Category: Sales & Marketing

Wall-Lift Inc.

Wall-Lift Inc.

Innovation leads to international business for Wall-Lift

Achieved more than 100% growth in domestic and international sales

https://walllift.net/

When Mark Helmuth first invented the Wall-Lift in 2005, it was purely out of necessity. As a contractor, he needed a safer and more efficient way to raise walls, so he built a device to do the heavy lifting for him and his crew, literally.

“Necessity is the mother of all inventions,” Mark says. “I had a need to set walls, and the methods that were out there didn’t quite meet my specs. I thought about it, went out and got the components, and within a week and a half I had it all together. On the first job, it worked great.”

That first use quickly turned into dozens. After his fellow contractors saw the machine in action, requests to build more began to filter in. At the urging of a friend in 2016, Mark filed for a patent and began exploring the process of setting up Wall-Lift as a business. His banker referred him to the SBDC center in the Shenandoah Valley and Rockingham area where Allison Dugan’s team helped Mark establish Wall-Lift Inc.

“The SBDC walked me through a lot of things,” Mark says. “I took a lot of the courses they offered, they hooked me up with some shipping guys, and they helped me put together some brochures and marketing,” he adds. He also participated in the Virginia SBDC Network’s Innovation Commercialization Assistance Program (ICAP) to learn about customer discovery and how to match your product to your customers’ needs.

But Mark’s partnership with the SBDC didn’t end there. This past spring, Mark discovered a video of his Wall-Lift posted by what Mark wrote on Instagram, was “an icon of the framing world.” The SBDC was there to help Mark double down on the power of viral marketing in this unique situation.

That video, which has since generated nearly 400,000 views, led to an exponential increase in orders for Wall-Lift almost overnight. Mark has nearly doubled sales from last year already and, with help from the Virginia SBDC Network’s International Business Development Director Aaron Miller, he has shipped as far as Australia, England, Norway, and South Korea. The distribution channels the SBDC helped him establish have paid dividends during that growth — as have partnerships the SBDC helped him secure with two dealers who now sell Wall-Lift.

“I got a large United States map, and I put pins where every sale went so I can see what’s going on,” Mark recalls. “Early on, I saw that if I made one sale in one area, it’s not long before you have two or three more in that same area. That’s when I realized this wasn’t a bad product because it’s selling itself,” adds Mark.

As Wall-Lift continues to grow, Mark finds the SBDC to be a reliable ally in his corner. Sales for the product have doubled every year, ballooning from fewer than 10 in his first year to more than 200 units already sold in 2021. He sold eight in one day and 52 in a single month — records he says he wouldn’t be surprised to see broken.

“[The SBDC] asked me, how big do you want to go? I said that if we got to the point where we could sell two a week, that would be great,” Mark says. “Now we’re way past that.”

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Bowers

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.

https://www.bowercenter.org

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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Walker Seafood, Willis Wharf

Walker Seafood

Call of the coast

Received a $5000 grant and increased sales by 120%

Revel Walker always knew that being a waterman was in his blood. Stretching back to 1889, Walker Seafood represents six generations, each of whom worked the waters of the Atlantic Ocean from the Eastern Shore of Virginia. They sell whole in-shell clams and oysters, both farm-raised and wild-caught, to suppliers throughout the country.

Due to careful planning and years of practice, Revel can grow and harvest oysters and clams throughout the entire year, which makes his business invaluable to distributors, who resell to upscale restaurants and grocery stores in New York, Boston, and other metropolitan areas.

The oysters are grown in the temperate waters of the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean. With a grow-out time of about a year and a half, timing is everything. “What’s important to my customers is that I have a year-round supply,” Revel says. “Planning digs is important, because we dig 30 to 45 bushels at a time.”

After working in the family business for years, Revel navigated a lot of change when he took the helm in 2013. Then he went full time (became a “co-oper”) and stepped into the lead at Walker Seafood. That posed its own set of challenges.
“Things like paperwork, invoices, and making sure everyone gets paid on time — this was all stuff that was new to me and were things that I’ve had to get the hang of as I’ve gone along,” Revel says. Fortunately, he didn’t have to look far for help. “The Hampton Roads SBDC-Eastern Shore to me is George Bryan,” Revel says. “I took his class when I knew I was going out on my own. George advised me on what loans to apply for. He gave me some good pointers on budgeting and finance,” Revel adds.

With COVID-19 sweeping the country, Walker Seafood had to navigate some decreases in demand as restaurants struggled with pandemic-related closures. “Sales are definitely down in the Northeast,” Revel notes. Fortunately, he has been able to meet consistent sales goals by reaching out to new customers. Revel says the family name is so well known within the industry that it works as its own calling card.

In the end, no amount of name recognition will make up for a product that isn’t up to par. Revel is proud to bring fresh seafood to his distributors that more than lives up to his family’s well-known name. And he couldn’t have done it without the help of the SBDC.

“We aren’t just competing with other local growers,” Revel says. “Walker Seafood has instant name recognition. My dad and uncle were the people to start doing the farm-raised clams and oysters. You have to have the product to back that up. And we do.”

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ABC Consulting, Smithfield

ABC Consulting

Focusing on success with the SBDC

Increased sales by 300%

Crystal Stump launched her ABC Consulting business with a good idea. But as time went on, she found it wasn’t enough. “I was 27 years old and a five-year employee of the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority when I terminated my special agent position and started my own business,” Crystal explains. “I felt that the small businesses I worked with needed someone on their team with the knowledge to navigate the alcohol licensing process. I knew I was that person.”

While her business model was sound, Crystal found managing her own business to be a challenge. “Because I didn’t know how to manage a small business, I quickly created credit card debt,” she relates. At that point, Crystal decided she needed help. “I reached out to the Isle of Wight Chamber of Commerce,” Crystal says. “They referred me to Jim Carroll, Executive Director of the Hampton Roads SBDC.”

Crystal sees it as a turning point for her business. “My first meeting with Jim Carroll was a painful one,” she admits. “I had to be honest with him so he could provide guidance. We looked at my biggest challenges and what was working — and what wasn’t — and started making plans. I found myself constantly thinking about not making enough money,” Crystal continues. “Once I changed my focus and looked at how I was helping my clients, it was amazing to see the difference.”

That positive focus led to a complete turnaround for Crystal, as well as for her business. “I will never forget Jim Carroll’s smile when we reviewed my profit and loss report a year later,” Crystal recalls. “My sales had increased by an unbelievable 300%.”

Jim also introduced Crystal to workshops offered by the SBDC. “The course on social media was especially helpful,” she adds. “I decided to outsource my social media to the speaker for that course, Wendy Craighill. That was a big help in reaching new prospects.” The SBDC, Crystal affirms, taught her to focus on things she could do herself and outsource the rest.

When the COVID-19 crisis brought a downturn to her business, Crystal again turned to the SBDC for assistance. “Jim Carroll and his team assisted me with applications for various grants, which were approved,” she adds. Since March, Crystal has used her expertise to assist restaurant clients placing skilled gaming machines in their businesses.

“When the state regulations changed to allow skilled gaming, I was ready to help game distributors apply the right way,” Crystal explains. “I also launched a YouTube channel to get information to my subscribers. As a business owner, you have to adapt and move forward.”

Moving forward has been the name of the game for Crystal since she signed on with the SBDC. “Today, I am out of debt, I have learned to hire great help for what I cannot do, I have retirement savings, and my dream is ten times bigger than it was ten years ago,” Crystal concludes.

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Local Eats, Palmyra

Local Eats

Foodies in Fluvanna feast on local foods

Increased sales by 40%

Amy Myer wanted to open her own local food store and restaurant in Fluvanna County, but she knew she needed help figuring out the details. She connected with the Central Virginia SBDC and Diane Arnold, an experienced SBDC Business Counselor, who helped Amy with market research, resource connections, and acted as someone to bounce ideas off of. “She was awesome,” Amy says. “She knows her stuff, and she wants to see her people succeed.”

Diane helped Amy make her dream a reality. She reviewed the lease, visited the prospective site, and helped Amy write her business plan. “There were so many little things I wouldn’t have known,” Amy enthuses. “She knew all the ins and outs.”

Local Eats, which carries locally-sourced foods from Fluvanna and across the region, has definitely become a success. Amy has developed quite a following among the foodies in Fluvanna, particularly in Lake Monticello, the major subdivision nearby. She now has two part-time employees, and has even expanded to delivery service. 

Even after the intensive support in the start-up phase, Diane continued to add value for Amy. “She has all the connections,” Amy says. “Anytime she comes across opportunities or gets her hands-on information that can be helpful, she always reaches out to me.” That included scheduling Amy for a meeting with a retail specialist from the Virginia SBDC State Office and connecting her with the SBDC Quad County Pitch Competition. 

Amy continues to refine her vision of expanding, and when the time comes, she plans to call on the wise advice of Diane and the resources of the SBDC.


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Mercury Communications LLC, Cross Junction

Mercury Communications LLC

Connect the call: Communications company sees success

Increased sales by 284%

You could say that Norman Thompson is used to having his head in the clouds —  it’s his specialty. 

After 17 years in the Air Force as a Satellite Communications Craftsman, Norman worked 13 years as an engineering manager for satellite giant Echo Star. It was clear that Thompson had found his niche, but he “just didn’t want to stagnate,” Norman recalls. “I really wanted to figure out a way that I could go my own way with the skills and abilities that I had.” 

Norman began to explore the possibility of starting a business. He sought help at the Lord Fairfax SBDC, where he was connected with Center Director Christine Kriz. With so much technical knowledge in so many areas, Norman struggled with which services he should highlight. During a conversation with Christine, Norman hit on what would become the true focus of Mercury Communications LLC.

“Christine was saying something about how poor her cell service was and how it was like that for many of her friends and neighbors. She says ‘If you can do something about that, it would be huge,’” Norman relates. Installing passive Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) in residential, commercial, and areas with large-scale operations became Mercury Communications’ business model. Passive DAS systems are essentially cellular-signal-boosting infrastructures that are built on-site. During COVID-19, with thousands learning and working remotely, this moment has been well-timed for Norman. “It’s caught on fire,” he says. “Christine helped me to focus on what the client wanted and needed.”

Christine provided what Norman calls a “very flexible way of thinking” that was quite helpful. As a result, Mercury Communications has increased sales by 284% in 2020. Christine also helped Mercury establish critical GSA contracts. 

In addition to residential and commercial, both the government and military felt the brunt of COVID-19 in unexpected ways. It became another area where Norman has stepped in. He enthusiastically describes installing a DAS system on an aircraft carrier where soldiers were quarantined, which provided working cellular connections to the outside world for servicemen and women who were away from their families. 

When he reflects on life before Mercury, Norman says, “I wasn’t feeling challenged. Satellite communications is more like Formula One, and cellular is more like NASCAR. There’s more passion in it.” 

As the modern world rushes toward a more virtually-integrated society, the sky remains the limit for Norman Thompson and Mercury Communications. Since he’s a pro at navigating the sky from below, he’ll be ready for what comes next. “We’ll see what the future holds,” Norman says with a smile, “and go from there.”

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The Rooms Up There

The Rooms Up There

Up and away: Rooms at the top in Marshall

Dan Moore received a $100,000 bank loan to expand The Drawing Room and develop a commercial kitchen.

In a world flooded with ubiquitous hotels, motels, and unfiltered Airbnbs, Dan Moore envisioned offering something different. “I only see what will be when I look at space,” Dan says with a nod to his irrepressible designer eye. When Dan saw the stately building on Main Street in Marshall, he knew it would be home to The Rooms Up There. Three rooms to be exact, as well as Dan’s successful design business located on the first floor along with another small shop.

The structure that houses The Rooms Up There is over 200 years old. Portions of the building have previously housed a fabric shop, a stone storehouse, and a two-story log house. Dan explains, “Now, it is best described as an inn.” The “rooms” themselves are located over the first floor. Guests access them via a private courtyard and then through a coded side entrance upstairs to one of three upper rooms. Each room has a king-size bed and a private bath featuring Italian marble.

For Dan, the beauty of The Rooms Up There lies in how seamlessly it blends into Marshall’s quaint scene. “You would never know we were here. We have rehabilitated and renewed existing space which I think is appropriate in a town like Marshall,” he says. With over 27 wineries in the area, it’s an ideal getaway location for folks looking to enjoy a weekend away from the Northern Virginia and DC traffic.

The Lord Fairfax SBDC was there when Dan needed help with financial projections, market data research, and a marketing plan. “Christine Kriz is sort of like a celebrity here in Marshall,” Dan explains. “She and her team got me out and introduced me to the community. She not only holds seminars, she attends them too.”

The Rooms Up There was named Best of Fauquier 2019 in the hotel/lodging category. Dan feels certain that his business would not have received this recognition without the support of the Lord Fairfax SBDC and Christine Kriz. “I would definitely credit that to the SBDC,” he says. “Christine is ground zero for me. I couldn’t have done it without her help.”

The Rooms Up There also offers space for private events and catering in its banquet hall, The Drawing Room. Dan hopes to expand this space over the coming months with the development of a commercial kitchen. He has his eye on going after Best of Fauquier for another year. “I want to see if we can do it again,” he says. “In April we will go into our fourth year, and I’m excited to see what’s next.”

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Friendly City Dance Room

Friendly City Dance Room

Room to dance: Dance studio spins into the spotlight

The Fusaros obtained a $19,500 Harrisonburg Biz Loan, started a new business, and currently support 4 jobs.

Phillip Fusaro started dancing at nine years old. For Phillip, dancing is a life-long passion and a way to bring entire communities together. He and his wife Erin founded Friendly City Dance Room in Harrisonburg and based the business on their strong belief that individuals can achieve a better quality of life through dancing. With Phillip as choreographer and Erin as artistic director, the couple seeks to make dance accessible to folks of all ages, incomes, and experience levels. 

Creating a successful dance studio was not without its challenges. The Fusaros found themselves unsure of how to turn their love of dance into a profitable business. “We were put in touch with the Shenandoah Valley (SV) SBDC by a fellow business owner,” Phillip says. “Jalal and Allison helped us so much.” Allison Dugan is the Assistant Director and Business Advisor at the SV SBDC; Jalal Maqableh is a PhD candidate at James Madison University and an SBDC Business Advisor specializing in inclusive entrepreneurship.

After attending a Smart Start workshop hosted by the SV SBDC, the Fusaros were eager to learn the next steps for business ownership. Over the subsequent months, the SBDC team assisted the Fusaros with defining goals, target marketing, social media and website development, sales, accounting, legal and HR issues, funding, and cash-flow management.

“I’m basically a visionary, so Allison’s help with all the details was essential to our start-up success,” Phillip says. “We wouldn’t be where we are today without the SBDC.”

Allison guided Erin and Phillip through the process of applying for a Harrisonburg Biz Loan of $19,500. “Allison’s assistance throughout that process was invaluable. The capital was vital to Friendly City’s start,” Phillip explains. The loan was used to convert office space into a welcoming studio with special floating vinyl floors, a quality sound system, and furniture and décor to make it a truly unique space.

Since opening in March 2019, Friendly City Dance Room continues to live up to its mission of providing a deeply inclusive space for people of all abilities to experience dance and improve their lives. “I love seeing the connections in the studio between people who wouldn’t otherwise meet,” Phillip concludes.

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Ballad Brewing

Ballad Brewing

Brewery taps new markets with the SBDC’s help

Ballad Brewing had 6 new hires totaling 16 jobs supported and a $754,000 investment.

Ballad Brewing opened in Danville in 2017. “The first year, we sold beer in our own tap room to learn what our customers liked and to choose the beers we wanted to put into distribution,” Ballad’s Business Operations Manager Tim Meyers explains.

The brewery was an offshoot of a Danville River District project started by developers Ross Fickenscher and Garrett Shifflett. “Ross and Garrett had been working on this building as a third phase of their loft-apartments project,” Tim says. “Rather than rent the lower floor of the building to other businesses, they decided to get into the brewery game themselves.”

Ross and Garrett, who also restored Farmville’s Hotel Weyanoke, had previously worked with the Longwood SBDC. When the brewery needed financing for its bottling line, visiting the SBDC was the logical next step. “I initially reached out to the Longwood SBDC Executive Director Sheri McGuire, and she told us all the things the SBDC had to offer,” Tim explains. He and Aly Fickenscher, Ballad’s Creative Director, have been working with the SBDC team ever since. “SBDC consultant Brandon Hennessey did a fantastic job of working with us to build various models so we could analyze the types of beers we make, change recipes, and approach new markets,” Tim added.

The Hotel Weyanoke opened and so did Ballad Brewing. “Farmville is a small market, but it has a higher volume than we expected,” Tim says. “Now our bottles are for sale in Farmville’s Food Lion plus several restaurants. Then we added Danville, South Boston, and Martinsville.” Tim adds, “Just a few months ago we brought Lynchburg, Roanoke, and Salem into the fold.”

Tim plans to grow slowly until the brewery reaches full capacity. He credits the SBDC with guiding them through this gradual growth process. “They’ve been super helpful in giving us a roadmap so that the growth we’re experiencing is good growth,” he says.

Tim appreciates the long-term relationship the SBDC offers. “When I first started working with the SBDC, I assumed it would be a one-time deal. They would help us get our things in order, and then we would be on our own,” he says. “What we found was exactly the opposite. I can send Brandon new financials any time I have them, and he’s ready to help. I would absolutely recommend the SBDC,” Tim concludes. “They’ve been extremely helpful for a small startup business like ours. I can’t thank them enough for all the help they’ve given us.”

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Play Now!

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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