Jon Weetman has passion for helping small businesses.
From 2012 through 2015, he was the director of Workforce Development and Entrepreneurship at the Carroll County Department of Economic Development, and the navigator of the Carroll Business Path.
Since then, Weetman has struck out on his own, practicing business law as Jonathan C. Weetman, Attorney at Law, LLC., and working closely with business consulting group The Entrepreneur Store, in Westminster.
Since August, Weetman has been the McDaniel College Entrepreneur in Residence, teaching business classes and consulting with students hoping to compete in the annual McDaniel Innovation Challenge, which will be held Monday, April 9. It offers $15,000 in prizes to winning pitches for business or nonprofit startup ideas.
The Times recently caught up with Weetman for a conversation about his new role, the liberal arts education and the start of entrepreneurship in Carroll County.
Q: For a number of years, you were the go-to guy with Carroll County Government for anyone looking to start a business. What made you decide to go out on your own and what have you been up to?
A: I left economic development on very good terms, I enjoyed my time there and loved my staff. We did many effective and useful things.
At the same time I realized where my passion really lied was in providing services directly and getting back into the practice of law, particularly business law, and that’s what I’ve done. I formed an LLC and I am now practicing business laws serving entrepreneurs in the county.
Q: Is this in connection with The Entrepreneur Store?
A: That’s a company I am affiliated with. That company provides everything from accounting to marketing to social media management and graphic design — all those kinds of things. I work with them on doing some of the stuff I was doing with the county — business development and helping them with business plans, all kinds of business assistance.
Q: You have been named the McDaniel College Entrepreneur in Residence. How did that come about, and what does it mean to be the entrepreneur in residence at the college?
A: We are finding in colleges all over and no less in liberal arts colleges like McDaniel, the students really have the bent and the desire to try their hands at entrepreneurship, or at least consider it on equal footing to the traditional career path.
McDaniel was looking for some expertise and resources that can be brought to students to help achieve that. Liberal arts is still a wonderful way to get a broad education and learn how to learn and learn how to think and give yourself a really wide variety of experiences. I think it’s found that sort of base does tend to produce entrepreneurs, because they are better able to recognize the problems that need to be solved, and often those problems are solved by forming a business.
Q: A few years ago there was a movement to recruit more humanities majors into medical schools to bring a more human element into the profession of medicine alongside those coming from a pure science track. To bring in a new mix of ideas and experience. Is it a similar pattern here?
A: It is, because entrepreneurship really comes down to finding a problem and solving it. That’s at the heart of innovation. One can go to business school and learn all of the tools of how to run a business, but if you don’t really see that niche that needs to be filled, then you don’t get the next great startup, or you don’t get the next problem-solver or even the next evolutionary step in innovation. That’s where a lot of these business ideas come from.
Q: That exposure to a mix of different ideas, and being able to synthesize them into something new is really important?
A: Absolutely. Often when I was with the county, people would come in and they wanted to start a business, but they didn’t really have a business idea. My role there, just as it is here, was not to give them a business idea, but to help them execute the idea. A lot of people who train in science or business, they may know how to move the parts around, but again, if you don’t have the idea, you don’t have much to go on.
Q: There seem to be several specific components to your role as entrepreneur in residence, including a role in McDaniel’s annual Innovation Challenge and the Encompass Program. Can you explain in a bit more detail what you’ll be doing?
A: I think it comes in three parts.
It’s not necessarily a requirement of being the entrepreneur in residence, but I do have the privilege of teaching some courses at McDaniel that I really enjoy. Everything from a really neat course called Introduction to Innovation and Entrepreneurship, to a course I am teaching right now that is a small business management course. Prior to that I taught a course on negotiation skills there, so we have added some entrepreneurial and different types of business courses into the curriculum.
The encompass program, in essence, is a multidisciplinary program. It’s not designed for any particular major. But what it does is add some different types of courses for those that might be thinking about entrepreneurship or innovation no matter what field they may be going into. McDaniel also recently added a minor in entrepreneurship that is available as well.
The third leg of that stool is certainly the McDaniel Innovation Challenge. I assist staff there with planning the event and enhancing the event. I’ve really enjoyed meeting the teams and the students individually, helping them refine their business ideas and giving them some hints and tips on submitting to a pitch contest like this challenge.
Q: Given your history working with entrepreneurs and small businesses in a lot of different ways here in Carroll County, and knowing there have been some recent changes such as the advent of the Carroll Biz Challenge and the construction the Westminster Municipal Fiber Network, how do you see the state of entrepreneurship and innovation in Carroll now? Have things changed significantly from where they were 10 years ago?
A: The answer is a big yes: 10 years ago, a lot of the entrepreneurship in Carroll County revolved around the building trades and retail operations and some typical work from home type operations. And that was great. It was fitting and natural and normal.
I think the biggest change now is the diversity and scope of the types of small businesses we are seeing. For example, we are seeing a lot more tech business. I mean, 10 years ago we didn’t have many businesses writing apps, and now we do. We didn’t have the fiber optic network to the extent we have it today, so you are seeing a lot more tech companies that revolve around tech services, cybersecurity, all of those kinds of things.
I am also seeing an increasing percentage of entrepreneurs whose ambitions certainly go well beyond Carroll County and Maryland and even perhaps outside the United States. We are talking about entrepreneurs that really plan to build some large businesses. I think we are seeing more than what we saw 10 years ago. Because we are in a growth economy, and because the internet is ever present, it’s so much easier now for an entrepreneur to live where they want based on the quality of life. They can live here in Carroll County with the wonderful schools that we have and the rural setting and everything we enjoy by living here, and they can run an empire right from here. Particularly if it is tech-based, but even a product-based empire. If they are marketing and shipping, or inventing or consulting, they could do it anywhere, so why not from here?
Q: What resources can you recommend for folks that are interested in entrepreneurship in Carroll County?
A: It may sound self-serving but what we get a lot of at The Entrepreneur Store and what I recommend is we offer a simple one-hour consultation. In that consultation, we lay out a resource plan for them. Sometimes it’s services we provide, sometimes it's referrals and recommendations for other folks in the county, but they can walk out with a plan and a whole stack of resources available to them.
Otherwise, certainly getting to know the businesses in the area by joining an organization like The Carroll County Technology Council, or the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce are also wonderful places to start.
Q: You spoke about how a lot of new businesses today are tech centered. Is there still a place for more traditional business ideas? Is consultation with the resources and pathways available to entrepreneurs in Carroll County today as helpful to someone looking to start a construction business or provide yoga or music lessons as for someone trying to launch the next Facebook?
A: Yeah, the reasons for doing so don’t change whether the idea is a more traditional idea, or perhaps something we weren’t even doing six months ago. The reasons for doing that are exactly the same.
You want to get off on the right foot, you want to understand the regulatory and compliance issues that might prevail and you want to get your numbers right. The majority of businesses I see that were based on good ideas that didn’t make it, it had to do with the owner somewhere missing something in their planning. A lack of startup capital, they didn’t have enough money to market. If you understand those things from the beginning, it’s not guarantee of success, but it certainly improves your chances of success. That’s true for a plumber, a music teacher or someone who wants to get a satellite on the Falcon Heavy with Elon Musk.
Q: Anything else?
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A: Yes. The McDaniel Innovation Challenge is coming up April 9. It’s a good show and the public is invited. There is nothing like nervous energy of a pitch competition. It’s a fun evening.