STAMFORD — Three numbers sum up the predicament of American startup firms, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy told entrepreneurs and small-business owners during a meeting this week in the South End.
Eight — the percentage of businesses that are one year old or younger; 20 — the percentage of new jobs created by those companies; and 50 — the percentage of those firms that will not last for more than five years.
To better understand why startups are struggling to grow and survive, Murphy convened a panel discussion at the Comradity shared-workspace complex on Canal Street, with Stamford Mayor David Martin and Stamford state Rep. Caroline Simmons, to gather input from local business leaders. Murphy has made investment in startups a legislative focus, recently introducing two bills in Congress that aim to bolster financial support for fledgling firms.
“The big Fortune 500 companies, many of which we are very proud to have in Connecticut, they are not adding jobs like they were 10, 20 or 30 years ago,” Murphy told a crowd of more than 50. “It is all you who are adding jobs.
“There is a fragility to getting in the door as a startup and then getting over that first hump of those difficult first few years that we’ve got to have a much more honest and robust and daring conversation.”
Many who spoke during the panel criticized the state’s business environment, pointing to regulatory obstacles and a feeling of insufficient backing from public agencies.
“Overall, we need to do something about the lack of support for small business — whether it’s low-tech or high-tech, clothing, what have you — because it’s just not there,” said Jeré Eaton, owner of the Stamford-based PrintabiliTees, a printed and embroidered products and services firm. “I’m considering relocating because my company cannot be successful in the state of Connecticut with the lack of support of the city and the lack of support from the state.”
Small businesses represent the majority of employment in the city, Martin said. The city has launched a number of initiatives including an online small-business portal, but Martin acknowledged that the city has limited resources.
“I’ve got an economic development department that consists of one person,” Martin said. “That’s all I can really afford in the city budget.”
Brenda Lewis, principal of the Greenwich-based Transactions Marketing, said that the state could do more to help technology firms. At the Workpoint shared-office complex on Harbor Drive, Lewis is launching next month TechXel Stamford LLC, a technology accelerator that she said would be the first of its kind in Fairfield County.
“We identified this hole that you have,” Lewis said. “Technology has been a stepchild in Fairfield County for a long, long time. “The reality is that technology is going to drive jobs growth and demand growth that’s going to pull Connecticut out of the ditch.”
Policymakers and business leaders need to accept the reality — and opportunities — of the state’s workforce if Connecticut is to prosper, said Mark Lassoff, founder and president of the Vernon-based LearnToProgram Media, a publisher of web, mobile and game development courses.
“One thing we fail to do on a statewide level is embrace the demographics we have, instead of trying to paint the picture of Austin, Texas, or Boulder, Colo., over the landscape of Connecticut,” Lassoff said. “We need to take a look at what we have and the resources here and look at the gray hair and the diversity we have and the experience and education of the population here as a benefit, and stop trying to attract millennials who aren’t coming right now.”
A number of the heads of the 14 businesses based at Comradity participated in the gathering. Steve Forti, a former Army Green Beret who founded and leads the fitness-competition firm Fit Fight, cited the support of Comradity co-founder Jim Kern.
“What brought me to these offices was I told him a little bit about my background, I told him what I was looking for, I told him that I didn’t really know what I was doing,” Forti said. “He said we’ve got a great desk for you. Since I got through the door, they did handshake me with all the necessary people to move my business along. You can use that as an example, and it should be bigger.”
Other participants in the discussion said that they perceived government agencies as being less nimble and responsive than private-sector firms — a criticism accepted by Murphy.
“Government is a totally different animal that is careful and slow-moving, by design, and risk adverse, by design,” Murphy said. “There’s a real fear on behalf of a lot of people in investing in something new that might not go right because you could lose your job over that. … We’ve got to make that better, but it’s probably not going to be ‘fixed.’”