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Q&A: "Chief Evangelist" preaches the virtues of a revived Youngstown

Jim Cossler. Photo Submitted
Jim Cossler. Photo Submitted

Jim Cossler, an entrepreneurial expert, is the chief executive officer of the Youngstown Business Incubator. He is also known as  "Chief Evangelist." His gospel? Spreading the good word about the growth and development of small businesses in the Youngstown area. Cossler's primary role is to serve as a mentor to YBI's portfolio of about 30 software companies, as well as to build and manage the internal and external relations and networks necessary for their growth. He is also cheerfully optimistic about Youngstown's transition from an aging relic of the Rust Belt into a front-runner of innovative software start-up companies. HiVelocity spoke with Cossler recently to discuss the movement taking place in Mahoning Valley.

You're title includes "evangelist." How did you acquire that distinction?

One of the things we do extremely well is tell our story to other people. One way to do that is to send updates to about 10,000 people. We tell the story of our portfolio companies. I received a response in an e-mail from Lute Harmon (of Great Lakes Publishing), he said 'You're the chief evangelist." It was a title Lute gave me.

How does that title fit into your duties at the Youngstown Business Incubator?

One of my roles is to be a rainmaker for all of our portfolio companies. One of those roles is to be a contact person. So in order to be a rainmaker I have to spend a large part of my time building a large external network for the Youngstown Business Incubator and our portfolio companies.

What's the mission of the Youngstown Business Incubator?

We have a decidedly different model as an organization. Yes, we are the incubator, but the incubator is really a catalytic engine. The typical model is you graduate the companies, you incubate them, and then you disconnect the companies from each other and geographically disperse them in the area. We don't think that's the correct model. We are connecting companies through incubation. We never want to disconnect our companies from our program. And we never want companies to disconnect from each other. If you apply and are accepted, someday we'll hold you personally responsible.

The steel mills are gone. How has Youngstown prepared itself to move forward?

A lot of incubators don't care what you do. They don't care what you're doing. We don't think that's possible. What we've chosen to do in Youngstown, rather than being mediocre with different technologies, we've chosen the type of companies we want. We want to work with business-to-business software companies companies creating software for other companies to use. I think what we've done is we've picked the technology that fits perfectly, and our companies are flourishing because of it. We don't pretend we're good at launching bio-science companies. We're world class at launching software companies.

What has led the transformation of a down-and-out steel town to become one of the top-10 places for entrepreneurs?

A lot of things. The cost of doing business in Youngstown, Ohio, is a fraction of what the cost is in other places. The cluster we're building in Youngstown is leading to that. There's also been a huge change in the political leadership in the Valley. (U.S. Rep.) Tim Ryan is chasing down federal research funds. We've got a dynamic mayor in Jay Williams. We've got a great geographic location. You're crazy not to be here. There's nothing like us in Cleveland and nothing like us in Pittsburgh.

Can you offer a sneak-peek at what Youngstown will look like in, say, 20 years?

I'm not sure what Youngstown will look like in 20 years, but I know that software companies will be a large part of it. Our first break-through company, Turning Technologies, started with two people in 2003. Or second breakthrough, Zethus Software, is growing. There is a cluster here. I think we could see between 2,000 and 3,000 people working in the software industry in Youngstown.

What do we need to do to keep the ball rolling in Youngstown?

I think it's at a point that it's self-perpetuating. I don't see this losing momentum. With the nine companies that are residents on our three-building campus, they are already close to employing 300 people. Next year, there could be 600 people. In two years it could be a few thousand. It's gotten to the point where it's feeding itself. It just keeps growing.

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