Category: Southern



Drone business takes off with SBDC guidance

Increased revenue by 125%; added one employee; added new client for contract work; entered and won RISE Collaborative Business Pitch Competition, netting a $5,000 prize he used to invest in a new drone.

Ryland Clark’s RCFlyBy drone business started as a hobby that took flight as he learned more about Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). After working with the Longwood SBDC and participating in the RISE Business Bootcamp, RCFlyBy reached new heights of success.

“In 2019 when I started my business, I went to see SBDC Regional Director Lin Hite,” Ryland says. “He gave me advice on getting started. I took a drone certification class, then went to the Danville Airport for a proctor exam.”

Services offered by RCFlyBy include 3D imaging, construction site reports, land sale photography, aerial photography, inspections, property imaging, real estate videography and fireworks videography.

A friend urged Ryland to enroll in RISE Business Bootcamp. The 10-week online program, coordinated by the SOVA Innovation Hub and Longwood SBDC, helps new business owners create a business plan and establish next steps to move forward.

“There were about 30 [participants] in the January 2023 bootcamp,” Ryland explains. “Talking with other business owners was the most valuable part for me — how to market, set pricing and share your value with customers. I also wrote a business and finance plan.”

The winter 2023 session was RISE’s largest ever cohort, but Ryland’s vision for RCFlyBy rose to the top. The bootcamp ended with the RISE Collaborative Business Pitch Competition, which challenged Ryland and his fellow entrepreneurs to pitch their business to a panel of judges. RCFlyBy took the top prize.

“I tied for first place and received $5,000,” Ryland reports. “I invested the money in a drone with mechanical shutter that takes photos 40 percent faster.”

The SBDC helped Ryland complete the SWaM and SAM certification process, which opens up additional avenues for work. After consulting with the SBDC and RISE Collaborative, Ryland reports a 125% revenue increase. Recently, RCFlyBy has hired one employee and secured a contract with a Richmond-based company.

Ryland says he is grateful for the SBDC’s continued support.

“The SBDC helped accelerate growth and take my business to the next level,” he concludes. “It’s good to know I have the SBDC to rely on.”

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Johnson Funeral Services

Johnson Funeral Services

Third-generation family business adapts to changing landscape with SBDC

Secured $50,000 Tri-Cities Small Business Capital Access Program Loan; improved business processes through courses in taxes and finance.

In 1927, entrepreneur Harry P. “H.P.” Johnson established Johnson Funeral Home in the small Virginia town of McKenney. Nearly 100 years later, the third-generation family business has grown to include three funeral homes spread in the Tri-Cities area, including the McKenney facility operated by Joseph “Joey” Johnson Jr.; the South Hill facility run by his sister, Mary E. Johnson-Fields; and the Petersburg facility managed by Wendal A. Givens.

Even a longstanding family business that has been in operation for nearly a century like the Johnson’s can benefit from the SBDC, as H.P.’s great nephew Joey has learned since partnering with the Crater SBDC in Petersburg beginning in 2021.

“I was raised working in the funeral home,” says Joey, who, alongside his sister, worked at Johnson Funeral Services in various capacities as a child and young adult.

“In 1992, I took over the McKenney home. But there’s been a lot of changes in the industry. Changes to the business environment and business in general.”

Those changes, Joey says, range from the rise of the internet and digital marketing to the demand for alternative disposition methods, like cremation. That’s in addition to the gamut of traditional responsibilities related to running any small business, which was what originally led Joey to connect with the SBDC.

“[What first drew me to the SBDC was] the resources they offered,” Joey says. “I was looking for more experience and knowledge related to running the business.”

Joey reached out to the Longwood SBDC in Farmville after seeing a flyer for programs available to small-business owners. From there he began working with Vandy Jones, the Eastern Region SBDC Director who oversees the Crater SBDC.

Vandy initially helped Joey apply for a grant and enroll in SBDC courses related to taxes and finance. However, with Johnson Funeral Services coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic – which forced significant changes in how the business structured its on-site gatherings – Vandy saw another way to help Joey and Johnson Funeral Services by helping them apply for the zero-percent Tri-Cities Small Business Capital Access Program loan.

That loan, which is offered through Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and in partnership with the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development and SBDC, allowed Joey to pay off high-interest debt with a zero-interest rate loan. Vandy assisted Joey by setting up a business plan and organizing other documents needed for the application.

“It was a program that with the struggle from the pandemic helped us secure some extra financing. It was a resource that really helped us,” Joey says.

That assistance will help ensure Johnson Funeral Services’ success and keep the family business running for generations to come.

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Lynchburg plant business grows with SBDC support

Secured a $25,000 grant used for startup expenses.

Tia Hancock loves to grow plants; a skill she learned from her grandmother. Now Tia is growing a business in Lynchburg’s downtown district. With assistance from the SBDC – Lynchburg Region’s CO. STARTERS program and Launch LYH, Tia opened PREAM (Plants Rule Everything Around Me) in November 2023.

Tia’s business plans took root when she signed up for CO. STARTERS, a 10-week cohort-based program hosted through a partnership between the Lynchburg Office of Economic Development & Tourism, SBDC – Lynchburg Region, and Vector Space.

CO. STARTERS includes one-on-one entrepreneurial support, mentorship, and class speakers. The program introduced Tia to Jawansa Hall and Jordan Reeves from the SBDC, who both presented during Tia’s cohort.

Tia followed advice from Jawansa, Jordan, and other CO. STARTERS speakers and sought customer input.

“I talked to people and posted on social media,” she adds. “That input told me Lynchburg was a plant-friendly market.”

Next, Tia applied for the Launch LYH program that supports entrepreneurs ready to start a new business, relocate, or expand an existing business in a Downtown Lynchburg storefront. The SBDC is one of five sponsors for Launch LYH and the pitch competition for cash grants that concludes the program.

“I received a $25,000 grant,” Tia notes with pride. “Downtown Lynchburg Association also helped me find a good location.”

Tia’s grant covered her initial business expenses without additional financing. Nevertheless, Tia says she is now in a more confident position to approach local banks should financing be needed with the required business plan completed during the CO. STARTERS course.

“I still keep in touch with them at SBDC,” Tia relates. “I took information they presented and figured out how it would work for me.”

PREAM’s basic business plan is already blossoming with new ideas.

“We’ve started a Houseplants 101 and Build Your Own Terrarium class,” Tia concludes. “Working with the SBDC and CO. STARTERS definitely gave me a better start in business. I’ve enjoyed working with them and hope to continue.”

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The Brick

The Brick

The Brick builds on SBDC’s solid business foundation

Provided business mentorship through RDA Dream Launch Bootcamp; assisted with pitch competition preparation that netted a $25,000 prize used to expand store.

Runner and cyclist Adam Jones launched The Brick Running and Tri Store in Danville’s River District out of necessity.

“I was into running and cycling and found myself driving some distance in search of shoes and equipment,” he says. “Driving to Raleigh for shoes one day in 2008, I got stuck in traffic. The lightbulb went off and I said to myself, ‘I can’t be the only runner or cyclist in Danville who needs health and wellness equipment.’”

With that thought in mind, Adam started lining up options to open a business in what he saw as a winning location with a burgeoning fitness culture: Danville’s River District.

“There was talk of a downtown revitalization, a new YMCA and a Riverwalk Trail expansion — downtown seemed like the place to be,” he adds. “We opened for business in 2010.”

Adam renovated the first floor of a two-story brick building in the River District that fit his business model and motto: “Where You Never Hit a Wall.”

“We specialize in shoes, apparel, equipment, and nutrition for walkers, runners, cyclists, and triathletes,” Adam notes. “Our name, ‘The Brick,’ refers to training on two disciplines during the same workout — just as stacking actual bricks build a solid structure.”

Adam’s business structure received an added boost when he discovered the Longwood SBDC while participating in the River District Association Dream Launch Bootcamp in 2022. That program – an intensive six-week workshop that teaches participants business skills and helps them fine-tune their plans for a start-up – connected him with Longwood SBDC Regional Consultant Michael Duncan, who served as his Dream Launch business mentor. Additionally, Dream Launch participants who complete all six bootcamp classes compete for cash and other incentives in a business pitch competition.

“Dream Launch covered a business plan, demographics, competition, and identifying customer needs,” Adam says. “I entered the pitch competition and was awarded $25,000.”

Adam used his winnings to expand his store, adding an upstairs wing that houses retail space for bike sales, gear, and bike repair services. This expanded area also includes a common community space for group gatherings.

Even after the completion of Dream Launch and the expansion of The Brick, Adam continues to consult with Michael and the SBDC on a regular basis.

“Having the SBDC as an asset is like having a gold nugget in my back pocket — it’s there if I need it,” Adam says.

Adding the SBDC to his team, Adam reports, has been a winning strategy for The Brick.

“The SBDC is a valuable tool with tremendous free resources that a lot of people don’t know about — definitely an asset to the community and region,” Adam concludes. “When I open business number two or three, I’ll definitely visit the SBDC.”

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Unique Styles & Designs Floral Boutique

SBDC advice grows floral boutique in Martinsville

Grant for over $1770 and a 50% increase in business. 

Shatera Robertson, owner of Unique Styles & Designs Floral Boutique in Uptown Martinsville, built a successful business over the past year with facts and expert guidance. She credits the Longwood SBDC for providing the information that led to that success.

“The key to anything you do in life is wisdom and knowledge,” Shatera says.

Shatera began her journey into floral design 14 years ago with a birthday party for her daughter.

“My interest in doing events grew from there,” she adds. “I actually started my business in 2016.”

Her goal was a storefront location, and during the pandemic, she learned of a vacancy in Uptown Martinsville. After six months of renovations, Shatera held a formal grand opening in June 2021.

“I first met Longwood SBDC Business Analyst Michael Scales when he came to my opening event,” Shatera relates. “He seemed very knowledgeable about business.”

Shatera emailed Michael to see if she could learn more.

“I made an appointment, and he told me about the SBDC services that could help my business grow,” Shatera adds. “He also told me about the Startup Martinsville-Henry County (Startup-MHC) and Grow Martinsville-Henry County (Grow-MHC) programs, so I decided to enroll.”

Startup-MHC and Grow-MHC are mentoring programs that help establish new businesses and grow existing ones through “business boot camps” and have graduated 283 participants since 2016. Michael is a co-facilitator for both mentoring programs.

“Going through the GROW program helped a lot,” Shatera comments. “We received information that a lot of business owners don’t have a clue about. We learned about networking with other business owners, important tax tips and how to write business plans.”

At the conclusion of the program, Shatera presented her business plan to a panel of experts. The result was a grant for over $1,770.

“When I opened my business last year, I financed everything myself,” Shatera says with a note of pride. “I’m a registered nurse and was able to work extra hours in the emergency room during the pandemic to fund my business.”

Since she connected with the SBDC, Shatera has seen a 50 percent increase in that business.

Planning for the future, Shatera is certain of one thing: the SBDC will be front and center.

“The SBDC gave me the information and motivation to keep going and grow,” she concludes. “I recommend the SBDC to other business owners so they can grow as well.”

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The Dog-Eared Page

The SBDC helps launch a dream in Danville

$25,000 grant from Danville’s River District Association’s Dream Launch program.

Facebook Page

Catherine Carter turned the page on a new career when she started a book club to help coworkers deal with the pandemic. Now, with help from the Longwood SBDC and Danville’s Dream Launch program, she has her own bookstore, The Dog-Eared Page.

It started with a dream to open a place for book clubs to meet and buy books. When Catherine learned about Danville’s Dream Launch program, it seemed like fate.

“I contacted Kelvin Perry, Danville’s project manager for economic development, and he encouraged me to apply,” Catherine relates.

The Dream Launch program, sponsored by Danville’s River District Association, features a six-week bootcamp and grant money presented to winners of a business pitch competition.

“Lin Hite, Kelvin Perry, and Michael Duncan from the SBDC all taught classes,” Catherine explains. “Lin, my mentor, helped me with a business plan and pitch for the competition. Throughout the whole experience I felt nothing but support.”

That preparation paid off. The pitch Catherine presented was awarded a $25,000 grant that enabled her to launch her dream.

“Danville hadn’t had a bookstore since I was in elementary school,” she relates.

The bookstore’s location on Main Street in Danville’s downtown revitalization district was also a plus for Catherine.

“It’s awesome to be part of what’s happening downtown,” she adds. “It’s rewarding to see people coming back downtown.”

In addition to the grant, Catherine received a loan from a local bank.

“The River District decided I needed more capital and connected me with American National Bank,” she says. “I didn’t expect to get support from bankers!”

Catherine continues to be amazed by support from the community.

“During our grand opening the store was packed,” Catherine recalls. “It’s a day I’ll never forget.”

Now open six months, The Dog-Eared Page is thankful for continued SBDC support.

“SBDC consultants still call and come by,” Catherine explains. “When I first opened, Lin Hite prepared me for lower volume months ahead. Due to that advice the shop isn’t struggling now.”

Catherine readily recommends the SBDC.

“Even after the doors of a business are open, the SBDC is there to help you,” she concludes. “I’m eternally grateful for that support.”

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IN Depth

In-Depth Productions

Turning passion into profit with the SBDC

$15,000 award from the Town of Blackstone; 3 employees.

In-Depth Productions’ is opened for business on Main Street in Blackstone. Partnering with the Longwood SBDC, Carl Bassfield turned a passion for photography into a profitable business.

In-Depth Productions, a full-fledged media company, now offers photography and cinematography as well as music engineering and production services.

“Photography is just something I’ve always loved,” Carl explains.

Carl started taking photos at his church with his iPhone. Later, while working at Fort Pickett, he picked up more skills.

“I wanted my passion for photography to become a reliable source of income,” he adds.

Carl took a step in that direction last year when he signed up for the CO.STARTERS Core program, a joint effort of the Longwood SBDC and Downtown Blackstone, Inc. CO.STARTERS Core is a three-month, cohort-based program that equips aspiring entrepreneurs with the insights, relationships, and tools needed to turn ideas into action and turn a passion into a sustainable and thriving endeavor. The program has become a community staple of the regional GO Virginia initiative – RISE Collaborative.

“About 10 to 15 business people took that 10-week course led by SBDC consultants Brandon Hennessey and Katherine Beale,” Carl explains. “We were a very diverse group, but we helped each other grow.”

Topics ranged from finances to analyzing the market to finding target customers. At the completion of the course, each business was offered a chance to compete for a portion of a prize pool offered by the Town of Blackstone.

Cash awards totaling $46,000 were distributed to five business owners; In-Depth Productions received second place and $15,000, which Carl used for equipment and to set up his new Main Street location.

Carl’s biggest take away from the program was a better understanding of a successful business structure.

“I went into the program with a lot of ideas that I was trying to do all at once,” he relates. “I had to realize that I couldn’t do it all myself.”

Subsequently he turned over the video work to a videographer and added a music technician to round out his staff of three full-time employees and three sub-contractors.

Carl readily recommends the SBDC to others.

“I look at Katherine and Brandon as extended family,” he concludes. “The SBDC provides you with life-long resources. Having continued access to those resources — I consider that invaluable.”

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DBHomes4Hope renovates houses and realizes mission with the SBDC

Received $10,000 loan.

Davina and Danny Bare saw a need for housing during a visit to Lynchburg, and it spurred them to action. In June 2020, they launched DBHomes4Hope with assistance from the SBDC – Lynchburg Region.

“Housing has always been an interest,” Davina says. “The problem is the disparity in home ownership. My husband, a contractor, and myself, a former Army human resource officer, have the knowledge base to make homeownership happen.”

The first move for DBHomes4Hope was purchasing a fixer-upper house. The price tag was $7,000. Subsequently, they purchased a fire-damaged house for $5,000. Their goal is two-fold: renovate homes and guide clients toward home ownership.

A certified credit trainer, Davina started holding weekly counseling sessions with neighborhood residents.

“The focus was improving credit scores by budgeting and reducing debt,” she says. “Our goal – 80 percent home ownership – helps build up a community.”

To establish a solid business foundation, Davina turned to the SBDC, which connected her with Pinnacle Financial and enrolled her in the SBDC’s Start Smart Class. Pinnacle approved a $10,000 loan, and the Start Smart class helped her formulate a business plan.

“Everybody in Lynchburg, especially the SBDC, seemed willing to help,” she says. “SBDC Executive Director Stephanie Keener and SBDC Mentor Jamie Reynolds were great cheerleaders.”

To gain more business acumen, Davina joined the SBDC’s Business Game Plan Cohort.

“During the seven-week course, we talked about networking, funding, and entities needed for starting a business,” Davina notes. “Each step was a building block for the next thing.”

Over the past two years, the SBDC’s guidance helped DBHomes4Hope realize its mission.

“Our mission is to help families gain homes for generations,” Davina says. “DBHomes4Hope offers the whole journey to home ownership.”

The SBDC, she adds, helped make this journey possible.

“I’m seeing progress in the families we’re coaching and a sense of community — and we’re making a living,” Davina concludes. “The entity that brought it all together was the SBDC.”

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Royal Restrooms

Royal Restrooms

Royal Restrooms: Meeting more clients’ needs

Secured $230,000 in loans and increased net income by 33% on 15% increase in sales.

Although January 2020 was the eve of a tumultuous era, it proved an ideal time for Paul Dowdy to expand Royal Restrooms.

Paul explains that “a lot of businesses had to split their offices” to accommodate social distancing, referring to his partnerships with military sites and other businesses in the Lynchburg area. The need to meet COVID-19’s distancing requirements — in addition to maintaining compliance with OSHA standards — made 2020-21 a prosperous year for Royal Restrooms.

When asked to reflect on his favorite part of the business, Paul cites its constant growth as a result of his partnership with the Longwood SBDC. “We can’t get the inventory in fast enough because we’re getting so many requests,” he says. “We just can’t keep up with supply and demand.”

Paul learned about the SBDC while working at a wedding in Danville. He initially sought help from another small business agency; however, with his company’s rapid expansion, he found that the Longwood SBDC better suited his needs by offering more one-on-one support.

Michael Duncan, Paul’s SBDC advisor, offers such support. He is particularly helpful when making projections and keeping track of finances. This help allowed Paul to secure $230,000 in loans and achieve a 33% increase in net income on 15% increase in sales. Michael is also working to enroll Paul in a finance course at Longwood so that Royal Restrooms can continue to grow. Paul hopes to open 20 offices in the future.

Paul expressed sincere appreciation for Michael’s mentorship and guidance, as well as for the SBDC as a whole. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without him guiding me,” he says. “I like him because he’s straight to the point. We joke, we kid, but when it gets down to business everything is cut and dry.”

Paul has already recommended the SBDC to several other small business owners, and as he continues to expand, he will continue using their resources.

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Iron & Grace Pilates

Iron & Grace Pilates & Fitness Studio

Staying fit in body, mind, and business

Received a $60,000 EIDL loan and $6,000 grant.

When Alaya and Chad Sexton left their home state of Minnesota in search of a change in scenery and a more manageable pace of life, they left behind a highly successful fitness studio they had built from the ground up.

Attracted to Central Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and mild climate, Alaya and Chad settled in Lynchburg where, as seasoned business owners, they set up Iron & Grace Fitness shortly after arriving in 2012. By the end of their first year, they outgrew their first Lynchburg location and had cultivated another loyal client base with their unique approach to functional training based in Pilates, TRX® suspension trainers, and kettlebells.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, however, the Sextons’ business — like many in the fitness industry — was forced to adapt. Iron & Grace pivoted to virtual classes. As the pandemic dragged on, Alaya sought financial assistance through the CARES Act, which led to a meeting with the SBDC in Lynchburg.

While that initial meeting was to facilitate an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) application for Iron & Grace, the resulting partnership evolved into one that is still thriving.

“It was so much more remarkable for us than we thought it would be,” Alaya says of her initial meeting with Jennifer Woofter’s team at the SBDC. “We connected with them to start the process for an EIDL grant, but they helped us ferret out a bunch of other parts of our business.”

Alaya and Chad took the SBDC’s guidance to heart and got back to the fundamentals of owning a business. As a result, she says, she regained a perspective and clarity for Iron & Grace that she had not experienced since the business’s early days as an upstart.

“My trajectory with this business was this: I was very on top of all of my metrics while it was growing. Then, once it stabilized, I didn’t set sales goals. I didn’t have a really great marketing plan. I was busy. I didn’t carve out the time to be as intimate with my business, once it hit a place where it felt stable and fine,” says Alaya. “I don’t know that we would have been able to feel as good about our business as we do now without a business coach like Jennifer.”

Now with their doors reopened, Iron & Grace is back to running at a strong pace, and the Sextons are back to doing what they love.

“Our ethos has always been to help people enjoy their bodies, enjoy their lives, and not let their bodies hold them back from things they want to achieve,” Alaya says. “That’s different for every individual.”

The same can be said for any business. Sometimes it just takes the right coach to get there.

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