is this an opportunity for Jobs Ohio as a project? So what we do then for the company is, we work with them. We obviously have an RFI. We request some information from them. They get connected to our project team.
And the project team crafts, on the company’s behalf, a proposal. And that proposal goes to Jobs Ohio. We pitch that. And then Jobs Ohio comes back directly to the company within the space of six to eight weeks with an offer letter, assuming everything goes well.
They come back with an offer letter for a financial incentive related to the workforce that’s been created. So that– hopefully, I didn’t drag on too much. But in summary, that’s how our entire process works. And that’s our core function in terms of how we deliver economic development incentives to businesses in the community.
Thank you very much.
Are there any other resources at Team NEO that you really think small business owners should be aware of and know about?
Yeah. First, I want to step back a second and sort of look at the qualifiers or criteria for engaging incentives that Team NEO and Jobs Ohio work on. We typically look for companies that are usually around what we consider mid-market companies. Three to five years, in terms of operational age.
So if you’re three to five years old and you’ve got fairly sustainable revenues– when I say sustainable, it can be anywhere, sort of $5 million or above in revenues coming in. And then basically the ability to grow sustainably in the market.
So when I talk about these things, what I’m trying to sort of give the audience a bit of a picture of how we fit in and where we fit in. A lot of– if you’re a founder of an early-stage company. Let’s say you are a young startup, and you have two founders. And you had an innovation or an idea.
And what you’re doing is, let’s say it’s a software application, for example. And you’re building that software application, right? And that is what you’re doing. You’re probably too early stage to access a lot of the incentives that Jobs Ohio and Team NEO can actually help you with. Because you’re not considered as a business– you know, you don’t have the business structure essentially for growth and expansion.
So when we talk about growth and expansion, we’re looking for companies that are a little bit more mature. You know, that three to five years sort of time period. Companies that have some level of investment that can be measured. And we can see that they’ve invested a certain amount of money, or they’ve got private equity or capital from different sources, which are helping their business grow.
And that they have sustainable revenue streams that they can prove on paper, basically, that this is how their business works. And the distinction I try and make is that a lot of early-stage companies, less than two years old in the community, will try and reach out to us in the anticipation that we can give them a grant to get their business off the ground.
Now this is the common misconception. That’s not the area we play in. And so, even when we refer to startups, generally, we look at that three-year timeline as the minimum. And we look at whether that startup has had the capability to raise a certain amount of capital to meet the threshold.
So, for example, Jobs Ohio will entertain the idea of supporting a startup if that startup has gone and raised, let’s say a series A around venture capital. And so they’ve got capital already, which they’re looking to scale their business with.
And the company can dedicate that capital to a goal of, let’s say, creating 20 or 30 or 40 new jobs. Then Jobs Ohio will come in and say, well, you know, that’s attractive to us. Because they’re looking at investing their capital into their company and creating these jobs. And we can support that company.
So it’s very much case by case. That three years, three to five years is generally our minimum threshold. When we refer to startups, we look at mature startups at that age of three years at a minimum. And we look at startups that have some capital that they’re putting back into their business.
And then we come in with whatever we can do to support that type of company. Anything earlier than that, that’s not our wheelhouse of opportunity. That kind of opportunity we would tend to refer to organizations like Jumpstart in the community, that do try and work with earlier-stage companies.
But I think it’s extremely important for early-stage companies to understand that even when they approach Jumpstart, Jumpstart has a set of conditions just like we do. They have a best practices that they use to work with different projects that they engage in. And it’s the same with how they invest.
So they have their own criteria. And as a startup, as an early-stage startup, it’s really important to identify what that criteria is and develop your resources in terms of your business plan or your pitch deck or anything else that you would want to present to them, based on the criteria that they work on.
Otherwise, how can they help your business, right? If they can’t tick off the boxes and say, this business or startup aligns with what we do, then they probably won’t invest in you. Or they won’t pull their network together to look at your investment.
So I think that’s– and again, I apologize if I’m rambling. But I think that’s a very key, or critical key point, that each of the economic development organizations, regardless of whether they work with startups or mid-market or greater companies, we all have a best practice. We all have a set of conditions that must be met when we assess a project. And when those conditions are met, then we take it to the next level and say, OK, now we can work with this company to help them scale and grow.
So I’m just going to back up from that a little bit then. So is it typical that, by the time you do get a company, perhaps they’ve worked with a more local economic development group in their city or county, or with a small business development center, or some other group that can guide a startup? And then once they get to that level, then they could bring you in or hand them off to you?
There is help. It’s just, it might be at a different place to get to you.
Yeah. And local economic development partners are a critical part of our work. Because they– I refer to them as LEDOs, that’s the way we refer to Local Economic Development in each of the counties. And our LEDO partners play a critical role in identifying those opportunities.
And you know, they will work with any business that’s in their community to basically sort of help that business get on its feet and get going and provide any local resources that are available to them. But again, it sort of comes back to the referral process. If the LEDO partner feels that the business that they are working or speaking to needs a higher-level discussion for a greater incentive that could be offered by someone like Jobs Ohio, or any of our other partners for that matter, then they will refer them to us.
And then they will say, OK, well, you know what? This company is growing pretty quickly. They’ve hired about 10 people in the last year. They’re investing much more money in our community. We think there’s an opportunity here.
And then we will actively pursue that opportunity to learn more about that company. So yeah, LEDOs play a very critical role. And we think that the first point of call for any small business should be reaching out to your local economic development organization.
So for example, if you’re an Akron, right? The Akron Chamber of Commerce could be a good one to start off with. Or Greater– sort of the Greater Akron and Stark County– they work a lot together with the Greater Akron Chamber.
So basically there are hubs of local economic development partners spread across all of the counties. And they usually have access to everything we have access to. And they’re the ones that can best talk to small businesses about what– basically what’s on offer.
Sure. So up here in our area, you know, Lake and Geauga counties, you know, there are places like the Geauga Growth Partnership that can assist small businesses. Obviously the Small Business Development Center, and Cathy will talk a little bit later about everything we do.
But then we also have three chambers in Lake County. Willoughby Western Chamber of Commerce, the Mentor Area Chamber of Commerce and Eastern Lake County Chamber of Commerce. So, yeah, those are great places to start and start connecting with resources.
If I understood you correctly, Neil, and basically, I’m hearing you and I’m hearing that these businesses make a mistake. They’re wasting some time when they’re going to organizations and they haven’t done their homework. Do you– or at least, Cathy and I in our position, we see a lot of best practices and we see a lot of mistakes.
And we try to talk to our businesses we work with, and steer them away from making those mistakes. So is there another mistake that maybe you see a lot of businesses make that you would say, hey, don’t do this. I think there’s a better way.
And there are, I think, one of the observations is that, even though our projects work with a very defined criteria, and we work with very specific guidelines in terms of the companies that we would be interested in to do a project with for incentives, we do offer some time– and in my case, it’s probably about 20% of my time every year– to guiding startups and telling smaller companies, look, here are some things that you should think about in your business if you’re a year old or two years old, or something like that.
And I do this because of my market, you know, IT, if you’re working with information technology, you’re going to find a lot of companies that are early stage. That’s just the reality. That’s just the nature of the sector that I work in.
So I can’t simply shut my door to these companies. You know, that’s not the way we work. I do offer as much as I can in terms of, yes, I’m happy to have a coffee or meet with you for 30 minutes virtually. I’m happy to understand how your business is going, or what you’re doing. And then I’m happy to point you in the right direction in terms of who you need to talk to or what you may need to know.
In terms of the knowledge aspect of it, and you’re exactly right, when we think about how companies get prepared, Gretchen. The homework part of it is really– at least understand some of the basics around your business.
So it’s not just an app. It’s not just a piece of software or innovation or something that you’re creating in your home. And you’re thinking that you’re going to change the world by. That’s not how this works.
It’s really about identifying, OK, do you have an addressable market? Are there clients that you’ve reached out to try and pilot your product or service offering? Can you get letters of interest from one or two potential customers?
It doesn’t matter how big they are. Just one or two potential customers locally that express letters of interest in terms of you being able to solve a problem that their industry has. And you creating something for that need, right? Just being able to define some of these things.
And I think doing that kind of homework and really figuring out what your addressable market is. Who you serve. So who are your customers going to be as a small business? Have you got some pilot projects? Have you spoken to your customers, and gotten letters of interest about the work that you’re doing?
And then obviously taking the next step further and identifying, do you have a pricing strategy? Do you know, once you’ve developed this product and you’ve trialed it with customers, can you sell the product? Because a lot of entrepreneurs make the mistake of develop first and worry about selling later.
Actually, it’s the other way around. I’ll tell any startup this, and this comes from my own experience of 20 years making mistakes in the past in startups of my own, and learning the hard way how to do this. Get your client first.
Go through a discovery process with your client. Understand the client’s pain point. And then come out with something that addresses that pain point directly. And then you have not only a credible customer that’s willing to do business with you, but you also have validation. Market validation is so important to early-stage companies.
So everything else comes after that. So once you have that first trial customer and once you’ve been able to do something or solve a problem for that customer, then you will understand how much you’re able to charge that customer. And then you can start thinking about, OK, as a business, if I’m able to charge, let’s say, one customer $100 a month– I’m just giving an example.
$100 a month to provide this service. If I grow that to 10 customers, then I’d be making $1,000 a month to charge for that same service, because I’m solving a critical problem in the industry. All of a sudden, you’ve gone from, I had an idea, to I have a business.
So in that last two minutes of time, I’ve just walked a startup through that entire process of, I’m a startup. I have an innovation. I want to solve a problem for an industry. What do I do to get going?
Well, you talk to your customer. Once your customer validates that problem that you’re solving, and you’ve had some chance to try that out with them, then you go to that next step of figuring out how the finances of that business could work.
When you’re at that stage, then you’re ready to develop your pitch deck or your business plan. Then you’re ready to talk to a Jumpstart, because then you can qualify your market. And I think that’s something that a lot of early-stage startups struggle with.
Thank you very much. Thanks. That’s excellent advice.
OK, so we are wrapping up here on time. We only have a couple of minutes. Do you have just one quick success story that you could share with us today that illustrates the power of Team NEO?
Yeah, absolutely. So recently, and I’m not going to name who the companies are, but recently we had one of Team NEO’s investors and a company that we work very closely with, ask us to support them and work with them on a referral to another one of our client companies.
Now typically, we don’t provide consulting like that. So we– we do help companies connect organically through our networking events and other activities. But we don’t blatantly go out and say, hey, you, connect with that person to do business. So we’re not in the business of doing that.
So the way we addressed that was, we had a meeting with the source company, the first company that made the request. And we said, look, how about in terms of you guys trying to connect with this other company that we work with, how about we figure out a strategy?
You know, which allows you to present your value proposition to the people that you’re trying to reach out to in this potential client that you’re observing. And we worked with that company to help form some ideas around how they could make that approach, and what the best way of making that approach would be.
And then, from that, we said, OK, when you’re ready, and when you feel comfortable with your strategy internally, then we’re happy to make a warm introduction to somebody in that company that we know for you guys to have a conversation. So I think– see, that success story is a little bit different from what you read about in the paper.
So what you might read about in terms of our work in something like Crain’s Cleveland, is that we did a project with Sherwin-Williams or some big company like that. This type of success story is not related to incentives. It’s more related to how we help companies connect and how we’re a resource for these businesses.
And I want companies to understand, it doesn’t matter what your size is, if you are in a position where you genuinely feel that you’re engaged as part of our network, and you need some support like that to connect with other companies, we’re not going to say no to you. But we are going to vet the opportunity.
So we are going to understand what your interests are. And we’re going to work with you to try and organically make that happen rather than be intrusive or force you into a discussion with someone that you’re not comfortable with. So that’s– I consider that type of work a success.
The second success that I’d love to sort of highlight is that we create– we help companies create a lot of job opportunities in the community. And I think the most rewarding part of my work personally is when I see a company creating new jobs and recruiting people that need jobs.
I think that’s a big win for the whole community. And that’s something– and again, I’m not going to speak to any specifics. But I think coming out of 2020 and a pandemic year, Team NEO’s work in the community led to something like 9,000 new jobs being created. And that was during a pandemic year.
And all of these jobs were from all the work that I’ve told you about in our podcast today. So you know, there is value. There’s definitely some value in sort of connecting with us. And we’re engaged. We’re highly engaged with a lot of companies. And we understand the needs of our community in Northeast Ohio. And we try and service the needs as best as we can with the resources that we have.
Thanks so much. I mean, Cathy and I, we’ve both been in economic development for a long time. I don’t want to say how many years, so I date us. But definitely longer– longer than you, Neil.
Lot of dye job here on my hair. And we recognize Team NEO as a significant gem. So thanks for everything that you and your team does. We greatly appreciate you being here with us today.
I think your insight is going to certainly help listeners as they look for resources in Northeast Ohio that is going to help them grow their business successfully. You shared a lot of great information. So if our listeners want more from Team NEO, how can they get in touch with you? Or what’s the best way to reach out for Team NEO?
Well, I recommend visit our website. It’s TeamNEO.org. So it’s fairly easy to remember. TeamNEO.org. And if you want to reach me directly, you can visit the About page on our website. And that actually has my email and phone number on that page.
And it’s the same with any of our other staff. We’ve all got our contact information on the about page. And you know, I really do recommend that if companies are trying to reach out to us, when you visit the about page, look for the people in our sort of organization that might best fit your needs.
So if you’re a manufacturer, and you read about one of our BRE directors who, you know, works a lot with manufacturing, reach out to that director. Because they will be sector specific, and they will probably understand your needs you know much better.
And if you’re an IT or technology company, or a logistics company, I’m the right person to turn to. So contact me directly and email me. And you know, we do our very best as a team to get back to people quickly, and get meetings on the calendar quickly. So we will definitely respond to you if you contact us that way.
Perfect, thanks. We will also add those links to our podcast show notes. And just want to add that we do appreciate you being here, Neil. That was a lot of really great information. As long as I’ve worked with Team NEO, I learned a few things today. So it’s always good to brush up on what’s out there and what’s available to the businesses in Northeast Ohio.
This podcast was made possible by the Ohio Small Business Development Center and Lakeland Community College. Please stay up to date with our latest podcast episodes. Sign up and subscribe, at BizchatOhio.com to get our latest show information, delivered right to your inbox .
We’re also going to have a blog on that site. So please just connect with us. Let us know what you think. We’re interested in knowing. We’ll give you a lot of free content.
If you have a business question, you have an idea or something you want to talk to us at the Small Business Development Center about, feel free to email me at CWalsh@LakelandCC.edu. If you want to learn more about what the Ohio SPDC at Lakeland does, you can visit our website at LakelandCC.edu/SPDC.
We offer no-cost business advising in areas of business planning, access to capital, startup, marketing and a host of other topics. So we’d love to hear from you. If you’re outside of the Northeast Ohio region, you can visit America’s SPDC.org to find the center nearest you anywhere in the United States and Puerto Rico.
So Thanks for listening. We will have all that information, all the links will be in our notes. But we want to thank you for listening. Join us next time at Biz Chat Ohio. And I want to thank you for me and Gretchen. Have a great day.
Thank you, guys.
Thank you, Neil.