Category: Networking

A&W Collectables Antique Mall

A&W Collectables Antique Mall

The SBDC brings new ideas to A&W Antique Mall

Increased safety measures, which led to increased sales.

A&W Collectables Antique Mall is part of the town of Keswick’s history that almost didn’t have a future.

Barbara Fleming took over the business in 2018, when the owners wanted to retire. Barbara, who graduated from Longwood College with a business degree, was pursuing an interest that started years before. “I inherited some costume jewelry from my grandmother and used to go to estate sales with my mom,” she relates. “About 20 years ago, I started a booth with a friend and gradually got several small spaces to include furniture, antiques, décor, and of course a jewelry showcase.”

When it appeared that A&W might close in 2018 after being in business over 25 years, Barbara and several other vendors got together to see if they could keep the business going. “At the end of the day, I was it,” Barbara adds. “But with the help of a great group of vendors, we’ve made it work. We also have to give a big credit to our wonderful and very loyal customers

The COVID pandemic, though, was not part of the business plan. “When COVID shut us down on March 15, I called the Central Virginia SBDC,” Barbara explains. “They connected me with Diane Arnold, who assisted me with so many things, including applying for an EIDL loan. Unfortunately, when completing the application, I checked a wrong block and did not get the loan.

A&W reopened in May 2020, and Barbara continued to collaborate with the SBDC, which resulted in a steady increase in sales. “I talked with Diane a lot during that time,” Barbara says. “She stopped for a visit and took note of the safety protocols we were doing. We had signage regarding local and state ordinances, free masks, sanitizer, an antique frame with plexiglass at the sales counter, and a basket system set up for customers to place their purchases in prior to purchasing them. She looked at the things we were doing and helped us decipher safety regulations. She advised us whenever we came across something in the gray area on local and state levels.”

A&W’s “gray area” included public restrooms and mask mandates. “Diane advised me to keep the bathrooms closed, which I did,” Barbara says. When there was pushback, Barbara compromised. “I rented a Porta John,” she says. “A lot of businesses were doing that.”

Barbara credits the SBDC with keeping her in the loop about other nearby businesses. “I get information from the SBDC all the time,” she relates. “Diane keeps me informed about other businesses and just information in general.”

Now well into 2021, Barbara is optimistic. “I think things are looking up,” she says. “We’re doing better than we did the year before.”

Barbara, recommends the SBDC’s services on a daily basis. “When customers comment on our safety measures, we tell them we’re just following the advice of the local SBDC,” Barbara concludes. “The SBDC was there to advise us on whatever we needed at the moment — our customers appreciate that, and so do we.”

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Brewski’s Barkhaus

Brewki’s Barkhaus

Bar plus dogs equals success for Brewski’s Barkhaus

Significant funding from private investors.

Alex Benbassat and Justin LeGore took an idea for a dog bar, that started when they were roommates at Virginia Tech, and turned it into a reality during a pandemic in October 2020. They succeeded with careful planning, hard work, and help from the Alexandria SBDC.

“We visited a dog bar in Charlotte, North Carolina, while we were at Tech,” Justin explains. “The idea sort of stuck with us.”

Justin, who majored in business management with a concentration in entrepreneurship, and Alex, who holds an architecture degree, connected again after graduation. “I was seeking a business partner,” Justin says. “Alex was working on his thesis for an architecture program, which, incidentally, was for a dog bar. It worked out.”

First and most important was gauging interest for a dog bar business in the Alexandria area. Alex and Justin contacted the Alexandria SBDC for help with planning a festival incorporating people, dogs, breweries, and live music. “One of my professors at Tech had told me about the SBDC,” Justin explains. “We started working with Business Advisor Jack Parker, and he helped us write our business plan and make the necessary connections for the festival — which, in turn, locked in our investors.”

“We organized the Old Town Beer and Dog Festival with 30 vendors,” Justin relates. “It was wildly successful.” With an attendance of 3,000 to 4,000 people and 400 dogs, the two entrepreneurs knew they were on the right track.

With investors onboard, Alex and Justin went to work establishing Brewski’s Barkhaus. Using his architectural skills, Alex put together a floor plan for Barkhaus in a former hamburger restaurant. “We did a facelift and remodeling and added a dog park outside,” Justin explains. “Then we had to apply for a variance to allow dogs inside a restaurant.”

In setting up their new business, Alex and Justin again took advantage of the SBDC’s connections. “The SBDC helped us align our finances in appropriate ways by connecting us with accountants and attorneys,” Justin says. “In a way, Jack was like a father. We knew we could call him at any point if we had questions — and we did that a lot.”

While the pandemic-forced downsizing on many businesses, Barkhaus actually expanded. “We made it through the COVID winter and did well enough in the spring of 2021 to double our outdoor area,” Justin states. “The SBDC was a huge help to us in planning our festival, which is what brought in the investors to get us started. If it hadn’t been for the SBDC connections, I doubt if we could have made it all happen.”

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Genesis Learning Center

Petersburg day care pushes past the odds

Secured a $900,000 loan to fund an expansion to serve 125 families and provide 25 full-time jobs.

Amy Venable-Turner, owner of the Genesis Learning Center, believes learning never stops. She’s built a thriving day care business focused on that approach.

“I started working for Genesis, a church-operated day care, when I was 21,” she says. Amy completed a degree in early childhood education and then decided to take a job on the West Coast. She was called back to Virginia by the Genesis Learning Center. “The school was failing, and they wanted to see if I could save it,” Amy relates. Three years later, the pastor gave the school to me — I guess you could say I inherited it.”

Since Amy took over the business in 2006, Genesis has expanded to include three locations. “In 2020, we decided to add a fourth location in Petersburg,” Amy says.

Amy had several goals when she contacted Ellen Templeton, Center Director of the Longwood University SBDC — Eastern Region, also known as the Crater SBDC. “I needed to understand the Petersburg market and wanted someone in the area to help me make connections and network,” Amy explains.

Networking began with an SBDC workshop on “How to Start a Business.” At that workshop, Amy made an important connection with Dennis Wagner of the Small Business Administration (SBA). This led to another connection to an executive at a Petersburg hospital looking for a source of quality childcare. “We had identified a location for our school in Petersburg,” Amy relates. “At that point, Ellen encouraged me to contact the SBA for funding.”

To apply for an SBA loan, Amy needed to write a business plan — something she had not done during her 14 years in business. “Ellen walked me through the application process and all the paperwork involved with it,” Amy continues. “We did secure a $900,000 loan for the Petersburg expansion to serve 125 families and provide 25 full-time jobs.”

It seemed like all signs were a “go” for the new location as things continued to fall into place. However, COVID had other plans. The pandemic abruptly halted the forward movement for the newest Genesis Learning Center. “The Petersburg project was put on hold,” Amy reports. “Now, in 2021, we basically have to start over from the beginning.”

Despite such setbacks from the pandemic, Amy is confident about the future. “Because Ellen walked me through the SBA loan process pre-COVID, I’m not afraid to start again post-COVID,” Amy says. “To me, that’s the real value of the SBDC.”

Amy doesn’t hesitate to recommend the SBDC. “I’ve had a wonderful experience with the SBDC and specifically with Ellen,” she concludes. “The SBDC has the experience and knowledge to help any small business owner succeed.”

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The Bower Center for the Arts

Arts and culture center set for success

The Center secured $86,900 in loans: $19,400 in PPP loans, $4,000 in EIDL, and $3,500 in grants.

When COVID-19 forced the Bower Center for the Arts in Bedford to close, Executive Director Susan Martin was prepared, and her secret weapon was the SBDC – Lynchburg Region.

Susan was familiar with the SBDC from her work with the Bedford Area Chamber. “I knew the SBDC from their collaborative efforts and youth programming from my time with the chamber,” says Susan. “I knew that they were a great resource.”

When Susan became the Executive Director at the Bower Center in the summer of 2019, she had no way of knowing the hardships that were waiting just ahead in 2020. “The Bower Center for the Arts highlights local and regional culture through multiple exhibits, as well as classes for youth and adults. You name it, we do it,” Susan explains. “We collaborate with public schools, and the Center is celebrating its fifteenth anniversary this year,” Susan adds.

Susan originally reached out to the SBDC for insights on how to reintroduce the Bower Center into the Bedford community. She also needed skilled advice on working productively with a board of directors to accomplish goals and create growth.

“It was a time of transition. There was a need for internal processes since we were essentially reinventing the business,” Susan says. “I reached out for help with marketing, promotion, and training. The SBDC helped us get back out into the community. There was definitely some complexity involved since we were rebranding, in a sense, under a different foundation, and also because we are a 501(c)3 nonprofit. The SBDC was able to guide me through all of that,” Susan continues.

The most invaluable assistance the SBDC provided was guidance applying for vital grants and loans before, during, and after COVID-19. According to Susan, the SBDC was able to locate and assist the Bower Center with two Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans through the U.S. Small Business Administration, which offset the hardest portions of the COVID downturn. Additional loans and grants also kept things bolstered as the center waited to return to regular operations.

“The SBDC also provided mentoring during COVID, particularly on how to return to normalcy, even with less staffing opportunities. I am so grateful for their mentorship,” says Susan, who still meets with her advisor once a month. “They have allowed me to vent, and have been a sounding board. They’ve provided me with so many tips and tricks on how to make it through.” The SBDC — Lynchburg Region has kept Susan and Bedford’s Bower Center for the Arts going strong..

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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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Granite Countertop Experts

Granite Countertop Experts

Solid as a rock: The SBDC brings business from shaky to stable

Sales have increased and 1 job expanded from part-time to full-time.

Nelson Mandela famously said, “The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

Natalie Lago of Granite Countertop Experts in Newport News is deeply familiar with conquering fear.

She and her husband Ken launched their countertop fabrication and installation business in 2005. The business holds licensed contractor (Class A) classifications in commercial and home improvement and is a certified Commonwealth of Virginia SWaM/Micro business. Husband Ken’s years of experience working as a contractor for high-end markets in the Maryland area with an excellent reputation enabled the enterprise to thrive.

In 2008, however, the Hampton Roads area began to feel the fallout of the housing recession. Natalie’s business had just purchased costly but vital equipment, and the outlook for the future looked bleak. “I was literally frightened as I witnessed many business owners closing their doors or filing for bankruptcy,” she says.

Fear moved Natalie to connect with the SBDC. In advisor Debra Hamilton Farley, she found reassurance, guidance, and most importantly a friend. “I credit her with keeping me from becoming a failed small business owner statistic during those challenging economic times,” Natalie adds.

Over a decade of working with Debra and the SBDC proved incredibly valuable for Natalie. She says she has particularly benefited from training sessions hosted by Debra, where industry professionals provide advice and one-on-one interactions with business owners. The SBDC also provided the opportunity for Natalie to network with other small-business owners where she found encouragement and support. “For me Debra makes the SBDC like a sanctuary,” Natalie says. “Debra made a way for me to see a light at the end of the tunnel. She is a gem, and her enthusiasm is genuine and contagious,” Natalie adds.

Although Natalie always sees room for growth, it is clear that the anxiety-riddled days of 2008 are well behind her contracting business. Granite Countertop Experts has experienced steady growth and continues to automate as much as possible, reducing the toll of heavy physical labor.

Thanks to Debra and the SBDC, Natalie has good reason to feel optimistic for the future. The SBDC has turned Natalie’s fear into confidence. “I have learned a lot, and there’s still a lot for me to learn about entrepreneurship. But I now feel better prepared to run my business and have some fantastic resources to turn to for questions and guidance,” Natalie says. “I’m no longer focused on surviving; I’m ready to thrive.”

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Matrix International

Matrix International

Global connections add security

Matrix developed an international customer base one year ahead of schedule.

Jeffrey Johnston understands the power of good connections. He sees it as the path to good business.

Jeffrey heads up international business development at Matrix International, a company that specializes in global security, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance planning. “My first effort to grow our business internationally took me to the Philippines,” Jeffrey explains. “A Foreign Commercial Service officer at the U.S. embassy in Manila connected me with his colleague in Arlington, Virginia, who pointed me toward the Virginia SBDC Network. That initial contact, made in the Philippines, opened a lot of doors,” he adds.

While Matrix, primarily a defense contractor, has about 65 employees, depending on the number of workers on contracts at any given time, Jeffrey only has one person working with him. “That’s it,” Jeffrey explains. “I don’t have the manpower to find international business opportunities and develop them on my own.” Then Jeffrey met Aaron Miller, International Trade Manager at the Virginia SBDC Network, who had a team ready and willing to help. “The SBDC has been tremendous in helping to multiply the manpower we need to accomplish the company’s growth,” Jeffrey says.

In 2016 Matrix worked with Aaron to gain insight into specific markets in the Middle East, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. “Aaron had business students from George Mason University do a market survey for us, which was extremely helpful.” Jeffrey explains. The Virginia SBDC’s international team found the best potential markets for Matrix, based on the presence of geopolitical conflict, modernization, and defense spending. The SBDC summarized regulatory environments, found market entry solutions and networking events, and provided Matrix with drone regulation information. The international team’s connections led to Matrix’s acceptance into the Virginia Economic Development Partnership’s Virginia Leaders in Export Trade (VALET) program. This allowed Matrix to add an international component to its commercial customer base.

 “Aaron and the SBDC have been an active and continuing partner for us,” Jeffrey says. “Whenever there are events that might be helpful to us, Aaron invites me to go along. It has given us access to meetings with the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship. It has provided both the exposure and access we wouldn’t have been able to tap into otherwise.”

Jeffrey is pleased with the contacts and connections that have allowed Matrix to enter the international market a year ahead of schedule. “I couldn’t develop international business opportunities on my own,” Jeffrey concludes. “Aaron and the SBDC multiplied our manpower and that allowed our company to grow. It’s been tremendous for us.”

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SD Solutions

SD Solutions

Finding solutions at the SBDC

With the SBDC’s help, SD Solutions is in a stronger position because they started the process of diversifying through international markets.

Finding solutions is all in a day’s work for Balaji Venkatesan. His company, SD Solutions, offers services ranging from cybersecurity and information technology (IT) to acquisition support and governance. The company, which currently employs 40, has served such notable clients as the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the Federal Election Commission.

Doing well domestically, SD Solutions wanted to enter the international market. There was one problem. “SD Solutions needed a way to make connections,” Balaji says. Enter the Virginia SBDC: solution found!

Balaji discovered the SBDC almost by chance. “They had a table set up at a small business conference I was attending,” he explains. “I went over and talked with them.” Balaji quickly realized the SBDC had the connections and resources he was seeking to help him enter the international market.

“Balaji initially reached out to the Virginia SBDC International Business Development Program to gain insight on international markets for SD Solutions’ broad range of services,” the SBDC International Trade Manager Aaron Miller says. “SD employees brought 20-plus years of experience in the federal space domestically and wanted to utilize this deep body of knowledge in dealings abroad.”

Balaji asked the SBDC to help him attain information on countries where internet and cybersecurity services were minimal, particularly in government and financial institutions. “We were also looking for breakout opportunities in the infrastructure protection and health industries on the international level,” Balaji adds.

The SBDC’s research was helpful in all of these areas. “Aaron was a big help with networking and making introductions for us,” Balaji notes. “He looked at competitors within the identified markets.” The SBDC also helped the company get into the Virginia Leaders in Export Trade (VALET) program at the Virginia Economic Development Partnership. “Through VALET, SD Solutions was able to take numerous international trips to attend trade shows in Panama, the United Kingdom, and Peru,” Aaron says.

Since working with the SBDC, SD Solutions has increased its international visibility. “We’re definitely getting a lot of calls on marketing,” Balaji says. “We’ve had quite a few new leads.” SD Solutions’ possibilities for international business are also looking up. “SD Solutions is in a stronger position because they started the process of diversifying through international markets” Aaron says.

As to the chance encounter that brought international trade solutions to his company, Balaji says, “I absolutely plan to continue with the SBDC. I want to thank them for all their help. Hopefully more businesses will leverage the services we found at the SBDC.”

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Drop It

Drop It

Stop, drop, and sip: Business owner beats the red-wine blues

Drop It is sold internationally through Amazon and in many US stores across half a dozen states. In 2018, her revenues jumped ten-fold, and she obtained an equity credit line of $50,000.

Drop It

You would not know it now, but for years Jenny Corcoran couldn’t drink wine. Even a single glass would leave her with a piercing headache. “And, while a martini is not a bad option,” Corcoran jokingly adds, “it really just isn’t the same.” Today, wine is a huge part of Corcoran’s life and livelihood.

Using her background in biochemistry, the University of Maryland graduate began to explore the connection between sulfites (FDA-required additive in wines for preservative purposes since 1988) and tannins (naturally occurring in most red wine from the grapes themselves) and their relationship to the dreaded RWH or red wine headache. While anecdotal evidence suggested that many people shared her experience, scientific research yielded further proof that there is a connection.

Jenny spent roughly a year and a half developing a liquid that targets and neutralizes the sulfites and tannins in red wines. She’s quick to assure customers that Drop It won’t prevent a hangover, but it has been shown to decrease the average person’s sensitivity to the headache-producing tannins and sulfite. “I like to call it ‘prehab,’ not rehab,” says Jenny.

The start of Drop It was the epitome of grassroots. Her friends kept asking her about the small bottle she would produce at dinners and parties, and she would explain what Drop It was and how it worked. “I would tell them to stop by the house, bring a little bottle, and I would fix them right up,” recalls Jenny. “There was one point when I had so many people dropping by my house with small bottles for me to fill up I almost felt like a dealer of some sort!”

It was clear that Jenny was on to something with Drop It. She began selling Drop It in a local wine shop in Cape Charles. Interest and demand continued to grow.

In 2017, Jenny participated in the InnovateHER Business Challenge facilitated by Old Dominion University and the Small Business Administration. Through this challenge, she became a client of George Bryan, advisor with the Eastern Shore SBDC of Hampton Roads. “He outlined the importance of profit models and having things on paper,” says Jenny. “He has been an endless source of great ideas and, above all, of contacts,” she adds. “Every connection he has brought me has yielded countless others — it has truly been invaluable.”

Today Drop It sells worldwide on Amazon, as well as at wine shops, boutiques, and wine festivals throughout Virginia. “It makes me proud that this product goes out into the wide world from right here in tiny Cape Charles,” says Jenny. “But what I really love the most is getting a review or feedback from someone who can now enjoy a glass of wine with a loved one that perhaps couldn’t have happened before. I get letters all the time,” Jenny says with a smile, “saying please don’t ever stop making this.”

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Colonial Systems

Colonial Systems

Colonial Systems brings a cinematic eye to government branding

Colonial Systems employs 14+ people on a contract basis, with 2 full-time employees. It holds the largest single federal contract by dollar value in Appomattox County.

A desire for storytelling can hit at a young age; think Steven Spielberg.

While in high school in 2016, Nathan Simpson worked with the Young Entrepreneurs Academy, which gave him $1500 to start his own company. It was then that Nathan got involved with the SBDC – Lynchburg Region.

Still in high school, he started his next company, Colonial Systems, in 2017. Nathan’s dream was to bring a new vision to clients using fresh video, social media, and all aspects of digital marketing. He knew the SBDC would play a key role in this venture, but his story does not follow the typical path.

 “I’ve always had a passion for storytelling and felt that multimedia design was a great outlet for that,” Nathan says. “Fortunately, my business partners and I discovered an underserved market in federal agencies.”

Nathan and his partners got to work drafting proposals and creating demonstrations of their services for government organizations. They managed to catch the attention of the National Park Service and the Department of Defense.

Though thrilled with these early triumphs, Nathan was shrewd enough to know that Colonial Systems would need support and careful preparation to ensure enduring success. “I knew we’d need the oversight of the SBDC. They helped us establish relationships with the Procurement Technical Assistance Center and introduced us to people who’ve supported us in taking this business to the next level.”

Nathan and Colonial Systems now lead the charge in taking modern digital marketing to the government sector and telling stories in new, engaging ways. When it comes to Nathan’s story though, he is the first to acknowledge the SBDC’s critical role.

“Especially in terms of getting into government work, Stephanie Keener at the Lynchburg office was great,” Nathan says. “She helped get me up to speed on government contracting. The SBDC was outstanding in preparing me for the work Colonial Systems now does.”

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