Category: Southwest

Galax Xtreme Fitness

Galax Xtreme Fitness gets a jump start

Received an EIDL loan

Sometimes you have to go to the extreme, and no one knows that better than Rick and Crystal Whisenhunt. What started out as sharing their hobby of personal training with close friends and family rapidly morphed into something more. They quickly found themselves at a crossroads with their soon-to-be business, Galax Xtreme Fitness (GXF). Word spread about Rick, who dabbled in Ninja training, and Crystal, new to fitness but nonetheless passionate, and their personalized approach to fitness. “It all just came to a head,” Rick says. “As the community found out about us, we started picking up our activities. We got to thinking it could be something more than a hobby.”

Since its founding in 2017, GXF has been a highly regarded fitness studio in the community, with a one-on-one culture most gyms lack. Even more unique is that Rick and Crystal offer personalized training and wellness solutions without workout equipment. With their exciting new business idea, however, came the daunting task of actually opening it. That is where the Blue Ridge Crossroads SBDC stepped in. “Getting it going was definitely a task. That was the panic stage for us,” Crystal says. “All those little things you don’t normally think about when opening a business until you’re faced with them — paperwork, taxes, licensing requirements — were all so daunting.”

The SBDC was integral in helping Rick and Crystal place 3rd in the Galax JUMP! Business Challenge, which helped them solidify GFX’s expansion. The fitness studio prides itself on marketing to individuals new to fitness who may be intimidated by a mainstream gym. “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” Crystal says. “Our customers aren’t here to just take a class. We truly care about them.”

Even during COVID-19, GXF has stayed afloat by connecting with new and existing customers through online group classes for donations only. “The SBDC has answered every question each step of the way, especially during the pandemic,” Crystal says. “Without them, GXF simply would not be in existence. Getting to the mountain was one thing, but making sure you climb the mountain is another. They really helped us climb that mountain.”

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Lichen or Knot

Lichen or Knot, here it comes

Increased equity and increased sales by $140,000

Back in 2014, Heather Barbieri and her sister started creating furniture décor pieces by adding lichen to thrifted items. “They were unique, beautiful, and didn’t cost us much to produce,” Heather recalls. From there, Lichen or Knot took many turns, including becoming a vintage vendor, selling tables made from pallet wood and metal pipe at large retail shows from Pennsylvania to South Carolina.

It wasn’t until just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit that Lichen or Knot blossomed into its current shape. According to Heather, she and her husband John began taking plants to their vintage shows, where they sold very quickly. “John and I realized that we could probably sell plants just as well without traveling to the shows,” Heather says. “People enjoyed buying plants from us so much that we could literally sell them out of the back of a truck. And we wouldn’t have to go so far from home.” After purchasing an old gray plumbing truck with a rebuilt engine from a friend, Heather and John rolled their plant-based dreams onto the road with fingers crossed and hopes high. “I knew then,” Heather says, “that I had to give it all I could. This was my chance.”

If Lichen or Knot were a budding plant, then the Roanoke Regional SBDC was the nutrient-rich food that fed it. “Community and Economic Development Director Lydeana Martin connected us with the SBDC’s business advisor, Tom Tanner, who helped us with financials,” Heather explains. “Then we contacted Cheryl Tucker, advisor for the New River Valley area. John and I met with Cheryl many times, and it’s been invaluable.” 

Cheryl’s seasoned advice made all the difference. “She walked us back from the ledge,” says Heather. “John and I were considering a lease agreement for a brick-and-mortar shop in a very prime location. It didn’t take long for Cheryl to realize the danger that we were about to get into. She gently suggested that, while it may work out fine, we shouldn’t rush into an agreement until we had done the hard work of writing a business plan,” Heather goes on. “Business plans aren’t much fun, so it wasn’t what I wanted to hear. But she was absolutely right. We simply weren’t ready.” Heather and John also participated in the C4 Program offered through the SBDC, where they received insights from professional advisors, marketing tools, and other helpful resources that they were able to use on a day-to-day basis.

As the cooler weather set in, Heather and John felt the need to move the business out of their home and into its own space; they couldn’t go through the holidays with flats of monsteras, hoyas, and pothos covering their floors. They found a location in Floyd too beautiful to pass up and opened the doors on Black Friday. Customers from Roanoke, Blacksburg, Radford, and Christiansburg poured in — all Heather and John could have hoped for and more. 

Heather explains their success: “We are offering an experience that people want to return to. Custom care, much like a tailor shop, is what we are going for. I guess that is unique coming out of an old gray plumber’s truck that drives up and down a dirt road every day to bring plants to the people who want them.”

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Patina Creek Silver

Lined with the silver of success

Received $10,000 from the Community Business Launch competition and a $6,000 EIDL loan

After selling their home, Anna Metheny and her husband decided to invest $600 in a start-up kit for silver fingerprint jewelry that Anna first sold at a school PTA event. “I had no idea what I was doing. I had never done anything like it, but I walked away from that night with $850. I immediately realized that I may have found something interesting,” she says. 

As a full-time stay-at-home mom, Anna was delighted and intrigued to hit on a potential source of income that could nurture her creative side, bring in revenue, and offer flexibility at the same time. Anna was blown away by the enthusiastic response her metal artisanship received, and soon she was attending any venue that could be a market for her products.

What happened next was the fingerprint that changed the silver. “I met Anna through the Community Business Launch (CBL) held in the town of Buchanan,” says Roanoke Regional SBDC Advisor Heather Fay. “Since the end of the program, I have talked with Anna about exploring a space away from her home for her business and offering an appointment-based onsite experience for fingerprint jewelry.” 

Next, Anna placed fourth in a competition at the end of the CBL and was awarded $10,000, which financed the rental of her current business space.

Heather and the SBDC have kept pace with Anna, as things have moved rapidly for her and Patina Creek Silver, as well as Patina Creek Creative, the name of her brick-and-mortar space. Heather adds, “Anna and I have also talked through the pros and cons of expanding her business, as well as operating during a pandemic.”

Today, Anna is still in shock at how quickly things have moved. “If you would have told me in January,” she says as she gestures to the high, beautifully lit ceilings of her shop via a Zoom call, “that all this would be here now, I never would have believed you. But here we are.” Anna shares her space with another artist, and they hosted an inaugural handmade Christmas market in December. 

“Heather has always been so eager and excited to help me. Every time I think I don’t know how to do this, I just say to myself ‘I gotta call Heather,’” Anna says. Thanks to the resources and guidance of Heather and the SBDC, Anna captured her future. 

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Jerry B. Peters Sales

Jerry B. Peters sells success with the SBDC

Received a PPP loan and retained 6 jobs

Jerry B. Peters Sales has been in the business of making names for clients for almost 50 years. With promotional products and logo apparel, the Bristol company has also made a name for itself in the community. “My father, Jerry Peters, started the business in 1973,” co-owner Kim Warren says. “I grew up in the business and started helping out as a teenager. Originally, the business focused on promotional keychains and pens for customers, like car dealers. It grew from there.” The Jerry B. Peters product line expanded extensively over the years. Upon the death of their father, Kim and her sister, Tammy Peters Jackson, took over the business. 

It continued to grow until the COVID-19 pandemic led to widespread closures. When educational and service events shut down and the company was facing a loss in booked sales, Kim and Tammy wisely turned to the Virginia Highlands SBDC. “We had started working with the SBDC about ten years before that,” Kim says. “Cindy Fields, Center Director of the Virginia Highlands SBDC, worked with us to develop lists of items to market to surrounding businesses. She has been very helpful, especially during the pandemic.”

As COVID-19 continued to spread across the area, it was apparent that businesses would need items related to personal protective equipment (PPE). The Jerry B. Peters product line increased accordingly, with personalized face masks, hand sanitizers, and digital thermometers. “One event the SBDC had was especially fabulous,” Kim notes. “Representatives from a number of local industries were there, and being able to speak to representatives from all those industries resulted in about $25,000 in new business for us.”

As the pandemic evolved, the Virginia Highlands SBDC kept Kim and Tammy informed about emergency financial relief. Jerry B. Peters Sales received a PPP loan in the early funding round, which allowed the company to keep its employees working and to broaden promotional offerings to businesses. “We’ve expanded our social media presence with regular posts on Facebook and Instagram,” Kim reports. “We also held regular promotions, highlighting our products and also those of our customers. My daughter, who graduated from Virginia Tech and worked in public relations before starting a career in teaching, has helped us with our social media.”

Kim credits the SBDC for guiding her business. “I keep in touch with Cindy every few weeks,” Kim concludes. “The SBDC has been a great partner to us for so many years. We consider their services invaluable in today’s changing world.”

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Planet Chopper

Easy Rider Meets Mad Max

Planet Chopper supports 5 jobs and had a 6-figure infusion of capital.

Thanks to the Blue Ridge Crossroads SBDC, four unlikely friends found a way to turn motorcycle tours into transformative experiences and forge bonds among strangers — all while doing what they love.

“This might sound like a cliché, but when you do what you love for a living, it’s not work.” When Wayne Cayton talks about Planet Chopper, you can hear that love.

Wayne met New Zealanders Mark Van Leeuwarden, Mark’s son Ben, and John Devonshire a decade ago at a gas station. “We met on the road riding motorcycles somewhere in New Mexico,” Wayne relates. It turned out that the four of them were going to the same place in Rockingham, NC. They agreed to meet up whenever they arrived, having no inkling that their eventual destination would turn into a joint business venture.

Their company, Planet Chopper, offers one-of-a-kind tours on unique custom motorcycles. Wayne says, “The four of us had been riding together as a group for 10 years. And we’d go on these journeys that were just unbelievable.” With boots-on-the-ground experience in riding, mechanics, and motorcycle tour destinations, they offer life-changing trips to groups of riders throughout the United States. With a company tagline of Where Easy Rider Meets Mad Max and tours named The Kiwi Crusade, The Southern Joyride, and The Sturgis Stampede, you’re bound to attract a diverse crowd.

The four founders share a deep and abiding love of riding on the open road, and their diverse array of skills complement each other. Wayne and John practice the art of chopping, that is, they customize one-off bikes for the tours. Mark brings expertise in international business. Ben focuses on marketing, but he found that establishing local points of contact was difficult. He contacted the SBDC for help with “connecting the dots in the local environment.” Mandy Archer, Director for the Blue Ridge Crossroads SBDC, knew where to start.

“Ginny and Mandy put us in touch with Larry Davidson, founder of Back of the Dragon [Larry’s story is also in this publication]; Becky Nave, the Destination Development Specialist at Virginia Tourism Corporation; and Steve Helms of Primland,” Mark explains. Back of the Dragon is a 32-mile stretch of winding road from Marion to Tazewell, famous among riders throughout the world, and Primland is a luxury resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains surrounded by a 47-mile loop favored by riders. “Their support was invaluable and made all the difference,” says Wayne.

Musing about the experience, Wayne says, “What begins as a group of 15 complete strangers at the start of a trip — not even two weeks later, with the laughter and conversation happening at the table — you’d think they’d been friends and family for decades. That is really cool to see. These are stories that they’re going to be able to tell for the rest of their lives.”

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Dragon Fire

Winding road holds big dreams

$1.6 million capital infusion from Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority, Tobacco Commission, and private investors.

For Larry Davidson, it all started with a road — a 32-mile, serpentine stretch of Route 16 between Marion and Tazewell, Virginia, known as the Back of the Dragon. Larry loved to ride the 435 snaking curves of the road and suspected that many other motorcyclists and driving enthusiasts would as well. But he needed help marketing the road that spanned the Big Walker, Brushy, and Clinch Mountains.

Larry turned to the Southwest SBDC for assistance. Once the campaign started, Larry’s suspicions proved true; others came, eager to experience the thrill of navigating all those curves and switchbacks.

As the Dragon’s popularity grew, Larry started Dragon Fire to sell souvenirs and memorabilia to riders and drivers. It wasn’t long before Larry found himself outgrowing the 400-foot doublewide trailer where he sold Back of the Dragon merchandise. The next step was to build a welcome center. It was time for the dragon to spread its wings.

Larry worked with Margie Douglass, Center Director, and the Southwest SBDC team to find funding for the new space. He wanted a welcome center that incorporated retail space, a coffee bar, yogurt bar, brewery, and lounge. In short, he wanted a 5,000 square-foot edifice. With the SBDC’s help, Larry received a $150,000 Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority (VCEDA) grant and a $650,000 loan from the Tobacco Commission. With the addition of investor financing, the $1.68 million facility was built, and opened in December 2019.

For Larry, the SBDC was the glue that made all the pieces fit together. “You can have the best idea in the world but, if you don’t know how to implement it, that idea isn’t worth anything. It doesn’t do you any good,” he says. “I had so much knowledge about my market, but I was unsure how to take that head full of knowledge and make it work to pay dividends for my business. This is where the SBDC program bridged the gap.”

Larry is confident that the SBDC will be an ongoing resource that he will rely on as he navigates the curves of the future.

“Looking back, if it hadn’t been for Margie and the SBDC, I am confident that I would not be where I am,” said Larry. “It’s been the most positive factor for me being successful up to this point, and I have no doubt that it will continue to be so in the future.”

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Sugar Hill Cidery

Brewing success times two

With the SBDC’s help the Baileys were able to secure a $50,000 grant and 3 loans from economic development agencies for the Sugar Hill Cidery. Currently their brewery in St. Paul and the Norton cidery employ 65 people.

Five years ago, Jennifer and Greg Bailey were selling hardware in St. Paul, population 970. Then their son came up with an idea for a brewery, and the couple has been brewing up business success ever since.

Their Sugar Hill Brewing Company opened three years ago in St. Paul, and Sugar Hill Cidery held its soft opening this summer in nearby Norton. “In the hardware business we were surviving, but that’s about all,” Jennifer recalls. “We decided our area needed something different, and a hardware store wasn’t one of those things.”

The Baileys met Tim Blankenbecler, Director of the Mt. Empire SBDC, during their “hardware” years. “We got a lot of help from Tim,” Jennifer says. “When we decided to open a brewery, he helped us write the business plan and find funding.”

After the brewery opened, the City of Norton, 20 miles down the road, approached Jennifer and Greg with a proposal that offered a new slant on brewing — a cidery. “We like things that are different. We asked our head brewer if he could make cider. He told us, ‘I can ferment anything!’ We decided to go look at some buildings in Norton,” Jennifer explains. “We included Tim Blankenbecler early on,” Greg adds. “We knew he would be realistic and wouldn’t encourage us if we didn’t have a workable business plan and good cash flow.”

Tim assisted the Baileys once again with writing their plan and connecting them to sources for financing. The Baileys were able to secure a $50,000 grant and three loans from economic development agencies to make the cidery project possible. “It was really a public-private partnership,” Greg says. On the facilities side, the City of Norton invested over a million dollars to renovate a formerly vacant car dealership where the cidery would be located. “The city had the headache of remodeling, which helped us a lot,” Jennifer notes. Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball stated that Norton’s investment in turning the car dealership facility into an economic enterprise would have a transformative effect on the downtown area. It will house a farmers market and an entrepreneurial center along with the cidery that seats more than 200 people.

The Baileys also increased their workforce. “Currently we have 65 employees,” Greg notes. Future plans include installing equipment for bottling at both the brewery and cidery. “Tim will be there when we start talking about that,” Jennifer adds. “Whenever we have a problem, we call Tim. He always comes up with a strategy.”

Both Greg and Jennifer are quick to direct others to the SBDC. “The SBDC has been a great help,” Jennifer concludes. “When someone says they want to start a business, I tell them — that’s a good idea, but call the SBDC first.”

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Preston Ball Photography

Bringing opportunity into focus

Preston Ball obtained a seed capital grant of $10,000 from the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority for needed equipment.

Preston Ball believed his photography hobby had value, but it took the Southwest Virginia SBDC to bring the idea of starting a business into focus. Turning a hobby into a business, he launched Preston Ball Photography LLC in December 2018.

“I got started with taking pictures of my own kids,” he explains. When other parents asked him to take photos of their children, Preston began to think in terms of his own business. He decided to visit Margie Douglass, Director of the Southwest Virginia SBDC. “When I went to the SBDC, she asked me a bunch of questions that I didn’t have a clue as to what the answers were,” he relates. “Did I have a business plan or a price sheet? How do I handle taxes — a lot of things I’d never really thought about.”

Preston went home to work on a business plan, a process he compared to looking through the viewfinder on his camera. “It was a real eye-opener,” he says. “Once you start putting things on paper, you see a lot of opportunities out there.” He appreciated the help the SBDC provided along the way. “They gave me sample business plans,” he explains. “Any time I had a question, I would call and ask about it.”

Margie was also instrumental in connecting Preston with the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority (VCEDA), which led to a $10,000 seed-capital matching grant. “It was a lot of work, but it paid off,” he says. “The seed-capital grant helped me purchase new lighting for my photo shoots. In the future, I hope to develop an indoor studio to provide a space for more portrait photography.”

The grant not only helped Preston grow his business, it literally took him in a whole new direction — up. “I purchased a drone, and I’ve been taking a lot of photos for local realtors,” he notes. Preston believes drones are a new frontier that photographers like himself can explore. “They’re using drone photos for tower and bridge inspections,” he says. “That’s a lot safer than sending a human up to do it.”

One major long-term goal is landing a contract for school photos. “We have four schools in Lebanon — and no sports photographers in town,” Preston relates. “That’s a huge potential market.”

Preston is pleased with the progress his business has made in its first year and credits the SBDC for much of that success. “I had no idea the SBDC does so many things,” he concludes. “The SBDC will help as little or as much as needed. I definitely plan to keep on working with them.”

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Studio B & The Alley Escape Rooms

Jumping into the Galax Shark Tank

Tonya and Travis won First Place in the JUMP! Galax Business Challenge for $15,000. Studio B and The Escape Room support 7 jobs.

Tonya and Travis Belton decided to take a leap. They were running a paint-party business, Studio B, in downtown Galax and wanted to expand. Providentially, theyheard about the JUMP! Galax Business Challenge, funded by the Community Business Launch, a program of the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). Despite stiff competition, they won the $15,000 first place prize.

They are particularly grateful for the counseling and training delivered by Mandy Archer and Ginny Plant at the Blue Ridge Crossroads SBDC. “I don’t have a business background. I went to college for nursing so they were very helpful with the business part,” Tonya explains.

The specific criteria for judging included the strength of the business plan, the plan’s potential impact on the regional economic development strategy, the contestants’ community involvement, and the quality and impact of the pitch itself during the high-pressure final presentation. This program also involved six weeks of business boot camp to hone each criteria, starting with a business plan and culminating with pitch night.

It might draw a smaller audience than Shark Tank, but the effects of the prize money on Studio B’s business was powerful. Tonya and Travis used their winnings to expand Studio B’s services and to improve the building, including installing air conditioning on the top floor to make it usable for events. As a result, customers can now rent the space for private paint parties, birthday parties, baby showers, wedding and bridal showers, corporate events, and fundraisers. Additionally, Tonya and Travis built The Alley Escape Rooms, Galax’s first escape room featuring virtual reality.

“Mandy and Ginny have been really good about getting us in touch with the people we need. They share a wealth of knowledge,” Tonya says. “If they can’t answer the questions, they’ll put you in touch with people who can. They’re always there, one-on-one, and they offer tons of webinars. Because I have three kids, the webinars are really convenient for me.”

From those classes, Tonya and Travis gained a wealth of networking opportunities. They have relied on Mandy and Ginny to connect them with everyone from CPA’s to local banks. Thanks to the expertise and resources of the Blue Ridge Crossroads SBDC, Tonya and Travis survived their plunge and are swimming stronger than ever.

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Play Now!

No time like now: Abingdon play space makes success fun

Play Now! won a $3,000 grant from the Washington County Business Challenge, increased its sales by 20%, and created 2 new jobs.

When she graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in business, Stephanie Howard knew she would put the degree to good use, but she never imagined how.

Years later, Stephanie, now a mother of three children under the age of ten, found herself dusting that degree off in an unexpected way. She realized she was frequently searching for creative, age-appropriate play options for her kids that did not involve a lengthy drive from her Abingdon home. Stephanie decided to create Play Now! an indoor play-and-party business that would offer unique play experiences in a safe and clean environment.

“There was really a need for something like that in this area,” Stephanie says. Her thoughtfully designed 1,000-square-foot space features a two-story soft playground, a foam ball arena, and a newly added sensory room to help kids (and grownups, too!) calm down and de-stress. “It’s like being at home but without having to clean up,” she laughs. It’s clear that she’s put a great deal of thought into the small space.

Stephanie believes in emphasizing socialization between adults and children. In fact, seeing the connections between the children as they play is for her one of the most rewarding parts of Play Now! “The space is not huge, and I love that about it,” she says. It is carefully designed to be open. Wherever you sit you can see your child at all times.”

Although Stephanie had a business background and several family members were small business owners, she sought the assistance of the Virginia Highlands SBDC when it came to crafting a business plan and marketing strategy for Play Now! Less than five months later, she opened the doors in July 2019. “The SBDC has been a tremendous help, both mentally and emotionally. ” Stephanie says, “Networking has been a huge deal. My advisor, Cindy Fields, always answered her phone and pointed me in the right direction.”

Cindy and the SBDC team encouraged Stephanie to enter the Washington County Business Challenge. She admits, “I was nervous and overwhelmed at first, but Cindy told me, ‘We will have your back and be with you every step of the way.’ Soon I realized how much I enjoyed what I was learning and doing.” And it paid off. Stephanie won a $3,000 grant as part of the challenge.

Since opening Play Now! Stephanie has added two part-time employees and increased sales by 20%. “Our goal is to make each child that comes through the door feel as loved and as happy as possible for the time that they are with us,” Stephanie says. With Cindy and the Virginia Highlands SBDC at her side, Stephanie is ready to take on whatever may come her way.

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