COLUMBIA — Randy Minchew loves to make connections. That's the first thing he wants you to know.
He's also quite the businessman. Since his first venture just over three decades ago, he's helped launch almost 30 companies.
Now, he has capitalized on those skills to help entrepreneurs get their ideas off the ground through a business called Innovat'd.
He calls himself the chief connector, a testament to his talents for connecting people and starting small businesses.
Minchew, 55, figures out what prospective business owners are doing well and what they're missing, and he connects them to the resources and people they need to get the job done.
A little more than a year after opening its doors in early 2012, the company has already helped launch six businesses. All of them, plus Innovat'd, operate out of 1,000 square feet in four rooms on Fay Street.
"That's the beauty of it because you’re not going to stifle yourself with these huge office costs and overhead. You're really giving everybody a chance to get launched," Minchew said.
Among the businesses are:
"I'm the luckiest guy in the world," Minchew said. "I don't have to do anything other than introduce you to the people you need to meet."
A chance to get launched
Last year, Regional Economic Development Inc. moved its offices downtown to be more accessible to budding entrepreneurs. REDI President Mike Brooks estimates that he spends at least 20 percent of his time meeting with early-stage startups.
"It is about a culture. It is about an understanding that you are welcomed to make your ideas into a business," he said.
Minchew works in an office at the back of the building on Fay Street. A cluster of business cards lie on the thick, hardwood desk he built from scratch.
"When I say I built it, I'm telling you, no blueprint, just put it together," he said. "I see structural things in my mind, so I have this ability to look at something, see the structure of it and craft it."
His partner, Corbin Umstattd, works in the adjacent office, where he manages business details for Innovat'd.
As Umstattd puts it, Minchew can be hard to keep track of around the office.
"He knows everybody. He loves talking to people. He loves connecting people together, so he's always out and about and around building relationships, 'uncovering rocks,' as he likes to say," Umstatted said.
Outside of his work with Innovat'd, Minchew is often asked to help individuals or companies locate resources. He's currently helping a pallet manufacturing company find funding and contracts.
"I make a conscious decision to fight my fear or to go past my fear when I feel compelled to introduce myself to someone or to connect people," he said.
"I'm consciously thinking, 'this feels risky, but I think I'm supposed to.' Another way to say it is I'm intentional about making connections with people."
He joked: "I could have made a lot more money if I'd started a dating site."
Knowing what it takes to get started
Minchew has been launching businesses for 31 years. Some have been wildly successful and others complete disasters, by his own account, but each has helped him gather experience getting ideas off the ground.
"I understand what it takes to get started," he said.
A lifetime of entrepreneurship was launched at 24, when he charged $600 on his Uncle Dave's Sears card to launch Outdoor Creations, building patios, decks, gazebos and fences in his hometown of Houston.
"Looking back on it, the things that were eliminated that I couldn't do led to picking 'well, what’s left?' — something in the construction industry," he said.
"I didn't work well for other people, so what could you do for yourself? So I started building patio decks and then gazebos."
He also spent several years as a salesman, which brought him to Columbia when he took a job selling diamonds.
He was laid off when the company restructured but stayed to start Swift Windows, Doors and More. He'd eventually switch the name to Swift Companies, a residential remodeling business that he co-owns.
He also started SwiftBoys Maintenance, which handles small repairs, in partnership with Swift Companies.
Other business ventures have included:
Swift Business Solutions Center, which has grown into CoMo Incubator, which he operates from his office on Fay Street.
In 2010, he launched GolfSo, a social networking site to connect Missouri golfers, later bringing Umstattd on as a partner. At the time, Umstattd was a student at Columbia College
While planning the site, the two decided against hiring established companies to make videos or build a website or run a marketing campaign. They wanted to find entrepreneurs to do the tasks instead.
That idea became the seed that eventually grew into Innovat'd.
While the company brings on other entrepreneurs to start businesses, Innovat'd helps them get launched, working with them from the planning stages to managing the administrative side of the business once it takes off.
Throughout the process, Minchew serves as a sounding board for the new companies, offering his ideas and expertise.
Currently, Innovat'd helps manage a golf magazine, a publishing company, a video and audio recording studio, a golf network, a consulting firm, a media management company and GolfSo.
"Randy's got years and years of business background and experience under his belt, both successes and failures, and he brings a lot to the table" said Caleb Rowden, a state legislator who co-founded media management company Clarius Interactive.
"It's a very different but very needed perspective that was helpful in the process of launching Clarius," Rowden said.
'We're so glad you're here'
Minchew carries his business knowledge and his skill as a community builder beyond the walls of Innovat'd to help small businesses.
Late last year, he joined a group called Social Era Entrepreneurs, a network launched by Sean Siebert, an entrepreneur and adjunct professor at Columbia College, that uses community to help small businesses turn their ideas into realities.
The group lives on Facebook, a private group of about 60 swapping ideas, though Siebert figures its total connections are closer to 100. Most of the membership is based in Columbia, but a few live in New York, Virginia and Arizona as well.
Earlier this year, a member of Social Era Entrepreneurs posted an idea for a new business logo to the Facebook group, and Minchew watched a conversation unfold — suggestions for the colors, design and even the cost of embroidering it on a shirt.
That's the kind of dialogue he wants to see as the group takes off.
"Being an entrepreneur in the social era is not just something you wake up in the morning and know how to do. It's a learned skill," Minchew said.
Siebert recruits entrepreneurs to join the community as it gains momentum, and once they join the group, Minchew helps them get connected.
"It's one thing to create something and say 'come to this,'" Minchew said, "but when you get them, somebody needs to take your name and number and say 'we're so glad you're here.'"
How the process works
Innovat'd brought Kelsey Breckenridge on board in August 2012 to start Straight Acres.
Before taking on the business, she had been working in magazine sales and wanted the opportunity to write. She met Minchew while dating his son, and he offered her the chance to become her own boss.
Breckenridge, a graphic designer and three contributing writers produced the content that would become the first issue of Golf Social Magazine, a publication for Minchew's company GolfSo, a golf social networking site.
Throughout the process, she said Minchew served as mentor, offering ideas on her storyboards, helping find sales leads for advertisers, pushing her to use technologies like Dropbox or Google Calendar to make her business efficient.
"He's my dad's age, but he's always surrounded by young energy, so I always think that's kind of cool because not a lot of people in their 50s are going to believe in a 25-year-old and give them a business," she said.
Jim Vastyan publishes The Missouri Golf Post, a magazine launched by an Innovat'd company in April. Vastyan lives in St. Louis, where he distributes the publication. He connected with Innovat'd in early February after years of tossing around the idea.
About two months later, he had his first issue — 5,000 copies of 36 tabloid-sized pages and a full-color glossy cover.
And when the issue published, Minchew made the drive to St. Louis with 1,000 copies to hand out to country clubs and golf courses.
"Quite amazingly, in my mind, he didn't leave the distribution part totally up to me," Vastyan said.
"I could not, in retrospect, have come close to doing what I've been able to do without their help on what I call the back end," he said.