MUNCIE — Working from their small office at the Muncie Innovation Connector, Matt Howell and his wife Angie Rogers-Howell make contact with close to 400 clients in the area. Their company, Farmhouse Creative, works as a print and digital marketing group that supports small businesses.
It’s not about building a glamorous $500,000 website, Howell explains of his clients’ needs, it’s more about solving small problems for small businesses — like how to get more calls, or get more customers to sign up for an email list. It’s the little things.
Perhaps most interesting about how Howell and Rogers-Howell run their business is their approach to finding new clients. It’s not through the phone book, or social media or their own website. In many cases, it’s through local networking opportunities such as the East Central Indiana Social Media Group (ECISMG).
Since March 2011, the ECISMG has been hosting free monthly workshops covering everything from LinkedIn to email marketing and Twitter networking. The benefits for Howell and Rogers-Howell are multiple.
“We’re talking to a room full of a mix of business and nonprofits,” Howell said. “We benefit by — the do-it-yourself stuff, unless you have a certain skill set, it’s really hard — so that’s where we come in and we can offer services that save them time and money.”
Simply by being present in these meetings and making an effort to reach out to others that attend, the couple can sell their service to businesses that need help with the little things. For companies like Farmhouse Creative, or even individuals in the area, networking opportunities are plenty.
Groups like ECISMG, Muncie Young Professionals, Women in Business Unlimited, Business Networking International and others offer people a place to find friends and potential business partners and in some cases, a look into local life.
The ECISMG initially drew about 15 or 20 people out to its meetings, and Howell, who also serves on the group’s board, says they were thrilled back then. In the nearly five years since, it’s grown to about 50 or 60 people at each monthly event— enough to “fill the room.” They’ve had speakers from as far as Fort Wayne, Chicago, Indianapolis and, of course, from right here in Muncie.
And they’ve all brought something new to the table.
“2015 was our best year,” Howell said. “As long as they learn one thing, I think we’ve met our mission per month on that.”
Because the ECISMG was having its meetings at the Muncie Innovation Connector, Rogers-Howell got to know the guy who runs it — Ted Baker. Turns out renting an office space in the business incubator that currently houses upwards of 30 start-up style companys was perfect for Farmhouse Creative.
The space they work in is relatively small — a square office about 12 feet across — but it’s all they need for three employees. Not to mention, the walls of their Farmland Creative office are wrapped with an all-too-appropriate countryside decal.
And setting up in the Innovation Connector has perks beyond the office customization.
“The nature of the business that we do, we don’t necessarily need a storefront,” Rogers-Howell said. “It was really good for a start-up company who didn’t need a retail space. It really made sense. Our rent includes electricity and internet, which is way better than at the farm, so it just made sense.”
Baker, who is also involved with other business networking groups throughout Muncie, works with the startups as an adviser. It’s not a relationship that requires the business owners to report to Baker, but a relationship that allows them to ask for as much help as they want.
That kind of environment has set him up to get a feel for the business atmosphere in Muncie right now. He says he’s seen a lot more entrepreneurial activity in recent years, even if it doesn’t all “make the big screen.” Sometimes, it’s just a small business doubling its workforce — even if from one to two employees — and growing in the community.
But Muncie still hasn’t established itself as a destination, he added.
“The problem is, if you’re from Indianapolis, you don’t just move to Muncie to start a business,” Baker said. “Well, they don’t see this as a good place. But if you’re from some remote community, and you have an idea and you want to start something, this can be seen as a pretty easy place to navigate.”
Howell was also one of the first members of the Muncie Young Professionals group, which serves a few purposes in the city.
“A lot of people that I’m networking with are just starting out their careers, they’ve either gone to Ball State or come here for their first jobs,” said MYP General Chair Stephanie Wiechmann. “We try to teach them the best things about the community, to try to keep them here.
“That’s kind of our goal: to have an engaged young professionals group who not only love where they’re living, but also try to give back to where they’re living.”
This networking group is making an effort to put people in touch with other groups while offering a rather casual experience themselves. At most every meeting, Wiechmann said, there is a community speaker who will talk about getting involved with other groups like the Young Women’s Christian Association.
People are often invited to meet in a relaxed environment — think the Fickle Peach on Charles Street in downtown Muncie — and simply get to know each other. There’s no pressure to impress anyone, though there are opportunities at every meeting to swap business cards and make those valuable professional connections.
“Especially when you’re starting out you career,” Wiechmann said. “It’s nice to be around people in the same boat.”
Though it’s easy to assume many Ball State students and recent graduates would be involved with the MYP, that’s not the case. Because many of them already have some other support group, they’re often not in need of somewhere to find new connections.
As the group’s growth continues, primarily through word of mouth and the official MYP Facebook page, Wiechmann hopes the Chamber of Commerce can help it reach the next level. If more employers learn about the opportunities here, she said, then it could set the stage for more young people to stick around Muncie.
“We say age is just a number, and we don’t really have an end date,” Wiechmann said. “But a lot of people over 40 don’t get as involved with us as often.”
Contact Ball State sports reporter Dakota Crawford at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @DakotaCrawford_.
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