Chasing Cash

by Evie Maxwell, Staff Writer

Money, they say, is the root of all evil. Unfortunately, it’s also the root of practically everything else. Food. Shelter. Medicine. And, of course, funding—the cold, hard cash needed to start, and sustain, a business.

That is no easy task anywhere, but it’s arguably even tougher in our northwest corner of this northwest state. While the Olympic Peninsula hosts many vibrant, thriving communities, these communities are predominately rural, with roots running deep in both land- and sea-related busi- nesses. In many ways, this is wonderful. We eat great food and play an important role in in the nation’s food security. But, as made crystal clear by Covid, these nature-based industries are also fragile and rarely high-paying. Which leads to the relative poverty of this region.

That, of course, brings us back to money and the unique difficulties of raising it for local businesses. Explains Mike Skinner, executive director for CIE, the Center for Inclusive Entrepreneurship, many would-be business owners in this area “are just not bankable. They don’t own homes or have credit scores or any of the other things you need to get a loan from a bank or venture capital group.”

In response to this problem, a variety of innovative programs including CIE, EDC Team Jefferson (discussed in a previous article), and the delightfully out-of-the-box LION investor network have taken root in East Jefferson County. We’ll tackle CIE first, then those LIONs.

CIE grew out of a bright idea at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute (now Pinchot University). Under the aegis of Gifford Pinchot, a group of students and faculty members came together in order to start a new kind of service, a counterpoint to the traditional MBA approach designed with an eye to combining business with sustainability.

Their goal, says CIE Program Manager Rick Dickinson was “to change big business for the good.”

Across nearly a decade, that goal morphed into today’s CIE which focuses on making “it possible for everyone to start a business,” Dickinson says. “Thus, we have a particular focus on micro enterprises and on those folks who couldn’t otherwise have a business.”

With offices in Port Angeles, Mount Vernon, Palouse and Port Townsend, CIE starts with a variety of classes. These range from the most basic ‘Start Simple’ course, which aims at helping would-be entrepreneurs determine if their ideas are workable, to a lineup of increasingly sophisticated courses. More importantly, graduates of the Start Simple course are eligible for one-on-one advising to help get their business launched and on its way to success. CIE supple- ments that with an array of specialized learning opportuni- ties. Among these are what CIE Business Advisor Micah Jonet describes as “One-off trainings, for example on taxes, media marketing, Quick Books” and the like.

While this assistance is critical, this article is about money. Here the CIE has been, and continues to be, very active, serving as a conduit to help link entrepreneurs to a variety of funding sources. During the height of Covid, the group acted as a sort of clearinghouse for government grants designed to help keep restaurateurs and the like stay in business. When those dollars dried up, the group embarked on a number of other initiatives.

On the smallest end of the scale, they hosted a training session where all participants received $500 to help them get started. On the bigger side, Skinner notes, “We recently became a Kiva trustee.” This international, non-profit plat- form for crowdfunding “offers zero percent interest loans, all based on social collateral,” Skinner explains. In short, recipients don’t have to be “bankable.”

While Kiva has been most active in the developing world, the group is “now looking more domestically,” Skinner notes. “As a Kiva trustee, we can now endorse people who have been through our training program.” Another option for local money is the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Under President Biden, Skinner notes, the Department has moved much of its focus “to helping local producers do better.”

That, in turn, has given CIE the ability to help local entre- preneurs with the endlessly complex process of applying for USDA loans. “We’re hoping that during the winter we can figure out what some of our local farmers need and help them apply,” Skinner says.

In other efforts, CIE works with organizations such as the previously mentioned EDC Team Jefferson; the NCCU Food Resiliency Loan in Skagit County; and with investors in the LION group.

LION, aka the Local Investing Opportunities Network (jeffersonlion.net), traces its roots to Jefferson County’s Local 20/20 group which focuses on the sustainability of the community. Back in 2008, the efforts of this group led to the formation of LION here in East Jefferson County, the first-ever local investing network. The network was designed as an informal group of local investors dedicated to helping the community, and it has been so successful that it’s now duplicated in communities across the state.

Says Earll Murman, a long-time resident who has served with the East Jefferson LION for 14 years, “We’re a network, not an organization. We don’t have officers or make decisions as a group. We don’t have a collective pot of money or anything like that. We’re just people who want to build a thriving local community.”

Focusing on the ‘individual’ aspect of the process and ensuring that investors and the folks they invest in have a personal relationship is essential as it frees businesses from a variety of lengthy, and often expensive, SEC regulations.

Collectively, LION investors have helped fund dozens of key businesses in this area, including such well-known names as Aldrich’s Market, SpringRain Farm, Ajax Café, and The Broken Spoke. The loans offered by LION inves- tors are typically uncollateralized, giving start-ups the ability to get going without existing wealth.

The process for obtaining a loan from LION members involves dedication, know-how in the planned business and, perhaps more than anything, an ability to connect with the community. As with so much else these days, that process starts with an online submission. Once completed, the submission is sent out to the entire LION network. “About half of the business opportunities get no response,” Murman notes. For the other half, the proposed business owners either meet with an individual investor or, if a group of investors is interested, make a 30-minute presen- tation on the proposed business and its financial needs. “From that,” says Murman, “over half of those will end up getting an investment.”

“When a LION member makes an investment,” Murman says, “they do expect the loan to be repaid with interest. But the important dividend is not quantitative; it is the connections to the community that really counts. These investments help stitch the community together and, as an investor, when you know you’ve helped somebody get their start, that’s very rewarding.”


Editor’s Note: LION is hosting a community meeting on November 2 from 4:30 – 6:30 p.m. at Finnriver Cider Gardens for anyone interested in learning more about LION or possibly joining. For more information about membership, please check the LION website at jeffersonlion.net.