Category: Southwest

Cowden Technologies

Flying high: Drone tech company gets a lift

Secured grants from the Center for Innovative Technology ($79,500), Rebuild VA ($8,817), and Gauntlet 2020 Business Plan Award ($5,000), EIDL advance and loan ($110,000), and PPP ($6,000)

Have you ever wished something could work better than it does? Sometimes that’s all it takes to inspire someone with an entrepreneurial inclination to start a small business. And when inspiration strikes, the SBDC is there to assist.

Take Mickey Cowden, for example. In 2017, he was part of a Virginia Tech team that went to Abu Dhabi as a finalist in an international robotics competition. “A lot of the problems we had, doing field testing and stuff like that, I felt could be automated,” he said. “I was wishing we had a docking station so we could just land the drone automatically to handle logistics like power and data management instead of having to do everything manually.”

Fast forward to 2021. Mickey recently pivoted the focus of his small tech company, Cowden Technologies, from general software engineering to product development. The product? A smart docking station for mid-sized drones. Capabilities will include automatically recharging the drone’s battery, seamlessly transferring data to base or cloud storage, reloading payload (for spraying crops, for example), and providing a physical connection secure enough to hold tight even on a moving vehicle. But this pivot has come with a whole new set of challenges.

Enter Cheryl Tucker with the Roanoke SBDC. Based on a recommendation from a colleague at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, Mickey contacted Cheryl, who turned out to be an invaluable resource.

While the shift to product development has been a dream come true for Mickey, it also meant a shift to a whole new set of issues, many outside his area of expertise. “There’s a lot of different aspects to doing product development, and coming from the consulting world, I thought I had a reasonable handle on that,” Mickey says. “But in a lot of ways, it’s an entirely different beast.”

Cheryl provided Mickey guidance in everything from financial and business advice to making essential connections in the business world and successfully applying for loans, grants, and other funding sources.

As Mickey describes it, “Cheryl has been a wonderful business resource and actually turned out to be a very supportive friend, so I think I definitely lucked out when I got to work with Cheryl.”

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Agenacare Housecalls

Agenacare Housecalls helps bring care home

Increased patient volume from 25 to 2,500 in less than two years; created 15 jobs.

“When I started Agenacare Housecalls, I asked myself what I would want as a mom,” Whitney Pugh says. “Health care in the home is exactly what I would want.”

Whitney took her idea to Roanoke Regional SBDC’s business advisor Tom Tanner. “I told him I have this idea for a business, but I don’t know how to do it,” she recalls. “Tom helped me put the business together in August, and we launched it in November.”

Whitney, a nurse practitioner, went to the SBDC for help with business specifics. “I knew my field but nothing about business,” she says. “Initially, Tom helped me understand the difference between a PLLC and LLC, and helped me get my tax ID and establish a bank account. He walked me through all those things I had no clue about.”

As the business name implies, Agenacare makes house calls. During the last two months of 2019, Whitney, the sole provider, cared for 25 patients in their homes. Despite the pandemic, the patient count in 2020 increased to 500. “We made the decision when COVID started that we were not going to shut down,” Whitney says. “I was still the sole provider until December 2020.”

By 2021, Agenacare’s staff had grown to five providers, five contractors, and five administrators. “To date in 2021, we’re at 2,500 patient visits,” Whitney adds. “We don’t take insurance, so for us to be that busy is really good.”

Tom has been involved every step of the way. “I go to Tom first and say, ‘this is what we want to do — will it work?’” Whitney says. “Tom is my sounding board when I want to see if something is doable.”

Future plans include adding more areas of care. “What the community needs is what we develop,” Whitney notes. “We’ve already split into two practices, and we’re on our way to adding a third.” Before offering managed care, Whitney plans to consult the SBDC. “The SBDC helped me get where I am today,” she says. “I consider Tom a key player in my business.”

Whitney enthusiastically recommends the SBDC to all who ask about her success. “I recommend the SBDC a thousand percent,” Whitney concludes. “I’m very appreciative of all the help I’ve received from them.”

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Advantage Supply Center

From farm animals to pharmaceuticals and everything in between

Received $35,000 Payroll Protection Program Loan

For the majority of her professional career in information technology and process analysis, Celeste DeVaneaux has worked among teams of similarly knowledgeable and talented professionals.

However, when she moved solo across the country to open Advantage Supply Center, Inc., in Virginia in 2014, she found herself uncomfortably isolated.

“I cut my teeth on the West Coast, so one of my challenges in starting the business was being in Virginia and understanding the rules and the climate around here,” Celeste says. “I had trouble finding somebody who knows more than I do, and I’m not saying that to be conceited. I just had a big support group on the West Coast, but I didn’t have that here.”

Living in a new state as a first-time business owner without the safety net of trusted peers, Celeste’s leap-of-faith move to the Commonwealth quickly turned into a freefall. Her business model was to create a service that assists state agencies with purchasing necessary products at affordable prices — all within the confines of the state’s purchasing protocols. With a once-robust network of peers nonexistent in her new home state, Celeste began seeking out expertise anywhere she could find it, which quickly led her to the SBDC.

“I was used to incubators in California, so as soon as I started this up I started researching what was available in the state,” she says. “I found the SBDC through Virginia Highlands Community College, and they were very helpful in connecting me with the people I needed to be connected with and in areas like financial planning and cash management.”

Cindy Fields of the Virginia Highlands SBDC became Celeste’s point person at startup, but the SBDC’s assistance did not stop there. She has remained an ally throughout Advantage’s six-plus years of operation and has proven to be a valuable extension of the Micro SWaM company’s six-person staff. The company now supplies state agencies “with everything from farm animals to pharmaceuticals” and, with the help of the SBDC, successfully navigated a COVID-19 shutdown that significantly scaled back the purchasing power of Celeste’s clients.

“When the initial shutdown happened in March of 2020, our customer base dried up,” she says. “The SBDC was very helpful getting us through that. I spent a great deal of time in meetings and training, filling out grant applications and essentially jumping from rock to rock over the lava pit to keep the money flowing, so I could keep people employed.”

The SBDC assisted Celeste with a Payroll Protection Program loan and supplied her with necessary contacts when needed, including a new bank.

“I didn’t know where to go, and it was the contacts I had with the SBDC that pointed me in the right direction,” she says. “That’s really valuable. It’s not just the assistance they offered in applying for a loan; it’s the connections they have and how quickly they used those to help me when I needed them.”

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Abingdon Gifting Company

Creating memories one basket at a time

Won $5000 in Washington County Business Challenge Competition and moved to Main Street and invested $25,000 in new inventory and a new location.

Like many, Cassie Rowe long entertained the idea of starting her own business. And while it wasn’t until 2017 that she finally got her company off the ground, the owner of Abingdon Gifting Company hasn’t looked back.

Armed with a knack for creativity and a desire to follow in her parents’ footsteps as a small business owner — but little in the way of her own personal business experience — Cassie made one of the first stops in her journey toward becoming a small-business owner at the Virginia Highlands SBDC for initial guidance on starting her business.

“I initially wanted to open a kitchen, because I love to cook and had been cooking for people on the side, but the food regulations were more than I wanted to deal with,” Cassie said. “A friend of mine suggested gift baskets, and, after I looked into what that would look like, I called Cindy Fields [center director at the SBDC] back and started again. I told her we were going in a different direction. She helped me do it, and they’ve been on board ever since,” she explains.

By February 2018, just two months after Cassie quit her job to pursue the business full time, Build-A-Basket was up and running. Renamed Abingdon Gifting Company in April 2020, the customized store-crafts gift baskets are filled with a variety of boutique products that Cassie sources from small businesses both local and nationwide. Working within budgets of any size, customers can choose from a wide range of preassembled gift baskets of Cassie’s design, or they can create their own.

Through personal goals, dedication, and the encouragement and strategic planning with the SBDC, Cassie competed in and won the top prize of $5,000 in the local business challenge and worked hard to find local unique and high-quality products that she can offer to her customers.

In the fall of 2020, she was ready to rebrand her store and prepare for a move to a bigger location. She received biweekly visits from the SBDC team and counselor Patrick Horn to assist her with growth in the area of marketing, to provide small business education and to help her collaborate with other local professionals to achieve new sales levels. Cassie has doubled her sales each year and is on track to do the same in 2021.

Regardless of what’s in the basket, Cassie says that the goal is to create something uniquely memorable for whoever receives it. “That’s what we do,” she says. “Our mission is to create a feeling, create a memory or a lasting impression through a gift.”

“It has taken a lot of research and a lot of learning,” she says. “The SBDC has been a really good resource, as far as continued learning. I’m pretty confident that anytime I get into a situation I’m not sure about, all I have to do is call Cindy or Patrick.”

“They’ve been on board since I started,” Cassie says. “Owning your own business isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It can be tough, and there are ins and outs you don’t know. But anytime I need a resource, a connection with somebody I need to reach, or just some advice, they’re always there.”

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Micro Harmonics

SBDC helped add the business component to
Micro Harmonics’ success

Sales increased by 20% and capital investments were $92,000.

Diane Kees enjoys exploring new frontiers as chief operating officer at Micro Harmonics, a company founded by her brother, David Porterfield. The Botetourt County business specializes in components for a variety of applications from COVID research to NASA exploration.

For Diane, working with NASA is all in a day’s work; launching a new business, on the other hand, is not. Faced with the prospect of serving temporarily as the business accountant, Diane contacted the Roanoke Regional SBDC. “The SBDC’s help was lifesaving,” she says without hesitation. “I called the SBDC, and Business Advisor Cheryl Tucker walked me through the accounting process. She also, very patiently, helped me learn Quickbooks,” Diane continues.

Micro Harmonics specializes in components needed for new high-frequency technologies.

“When you work in higher frequencies, having the right component is essential,” Diane says. “We develop components needed for these advanced technologies.” She compared the process to plumbing a house. “When you update a plumbing system, you need the right valves to make the system work,” she notes. The same concept, she believes, applies to business — the “right parts” are needed for success.

A number of people and organizations helped supply those “right parts.” Diane considers the SBDC’s connections “a huge help.” She adds, “If the SBDC doesn’t have someone to help you, they’ll find someone who can.” Recently, Diane has been an active participant in the SBDC’s Botetourt GrowthWheel cohort, one of the many benefits available to Botetourt County Businesses through a collaborative partnership between the Roanoke Regional SBDC and Botetourt County Economic Development.

Diane shared about her GrowthWheel Cohort experience, “We were all in different businesses, but had the same problem.” She also shared that “Only knowing your own specialty doesn’t help much in running a business.”

“It has been an absolute delight to provide guidance, support, and connections to Diane and David over the years as they continue to grow and expand their business” states, Heather Fay, Botetourt Advisor.

“All the help we received from the various organizations very much impacted our growth, and the SBDC is certainly among those organizations,” Diane adds. Micro Harmonic’s growth was reflected in year-end figures: from 2018 to 2019 sales rose to $1 million.

Diane doesn’t hesitate to recommend the SBDC. “The consultants at the SBDC are experts in running a business,” she concludes. “Because of the SBDC, I’m confident because I know where I can turn for help.”

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Riverbound Trout Farms

Riverbound Trout Farms has hooked success

Received a $500,000 line of credit and a $69,000 grant.

Jake Musick likes to compare running a successful business to fishing. The owner of Riverbound Trout Farms in Lebanon understands that both knowledge and experience are needed for success. “I’ve been in the fish-growing industry for quite a few years now,” Jake says.

Jake wanted to bring more local farmers into the aquaculture industry. His plan was to build and operate a fish processing facility in Russell County. He called on Margie Douglass, director of the Southwest Virginia SBDC, to help him apply for a $500,000 loan from the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority (VCEDA). “I needed an in-depth business plan,” he explains. “The SBDC gave me pointers on how to write one, and Margie helped me put the finished product together.”

The SBDC also connected Jake with the research department at George Mason University (GMU). “They did a marketing survey that I was able to include in my business plan,” he adds. “That was very helpful.”

The SBDC’s knowledge and experience produced results. “With the SBDC’s help, I was approved for a line of credit for $500,000 for the processing plant and to expand the current farm,” Jake says happily. “We’ve purchased property but postponed construction for now due to the spiraling cost of building materials.” Additionally, during the pandemic, Jake received a $69,000 grant through the Farm Service Industry. “It didn’t cover losses, but it sure did help,” he recalls.

Despite COVID, Jake continues to be optimistic about the fish processing project, as well as the future of aquaculture. “Our goal is to offer inspiration for young people to take a look at aquaculture as a viable occupation,” he says. “The big push is to bring as many other growers into the process as we can.”

Jake actively promotes the SBDC to other farmers in the area, happy to share what he’s learned. “I’ve been talking to a lot of farmers about the SBDC,” he says. “I tell them to go and benefit from what’s there. Over the last several years, our business at Riverbound Trout Farms has grown considerably,” he concludes. “Our involvement with the SBDC helped facilitate that growth.”

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The O’Connor Group

Wright on track as marketing agency grows

Bought a company, created 1 job and retained 7 jobs

What began as Rice Wright Creative transformed to The O’Connor Group when Rebecca Rice and Raki Wright purchased the marketing agency in 2019. “We are honor to continue the legacy of Bill O’Connor by keeping the name The O’Connor Group,” Raki says. “It is now a small, women-owned agency that operates as a debt-free company,” Raki explains. “This means we need to raise any funds needed for large projects, keep our expenses to a minimum, and reinvest our profits back into the company.”

Rebecca and Raki use a streamlined business model that allows them a superior level of agility and performance. Raki functions as the digital strategy director while Rebecca adds vision as the creative director. “I consult with clients on digital ads, website content, search engine optimization, retargeting, electronic newsletters, and social channels,” Raki explains. “As creative director, Rebecca oversees concept development, art direction, and the agency team for any creative components of client campaigns. She and the account manager work with clients to make sure projects meet expectations and objectives, and stay on schedule and on budget.” 

Rebecca connected the team with Roanoke Regional SBDC’s Business Advisor Tom Tanner, which has proven to be pivotal for the agency. Tom guided Raki and Rebecca through the purchasing process. With such a big transition, Raki says this level of access to knowledgeable help was pivotal for the growing agency.

“Tom helped us set up our corporation, value the company we were purchasing, create a business plan, create a budget, create our partnership agreement, draft a purchase agreement, and more,” Raki says. “We could not have done this without him.”

With a staff of seven, The O’Connor Group dealt with COVID-19 in full stride. Raki notes that the team’s agility has enabled them to be flexible, which provides their agency with a definite advantage. “I’ve been able to control my work-life balance while doing rewarding work and partnering with some of the greatest small businesses in the region, especially since we all began dealing with the pandemic,” Raki says. “It’s been great to have a company culture that puts family first, whether that means working from home, bringing kids to work for virtual school, or altering our schedules around family responsibilities.” 

“We’d like to continue to grow the agency and team. We plan to continue working with the SBDC to learn more about and optimize the operational side of the agency,” Raki says. “There’s so much knowledge inside the SBDC, and we want to take advantage of all of those opportunities.”

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Hustle and Go: Cycling and yoga studio done differently in Roanoke

Started a new business and created 19 jobs

When London Ray-Dykstra discovered hot yoga and cycling, it was a lifeline for her. She describes it as a healing experience for past traumas, and an immersive, mind-body ritual that was as much about strengthening the soul as building muscles or perfecting a tree pose.

With a background in dance and a fast-paced life in Richmond where she worked multiple jobs, cycling and hot yoga quickly became a refuge and reset for London. When she met her now-husband and decided to move to Roanoke to be with him, it quickly became clear that this refuge was about to take a new, critical role in her life.

Hustle/Haven started on Instagram, where London posted motivational quotes and teased the opening of her indoor cycling and hot yoga studio. With no other hot yoga or indoor cycling facilities in Roanoke, London envisioned Hustle/Haven as a place where people could come and, according to her, “learn to take care of themselves gently, because that’s what I was learning to do.”

London says that she wanted Hustle/Haven to take people beyond what they might find in a more typical gym experience. “I wanted it to be more than a cycle studio, more than a hot yoga studio,” she says. “I believe deeply in the concept of fitness for your overall well-being, mentally and physically.”

While Hustle/Haven was making its first virtual debut via social media, London was hard at work with her secret weapon: Amanda Forrester and the Roanoke Regional SBDC. According to London, Amanda was an unbelievable resource. A former gym-owner herself, she easily grasped London’s vision for Hustle/Haven. “Amanda completely got what I was trying to do and encouraged me that this wasn’t a crazy idea,” London says. “Having someone work with me who shared my vision and who was familiar with the concept was such a game-changer.” London worked with Amanda and the Roanoke Regional SBDC to procure a brick-and-mortar location and navigate the complexities of opening during a pandemic.

In August 2020, Hustle/Haven opened its doors. London wanted the name to capture the hustle of indoor cycling and the haven of yoga. “At Hustle/Haven, we emphasize a lifestyle and mindset that’s not built around limitations. I wanted to build a place where you would want to hang out,” London explains. “I wanted to make it intentionally different.”

With fun features like a striking mural on the front of the building, a “potion bar” that sells adaptogenic drinks, and more, there’s no question that Hustle/Haven is different. COVID-19 posed a challenge for the young business, but London says that community support has been warm and enthusiastic. “We’ve been well received. Everyone was very excited for us to open,” she says. “We are trying to stay adaptable as we move into the winter, trying out online classes and other ways to manage the ongoing pandemic,” she adds. “It’s definitely been an interesting situation with COVID,” London says, “but our plan is to just keep adapting. At the end of the day, gratitude carries everyone and everything.”

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Nextdoor Drug

Nextdoor Drug: A hometown pharmacy

Received a $10,000 VCEDA grant and created 5 jobs

An abandoned building and an auction sign along a quiet Main Street were the first glimpse Jackie Hackney and Nicole Lawson had of a decade-long dream. Rewind to 2005, when Jackie, Nicole, and Cline, Nicole’s future husband, forged a friendship in pharmacy school and an unwavering desire to combine their passions into one business. Last November, Jackie and Nicole were able to purchase the empty space. It would become the hometown pharmacy that delivers custom healthcare to local residents. They decided to call it Nextdoor Drug. 

“We have been looking for 10 years, and this opportunity to buy at auction fell in our lap,” Nicole says. “Location has been an issue for us; most Main Street areas don’t have a lot of land available, and they’re expensive.” 

Opened on August 24, Nextdoor Drug goes above and beyond run-of-the-mill retail pharmacies. Jackie, Nicole, and Cline bring different experiences to the counter — from clinical pharmacy to hospital work — and incorporate their diverse skills to meet the needs of their patients. 

“We do a lot of clinical work,” Nicole says. “We have a health counselor that does a program called Ideal Protein, and we also do hormone replacement therapy. It brings in a lot of patients.”

The Southwest Virginia Community College SBDC was one of the key players in giving Nextdoor Drug a head start. Jackie and Nicole credit Center Director Margie Douglass for helping with initial business plans and applying for a Virginia Coalfield Economic Development (VCEDA) grant. It allowed them to purchase high-quality, over-the-counter products, as well as invest in a nutritional program. Most importantly, it allowed them to purchase a top-of-the-line computer system. 

“That computer system is the gift that keeps on giving,” Jackie says. “Since it does reimbursements and recording for us, we can spend more time with our clients and focus on expanding our services.”

Today, that Main Street building is a far cry from what it used to be, and with the help of the SBDC it is home to a state-of-the-art computer system, top-notch care, and a loyal base of clients.

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Nailed It

The SBDC helps client nail it

Bought a new building and retained 2 jobs

It started with an idea. Janet Savage was a talented nail technician working in a salon on the second floor. After noticing elderly clients struggle to get up the staircase, she decided to branch out on her own and solve the problem.

“My daughter is also a nail technician, so I asked if she would want to work for me,” Janet says. “I told my clients at the time that I was considering going out on my own. One of them had previous experience with the Blue Ridge Crossroads SBDC and referred me to them. That’s how it all got started.”

“One day, Mandy Archer [the SBDC’s Center Director] told me, ‘It is either go or no from here,’” explains Janet. “When she said that, Nailed It seemed like the best thing I could do.” With the business insight of the SBDC, Janet’s idea for her own salon came to fruition.

She rented the space for her own salon — on the ground level, of course — and, in 2015, opened Nailed It. The SBDC staff guided Janet in making sure she was legally prepared to open her business, and helped her with a ribbon-cutting and press release to celebrate the opening. Unlike most salons, she does not use any electric tools. “My elderly customers like that I do everything by hand, and I don’t charge them much,” she says.

In early 2020, Janet sought to expand. She visited the SBDC again, seeking assistance to purchase a larger building for Nailed It in the community that inspired her from the beginning. It will also be home to additional nail technicians and hairstylists. 

Janet is quick to credit the SBDC and Mandy Archer and Ginny Plant for Nailed It’s success. Janet still maintains a close personal relationship with her SBDC advisors and even picked up Ginny as a Nailed It client. “Once I got confronted with licensing and other obstacles, I probably wouldn’t have gone through with it. The SBDC helped me do pretty much everything,” she says. “Without the SBDC, Nailed It may still very well be an idea floating around in an upstairs salon.”

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