Category: Northern Virginia


The Power in Connections

After securing a Federal STEP grant worth more than $9,000, JMtel will launch its product to the international market at the Mobile World Congress.

As a wireless communications company, JMtel is all about connections. Business partners Justin Mooney and Thomas Unander-Scharin deal with everything that goes on between cell phones and the towers that serve them, including testing, data, and optimizing communications. They share an office in the Mason Enterprise Center-Fairfax at George Mason University, which also houses the Mason SBDC. When they need business advice, the SBDC is steps away.

Mooney became a client of the SBDC when he needed help getting his business started. “Being able to bounce ideas off of someone who has started companies before is terrific,” says Mooney. “They were really instrumental in helping me get my company off the ground.”

SBDC Business Counselors Bernard Ferret and Timm Johnson worked with Mooney and Unander-Scharin and then referred them to Aaron Miller, the International Trade Manager at the Virginia SBDC. He, in turn, put the duo in touch with Ellen Meinhart of the international group at the Virginia Economic Development Partnership. She administers their Federal STEP Grant program. Mooney and Unander-Scharin were, in fact, awarded a $9,000 STEP grant that paid for JMtel’s “pod” (small booth) at the Mobile World Congress, the wireless community’s biggest international trade show.

“Thanks to Ellen and Aaron, we are working with Pompeya Lambrecht, Senior International Trade Specialist at the U.S. Department of Commerce, to make the most of our trade experience,” says Mooney. He credits his connections at the Mason SBDC with helping his business to survive and thrive. “It’s all thanks to these great mentors who helped me get off the ground and helped me to get the grant,” concludes Mooney.

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College Nannies & Tutors

Building on Stronger Families

College Nannies & Tutors started with 45 employees in 2014, grew to 205 employees in 2015, and expect to double that number in 2016. They generated $700,000 in growth in 2015 and expect their sales to increase by 60% in 2016.

Simon and Caitlin Gillett opened a business because they saw a need in the Fairfax community they now call home. “When we moved to the United States, we noticed there were a lot of working families without grandparents nearby,” Simon Gillett says. “We’re a couple like that with a young family.”

The Gilletts decided to open a childcare franchise of College Nannies & Tutors, a national organization that provides caregivers who bring order, organization, and options to family life.

As the name suggests, College Nannies & Tutors provides reliable childcare and tutoring to children “from cradle to college.” “From infancy we provide child care. As a student ages and requires homework help, we offer tutoring up to college.” The company hires experienced nannies and sitters and requires CPR training and First Aid certification. If sitters have questions or concerns while on the job, Caitlin Gillett or another manager is always on call.

When planning his business, Gillett looked up the Mason SBDC. “I was a college professor, and the connection with the university led me to the Mason Enterprise Center,” Gillett says. “When you’re starting a business, there are a lot of administrative details that need to be dealt with, and knowing there is someone to support you when you run into a roadblock is important. The SBDC helped us with a business plan as well as financial aspects, marketing, franchise opportunity, and accounting.”

“We opened in 2014 with 45 employees,” Gillett says. “In 2015 we had 205 employees, mostly part time. This year we’ll double the number of employees.”

In 2016 the Gilletts launched a My Sitters app that allows clients to book a favorite sitter with as little as three hours’ notice. “It complements what we’ve been doing for a long time—building stronger families,” Gillett says. The last three words of that comment, Gillett adds, are the company’s mission statement. “We’re not a website,” he says. “We’re local and based in this community.”

Gillett noted that his business had $700,000 in growth in 2015 and expects a 60% increase in 2016. “The SBDC is about peace of mind,” Gillett concludes. “The SBDC is always there and ready to help if we need them.”

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Discovery Time Learning Center

Learning on the Go

Discovery Time Learning Center opened in 2014 with a profit the first year; revenues exceeded $1 million in 2015 and are expected to be $1.2 million in 2016. They have also been able to create 23 jobs.

Stephanie Harris began planning the child daycare center she opened in 2014 while still in high school. Profitable its first year of operation, Harris’ Discovery Time Learning Center in Alexandria had revenues exceeding $1 million in 2015 and anticipates an increase to $1.2 million in 2016.

“Having my own daycare center was a dream I’ve had since I was 15 years old,” says Harris. She was part of a comprehensive early childhood program for three years while in high school. Continuing to make plans, Harris went to the Alexandria SBDC in 2011 for advice while pursuing her Master’s in Special Education at George Mason University and working as a middle school teacher. “I needed something to hold me over,” she explains. “My goal was to open a daycare operation for 75 to 100 children in the Del Ray area of Alexandria where there is a large millennial population,” Harris explains. “There continues to be a demand for child daycare facilities there; all of the centers in operation now have waiting lists.”

As Harris continued to make plans, Alexandria SBDC Financial Analyst Jack Parker introduced her to a successful daycare operator in the area who became a mentor. “Most of my research was learning on the go,” she says.

“The SBDC was a one-stop shop for me. They helped me with everything,” Harris says. “I worked with Jack Parker on my business plan, and he connected me with a real estate broker. It took two years to find a location with room for a playground and parking.” Parker also approached Eagle Bank, which eventually approved the SBA 7(a) loan Harris was seeking.

A second property is now on the agenda for Discovery Time. The additional location will make room for more families currently on a waiting list. “We started with 20 kids, and now we’re at 85,” Harris says. “Currently the staff is at 23.”

Harris hasn’t forgotten that the SBDC is the place that helped make it happen. “I recommend the SBDC one hundred percent,” she concludes. “The one-on-one attention the SBDC provides is remarkable.”

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Green Box ABA

Outside the box brings big rewards for Green Box ABA

Green Box ABA has 15 full time and 45 part time employees that serve 70 clients with a growing wait list.

“Our story is what sets us apart. People identify with it and are drawn to it,” says Carl Dzyak, co-owner and founder of Green Box Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) in Springfield.

Growing up, Carl and the other neighborhood kids would use the green electrical box on the side of their building as their meeting place. The green box, as well as a lifelong affinity for psychology, inspired him to create a unique business. “We provide high-quality therapy for children on the autism spectrum,” Carl explains. “Our methods allow these kids to gain social skills both inside and outside their homes.”

When Carl started Green Box ABA in October 2014, it was just him at a desk in a tiny, cramped office. Lifelong friend and co-owner Chris Richardson, joined shortly after, and the business began to gather steam . . . rapidly.

Carl’s idea was to employ licensed therapists to provide in-home services to clients for up to 40 hours a week or as few as four. While they do have an office, the heart of Green Box lies with the work they do in clients’ homes.

Once Carl formulated his approach, based on B.F. Skinner’s principles of operant conditioning, he assembled his core team. Often he ran head first into a unique situation: Too much interest. Investors. Ventures capitalists. All with their own angle, and each eager to use.

Green Box’s unique methodology. Carl needed an ally. Enter the business counselors at SBDC at the Community Business Partnership in Springfield.

“I found myself getting a lot of advice from people with many agendas,” said Carl. “The SBDC counselors were the only objective voices I found in all that noise. They had the experience and the connections that I needed to get me where I wanted to go. They gave me the opportunity to practice pitching to a venture capitalist, which was really just invaluable because, honestly, where else, outside of having a family member or close friend, would you get a chance like that?”

Green Box works exclusively with military families through the Department of Defense, and the need is great. Yet pacing their growth has been critical. It takes time to assemble a team of highly skilled, trustworthy “behavior technicians.” Carl is quick to credit his stellar team for every bit of Green Box’s success. “Having that synergy with people that I trust is what has made all the difference,” he says.

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Sassy Pat’s Tea Parties

SBDC suits Sassy Pat's to a 'tea'

With the help of the SBDC, Pat Carson opened her business in 2017. As her business grows, she continues to seek assistance from the SBDC for business related issues.

Pat Carson’s business in Locust Grove started with a tea party. “I held a tea for my sister Pami-Sue,” Pat says. “And that sparked my interest in the lost art of tea parties. I wanted to share it with others, so I decided to start Sassy Pat’s Tea Parties.”

Pat wanted something new to do during her retirement. Fortunately, when she decided to look into a tea-party business, a friend gave some advice. “My friend said, ‘Please do me a favor, and go to the SBDC,’” Pat says. She did and met with David Reardon, the business counselor at the Lord Fairfax SBDC at Culpeper.

“Pat contacted us for startup assistance that would help her understand registration and licensing obligations at the federal, state, and local levels,” David says. “Following the guidelines, Pat set up an LLC.”

Pat developed a business model that minimized her overhead: the client arranges for the location of the tea, often in the client’s home, while Pat provides the food, tea, china, silverware, decorations, etc. “It’s really taken off the last few months,” she notes. “Right now I’m the only employee, and I’ve never been so busy in my life!”

Before pouring the first cup of tea, Pat sits down with each client and makes a plan. “I go over available color schemes and themes, and we look over the menu,” she adds. Sassy Pat’s offers a selection of savory and sweet options and a variety of teas. “There are so many choices to make,” she adds. “Every tea party takes a lot of planning.”

So does, as Pat discovered, starting a business. Pat returned to the SBDC for an in-depth lesson on using QuickBooks. “I showed Pat the various accounting functions in the software,” David says. “This session gave Pat a more comprehensive view of the input and reporting capabilities of QuickBooks.”

As her business grows, Pat plans to return to the SBDC for guidance and assistance with business-related issues. “I will go back to the SBDC— I definitely will,” Pat says. “The SBDC gives you good information that you won’t get anywhere else. Plus it’s free — that’s the best part!”

“Giving these tea parties has become my passion,” she declares. “This is something I want to do for the rest of my life and I want to make sure I do it right,” Pat concludes. “The SBDC pointed me in the right direction!”

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Cork & Table

Planning and patience — a recipe for success

Now in its third year, Cork & Table has doubled its sales over year one and eliminated almost all debt. Plans for a new location are already underway. 

Chef James Fallon ran the successful Northern Neck Gourmet Restaurant in Warsaw, VA, when he began thinking of moving to a larger market. With advice from the University of Mary Washington SBDC, James found a recipe for success in Fredericksburg.

“James wanted to carry his food and wine points of view to more people,” SBDC Executive Director Brian Baker says. “He had built a strong brand with the Warsaw restaurant, but like other graduates from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, he hungered for growth opportunities. He was determined to move to Fredericksburg, where the market was significantly larger.”

The SBDC helped James develop a business plan, identify a location, negotiate a lease, and identify sources of working capital. “With reserves from Northern Neck Gourmet Restaurant and a Virginia Small Business Financing Authority microloan, he started the Cork & Table restaurant,” Brian says. “The Warsaw brand gave James market familiarity and loyalty,” he adds, “which helped nurture Cork & Table’s early brand.”

One of the biggest challenges for James was learning the tastes of his new community.

“Not only was it challenging to find the right individuals to assist with building the restaurant, but once it opened it took another three months to solidify the concept and menu,” he says. “It took the entire first year to understand the downtown market.”

“The UMW SBDC and Brian Baker played key roles in defining the process of developing the business, both financially and logistically,” James says. “Most importantly, Brian helped me negotiate the terms of the lease. The process required a focus on long-term goals instead of dwelling on the short-term struggles,” James states. “Brian was available for routine guidance meetings, site visits, market strategy sessions, and telephone calls on the fly.”

Patience, planning, and hard work paid off. Cork & Table is successful and already expanding. “As Cork & Table concludes its third year, it has enjoyed fantastic growth, doubling our sales over year one,” James says. “We have eliminated almost all of our debt and are at the point of needing a new location to accommodate the volume of sales and to bring new food concepts to the market.” UMW SBDC is on the job assisting with the process.

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Ono Brewing Company

Brewery brings a taste of Hawaii to Chantilly

After being awarded a $3000,000 loan, the Hoffmans opened Ono Brewing Company in September 2017, and soon added 1 full-time and 6 part-time employees. 

At the Ono Brewing Company, you do not need to visit the islands to know that “ono” is Hawaiian for “tasty.” With beach pictures on the wall, tropical décor, Paradise Island IPA, and Mango White Ale on tap, a trip to Ono Brewing Company is like a carefree day at the beach. There is a reason behind the tropical theme. Owners Scott and Cyndi Hoffman lived in Florida and Hawaii for over 20 years before moving to Northern Virginia. They wanted to start a brewery that reflected their beach background. In October 2016, Scott and Cyndi “jumped in head first.”

“We started working on a business plan,” Scott says. Scott, a former engineer, and Cyndi, a former biology teacher, held the right qualifications. “The whole brewing side — the design of the brew house and how it functions — is all engineering,” Scott notes. “The actual brewing process — how yeast converts sugar into alcohol — is all biology and chemistry.” With the basics of brewing well in hand, Scott and Cyndi needed assistance mastering the managing and financing side of the business. “I reached out to the Mason SBDC, and they mentioned that free mentoring was available,” Scott says. “I’m a big fan of mentoring!”

Senior Business Counselor Timm Johnson advised them to apply for a Virginia small business loan. “That solved a lot of problems for us,” Scott adds. “I’d never started a business before, so I’d run my ideas by Timm,” Scott notes. “When he agreed my ideas were good, that gave me confidence to go ahead.”

One of Scott’s innovative ideas was to develop a self-serve beer wall to take the place of a traditional bartender. “As an engineer I rely on automation and a ‘work smarter, not harder’ theme,” Scott adds.

Making a commitment to benefit their community early on, Scott and Cyndi established a competitive wage for employees that dramatically decreased reliance on tips. All tips received at Ono are donated to a local charity, due to their living wage policy.

Since opening in September 2017, Scott reports that business is good. “We’re building our brand slowly,” Scott reports. “We’ve just added a full-time employee to our six part-time employees, and we’ve started getting out into the community. Our business is starting exactly like we wanted it to.”

“Working with Timm and the SBDC has been great,” Scott concluded. “Their help has been invaluable.”

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Exploring Learning & Fun

From home to heart: E.L.F. grows up

Exploring Learning & Fun employs 3 full-time and 3 part-time employees. Their facility has space for 48 children. 

Any mother who has had to leave her children to return to work can identify with the struggle to find good childcare. For Mary Gray, the saying “If you want something done right you have to do it yourself,” holds a special meaning. With one infant and a young child, Mary opened her own daycare business 12 years ago — from her home — to do just that. 

“As a mother, it was very important that my daycare offer everything that I wanted for my own children. I wanted to know that the teachers would love my children, that they wanted to be there, and that the space would be warm and inviting,” Mary explains.

As the years passed, interest and attendance steadily increased, and it became clear that a change was needed. In August 2017, Exploring Learning & Fun (E.L.F.) child enrichment center opened the doors of a new facility. With a capacity for 48 children, Mary’s dream came true.

“The logistics here are very different, but we are able to be a bigger part of the community in this new space. We are able to do so much more for the children here, and that’s what everything is centered on,” Mary adds.

Still, the decision to transition from her home to a brand-new center was a major one. Mary found an ally in her Mason SBDC Senior Business Counselor, Bernard Ferret, who helped her navigate the difficult process.

“Bernard really sat down with me and talked about numbers. Prior to connecting with the SBDC, I think I must have heard about 30 no’s. I felt like I had hit this brick wall. But Bernard found this financing program that worked specifically with childcare providers,” Mary says.

Bernard helped Mary work to get her business plan and proposal completed, so the center could be funded and built. Despite having zero money left over for advertising, E.L.F. already has families on the waiting list until 2019.

Even with the brand new space, Mary still feels a strong connection to the home-based roots that grew E.L.F. for all those years. “Our care is very personalized. We are a part of their family, and we always want each child to feel that they are a part of our family when they are here,” Mary says.

Mary is grateful to Bernard and the Mason SBDC for seeing the potential of not only E.L.F. daycare but also for each of the lives that the daycare and preschool has touched over the years. “Someone was willing to believe in me,” says Mary, “And I’m so glad they did.”

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Sensor Check

Sensors check the heat!

Sensor Check’s customer base grew from 2 to 12 over one year and they expect to exceed 100 new customers in 2018. 

In 2016, one of Tim Smith’s clients, a local catering company, wished they could find a device that would alert them if their refrigerators and freezers were not cool enough to comply with food regulations. Tim designed a sensor to solve the problem. Another customer heard about it and wanted the device for his warehouse freezer. “I kept being asked by one company after another for help with this problem,” says Tim.

Tim and his wife Sara decided to start a company that could offer a more sophisticated version of the sensor, and Sensor Check, LLC, was born. “We used the initial sensors to springboard into a new product, the Sensor Check Temperature Monitoring System™ that would monitor temperatures, send alerts when things weren’t right, keep a log for inspectors, and more,” Tim explains. “We also realized that we needed to learn how to wrap a business around the product,” Sara adds.

The Smiths have been friends with Bernard Ferret, Senior Business Counselor at the Mason SBDC, for years. In fact, Tim was VP of Engineering in one of Bernard’s startups. When Tim approached him for help, Bernard signed him up as an SBDC client and directed him to the Innovation and Commercialization Assistance Program (ICAP), a program of the Virginia SBDC Network.

ICAP finds subject-matter experts (SMEs) to guide inventors and innovators through the process of getting products to market. Once accepted, Tim and Sara worked with SMEs Brenda Brown and Cassity Jones, co-founders of Frontier Kitchen, a food business incubator and a commercial kitchen.

Brenda and Cassity installed a Sensor Check system in two facilities with walk-in refrigerators as part of the process. Very early one morning an alert went out; something was wrong with one of the walk-in refrigerators. Their technician was able to fix the blown fuse before the food temperature reached 40 degrees. If they had waited until the usual time to go to the Kitchen, 6 hours after the alert, $50,000-worth of food would have needed to be thrown out, potentially putting some of their clients out of business.

Tim and Sara are grateful to ICAP. With the SMEs, they were able to create a market segmentation plan, start fund raising, increase their sales pipeline, and become part of the Frontier Kitchen family – all key parts of Tim and Sara’s business.

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StageCoach Theatre Company

StageCoach on the road to success​

With the new programs Stage Coach now offers in its permanent location, they  estimate a revenue boost of 30% to 40%, with an additional 10% in revenue driven by rental income. 

StageCoach Theatre Company has been on the road in Loudoun County since 2011. By 2017, the traveling theater troupe was ready to find a permanent home, and the SBDC at MEC-Leesburg made it happen, when Jerri Wiseman and Terry Smith, founders, turned to them for help.

“I guess you could call me an SBDC groupie,” Jerri says with a chuckle. “I went to anything and everything they offered. I was looking for information on how to run a business, particularly in Loudoun County, and the SBDC offered a good number of resources.”

“Jerri came to the SBDC in Leesburg to tackle two main challenges,” SBDC Manager Eric Byrd says. “The first was to determine the best location for the permanent theater, and the second was to change her business model to support and fully utilize a permanent location.”

The urgency to find a permanent home was driven by the StageCoach summer camp program. “We have always offered adult classes,” Jerri says. “Finding a space to hold our summer camp for children, however, was a problem.” Eric helped Jerri with planning and revenue projections. “While expenses would go up, our projections showed that increased capacity and program stability would more than pay for extra costs,” Eric explains. “By expanding classes and corporate training programs, like an improv course for business leaders and by renting space in the facility to other groups, these revenue streams gave StageCoach higher profitability through diversification.”

Jerri found the marketing advice that the SBDC provided especially useful. “Eric helped with marketing — who and when we needed to target,” Jerri adds. “We also did some budgeting. Eric showed me how many kids we needed to bring in to make it work.”

With a new theater home and new business plan, Jerri is confident of the future. She says, “The SBDC has been with us all the way. I absolutely will continue to go to the SBDC for advice. I’ve already made plans to meet with them soon.”

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