If you’re starting a small business in the design or high-technology sectors, you could hardly pick a better location in today’s New York than Long Island City. The rapidly developing area’s got it all: a fast-growing population, high-rise development to accommodate it and the glamour of Manhattan so close it almost looks like you could touch it.
And if you’re starting small but have a promising idea likely to result in growth — meaning you’ll be hiring at some point in the not-too-distant future —the best spot for you in LIC just might be one at NYDesigns, the business incubator at LaGuardia Community College.
NYDesigns can give your startup everything from office space at below-market rates to business advice, pro bono legal guidance and access to a high-tech lab for making prototypes of your product. And you get to share the space with a number of other startups, none of which will directly compete with your firm, all of which are coping with some of the same issues you are as you work to establish yourself.
“I’m really blown away by what we have created here and how meaningful this has been to our clients,” said Natalia Arguello, the NYDesigns director. “I think we have a lot of happy clients. It’s great to hear that our services are really meaningful and help them take that step that they were planning to take before they got here. It’s really rewarding.”
Since its establishment, NYDesigns has hosted more than 50 companies, Arguello said, helping create an untold number of jobs.
“We’re an economic development program, so the reason we were created was to help the economy and the community grow,” Arguello said. “So that is why the number of employees is the most important thing. We are looking for companies that can grow and invest in employees, and in training their employees. That’s also one of the metrics we use to see if we are doing our job right.”
Typically, a company might start at the incubator as a one-person firm but employ half-a-dozen people by the time it moves out after the standard three-year tenure, she said.
“What we do with a lot of them is transition them from being a consultant or freelancer to being a company,” she explained. “We’ve had over 50 clients go through the program. Some of them moved out before because they grew quickly and we didn’t have space for them.”
NYDesigns started out with just two clients, and now 26 companies call the incubator home. Anyone interested in applying for a space can call Arguello at (718) 663-8404 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Among those 26 is Zimba Collections, a high-end fashion design firm that makes custom gowns and suits for women, made-to-measure lines for retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue, and uniforms for luxury hotels and casinos in Las Vegas — everything from waitresses’ cocktail dresses to the outfits worn by front desk staffers.
Zimba’s sole employee is principal and designer Kelsy Zimba, but she has a number of vendors, including the four design studios and factories that turn out her clothing — one in College Point, one in Manhattan’s Fashion District, one in Brooklyn and one in her native Minnesota — material suppliers and other freelancers, contributing to a number of jobs in the industry.
“The Fashion District in general in New York needs a lot of support right now, and I do what I can to help maintain that,” Zimba said, adding that she will be hiring eventually.
“We’re definitely growing,” she said. “Down the road, it’ll happen.”
NYDesigns was the perfect location for her company, which she founded in 2009 and turned into an LLC last year.
“I knew I wanted to be in Long Island City because it’s so close to the Garment District, and NYDesigns was by far the best space I found in my hunt — and I think I looked at 20 different places,” Zimba said. “I like being around the other creative professionals that are here. It’s a great community environment.”
Another firm that’s part of that great environment is Vengo, which builds and manages small, high-tech vending machines. Only 2 feet tall, a foot and a half wide and 4 and a half inches deep, the machines offer “everything from cell phone chargers to Sour Patch Kids,” in the words of co-founder Brian Shimmerlik. They’re located in a growing number of offices, bars and tourist spaces, with the company working toward getting them installed in taxis too.
“We have a team of aerospace engineers who have built this machine from scratch, and we don’t think anyone can build it quite as small as we have,” said Shimmerlik, who came up with the concept.
Shimmerlik won the city’s 2011-12 Next Idea competition with the notion, then called TaxiTreats, brought in two co-founders and used the prize money to get the prototype built. Now Vengo has five full-time employees, three part-timers and six “wonderful interns.” It’s also looking for warehouse space in Queens.
“We love Long Island City; it’s a great place to be,” Shimmerlik said. “We have an incredible amount of space here that allows us to do things like assembly. We are building everything in-house and we really want to keep everything in the region. We’re doing everything we can to impact the economy and bring manufacturing back to New York City.”
That’s just what you might say about the NYDesigns incubator on the whole, as well as LGCC’s many other business-oriented, job-creating services, such as the student entrepreneurship program funded by Capital One bank, which provides those with promising ideas up to $1,000 in startup funding.
Arguello said the college offers similar services to the people it serves in both programs.
College President Gail Mellow touted both in an emailed statement.
“For over seven years, LaGuardia’s NYDesigns’ business incubator program has helped designers and other creatives in NYC grow their small businesses,” Mellow said. “The Capital One Entrepreneurship Program gives us a wonderful opportunity to take this expertise and work directly with our students, the many aspiring entrepreneurs that attend LaGuardia. LaGuardia students are driven and eager to start their own businesses and with this extra help, and with the support of Capital One, they’ll have the tools and confidence they need to launch their idea and realize their dreams.”
At NYDesigns, Arguello said, “Most of the companies here are going through the same things: the pains of growing a company and the joys of starting something that is your own. It’s something spectacular when you see your product out there.”
And it’s something spectacular when your product’s success means it’s time to hire people to make more of it, as so many NYDesigns clients have done.