Category: Start-up

Ipsun Solar

Lights on: The Mason SBDC powers up solar installer

Grew from two employees to over 50; over 300 customers served; became one of the largest solar installers in the Northern VA area.

When Herve Billiet and Joe Marhamati founded Ipsun Solar, they had a singular vision: encourage all Americans to produce their own power using the clean, renewable energy of the sun. Today, that vision remains unchanged, and thanks to help from the Mason SBDC Ipsun Solar has grown to become one of the largest solar developers in Northern Virginia.

Unlike many industries, solar was unscathed by the recent pandemic. In fact, according to Herve, their business flourished as many customers looked to make the switch from gas, oil, and other types of fuel to solar power during the uncertain times of COVID-19. “We are definitely riding a wave,” Herve explains. “There is a huge increase in demand for what we have to offer.”

Herve is an electro-mechanical engineer who began developing solar projects in Alabama in the 2000s, while Joe is an environmental scientist who served as Energy Advisor to President Obama. Despite their extensive in-field knowledge, including Herve’s previous business experience, when it came to taking their two-man start-up from zero watts to megawatts, there was only one place to go.

“When I got started with Ipsun, I immediately went to the team at the Mason SBDC,” Herve explains, “because I knew they would provide the best advice on how to get us most quickly from a start-up to a real business.”

Herve connected with advisor and mentor, Timm Johnson. From the start of the relationship, Herve says Timm’s real-world experience and matter-of-fact advice have been crucial guide points for the solar company. Herve explains, “The continuity I experienced working with Timm the entire time has been so valuable to me — working with a person that has actually done mergers and acquisitions, has actually had experience running a business, and not just from a book, but someone who actually has the hands-on knowledge.”

As Ipsun Solar rapidly expanded, the business-related issues evolved from bottom line to people oriented. Again, Herve found that Timm had the experience and resources to provide incisive assistance. “As a business owner, you have many data-driven things coming at you, and the best thing that you can do is always be very analytical,” Herve says. “If I have questions about sales and marketing, legal, product development, or even hiring and firing, Timm is all about answering those questions in a very down-to-earth way,” Herve adds. “Timm was — and is — helpful for drilling down to the core issues and providing insight.”

Herve continues to meet with Timm regularly, as Ipsun Solar has spiked from two employees to over 50, and has served over 300 customers in the Virginia, D.C., and Maryland areas.

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Wall-Lift Inc.

Innovation leads to international business for Wall-Lift

Achieved more than 100% growth in domestic and international sales

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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Software company gets its start with ICAP

Received a $50,000 grant from the NSF

As an insurance defense attorney for 35 years, James Chapman saw the need for a litigation management tool to enable faster and less expensive resolutions of lawsuits. In 2018, he launched a company to provide that tool. One of his first moves was to contact the Hampton Roads SBDC. Three years later, James is glad he did.

“In 2018, I was interested in what tools were out there to help us grow a business,” he explains. “Through the SBDC, we had an opportunity to get involved in a cohort through the Innovation Commercialization Assistance Program (ICAP).” Backed by the Virginia SBDC Network, ICAP helps Virginia’s entrepreneurs maximize the potential of their technology startups. “I applied for ICAP through the Hampton Roads SBDC,” James adds. “I worked with Bob Smith and, later, Josh Green.”

The ICAP cohort met weekly. “ICAP focused on the concept of customer discovery — figuring out who customers were and deciding what ideas would appeal to them,” James explains. “During each weekly class, we reported on our customer discovery and how we could use that information.” After the first month, ICAP classes moved online. “ICAP continued to provide support for each business following the cohort,” James adds.

When they received a $50,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the company continued their customer discovery journey with I-Corps. Created in 2011 by NSF, I-Corps helps entrepreneurs with promising ideas and technologies move from the laboratory into the marketplace. “It was through ICAP that we learned about I-Corps,” James says.

In 2020, the company was one of five selected for an accelerator program. “During the accelerator program, and in spite of the COVID environment, we were able to build out our software,” James reports.

Now in 2021, three years after making a connection with the SBDC, their software product, ClaimEdge, is in pilot testing with a major insurance company. “The SBDC’s ICAP program was a great way to get our business started,” James says.

James continues to keep in touch with ICAP, sitting in on monthly meetings four or five times a year. “I absolutely recommend the SBDC,” James concludes. “With the SBDC, you have a whole team that’s ready to help you out.”

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Proctor360 makes virtual testing real

Proctor360 have experienced very significant growth.

Long before the COVID pandemic forced virtual learning to become a reality for students across the nation, Ganga Bathula and Kranthi Bathula were making plans to enter the online testing market, an estimated $1,34 billion industry by 2027. Both Founder/CEO Ganga Bathula and CTO Kranthi Bathula were industry veterans with successful backgrounds in live testing centers and wanted to bring that expertise to remote testing.

Their company, Proctor360, brings novel technology to the market, which includes headset that incorporates a 360-degree camera, speaker, and microphone. The result is a complete view of the testing environment for proctoring – a game changer. “We saw early on that a transition to remote testing was underway,” Kranthi says. “We developed what the market needed to further its growth.”

Going to the Mason SBDC, as Kranthi put it, was a no-brainer. “One of Proctor360’s offices is right next to the Mason SBDC,” he adds. Ganga and Kranthi met with Mason SBDC Senior Business Counselor George Siragusa.

“We spent most of 2018 planning,” Kranthi continues. “George advised us on the decisions we had to make. He also helped us explore different avenues of funding.” George connected the Proctor360 planners with the SBDC’s Innovation Commercialization Assistance Program (ICAP). “ICAP helped us in performing a market study, talking directly to our customers,” Kranthi says. “That feedback was especially helpful.”

In February 2019, Proctor360 held a soft launch to demonstrate its patent-pending technology at the Mason Enterprise Center in Fairfax. “Our 360 total-view system is unique to us,” Kranthi says. “Students don’t have to leave their house — they can just log on to the computer and take their exams from anywhere.”

Proctor360 caters to colleges and universities, as well as training and certification companies.
The company currently has 10+ employees spread across the US. Kranthi credits the SBDC for aiding in Proctor360’s success. “Since we started working with the SBDC, our business growth has been over 600 percent,” Kranthi notes.

“The SBDC is well established,” Kranthi concludes. “They can bring in the right person to help with a specific business need. That gives company owners a great deal of confidence.”

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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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Balance Gymnastics

Exercising success with the SBDC

Started a new business, received a loan of $64,000, created 12 jobs and retained 2 jobs

Balance Gymnastics opened for business in June in the midst of a pandemic. A COVID-19 success story, the newly-launched business is not only surviving, it’s thriving. Owners Matt and Brandy Knabb credit their success to the SBDC-Lynchburg Region. “Opening a gym was a goal of ours,” Brandy says. “We just wanted to find the right time and location.” Mid-2020 was not an optimal time, Brandy admits, but a lease was signed and plans had been made. The couple decided to go ahead with the June opening.

Brandy, originally from Concord and a gymnast from an early age, explains her motivation: “There was nothing like this in Concord. We wanted to provide the community with something it didn’t currently have.” Fortunately, Matt and Brandy connected with the SBDC during planning stages for the project. “A friend who has a gym in Charlottesville recommended the SBDC,” Brandy says. “We went to the Start Smart class last October and set up some one-on-one sessions with Stephanie Keener, Director of the SBDC-Lynchburg Region.”

The first order of business was writing a business plan. “We had all these ideas in our head but didn’t have a formal plan on paper,” Brandy recalls. “We knew we would need to have a business plan in hand to apply for a loan to buy equipment. Stephanie helped us with the beginning steps and told us what the plan needed to include. SBDC Business Advisor Jamie Reynolds helped us create financial projections to make sure a gym in Concord was feasible.” Matt and Brandy also found the SBDC classes helpful. “I know gymnastics, but I’m not a business major,” Brandy relates. “There were so many little things we could have missed had we not had the SBDC on our side.”

Balance Gymnastics was able to open at 30% capacity in June. “We started with a small group of staff and 35 kids whose parents were brave enough to register during COVID-19,” Brandy says. “After we opened, we relied on word-of-mouth and the guidance Stephanie gave us on marketing and social media. As restrictions lifted, we were able to offer more classes. Currently, we have classes for children 18 months old through college age.” As the year progressed, enrollment grew. “We have grown rather quickly,” Brandy notes. “We now have 175 students and a coaching staff of ten.”

The couple is already thinking ahead to the future. “After the first of the year, we plan to go to our next phase and offer adult fitness classes,” Brandy adds. “There are so many things we didn’t have a clue about when we went to the SBDC,” Brandy explains. “If we hadn’t worked with them, I doubt we would have ever been able to open, and definitely not in the same time frame.”

Matt and Brandy happily recommend the SBDC to others interested in starting a business. “The SBDC has something for every aspect of running a business,” Brandy concludes. “They keep you pointed in the right direction, and they really set you up for success right from the start.” 

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Your Dinner

Success to-go with the SBDC

Invested $45,000 in equipment, created 3 jobs and retained 2 jobs

When Diane Roll hit the streets with one of the first food trucks in the Rockingham/Augusta county region in 2011, her first stop was the Shenandoah Valley SBDC. “Just because you’re a good cook doesn’t mean you’re going to be a good business person,” Diane says. “The SBDC helped me find a bank that would give me the small business loan I needed when I first got started.”

Diane’s original plan included “grab-and-go” dinners prepared in advance and sold at nearby factories for $6. The idea never took off. “But during that time, I built relationships with companies that would pick up the tab for us to come in and cook,” Diane relates. “That led us into catering.” Another opportunity came when the town of Dayton approached Diane about opening a restaurant. “I was lucky enough to open Dayton Tavern, a full-service restaurant,” she adds. “We had a higher-end clientele there — not to mention the best steaks in 100 miles!”

Diane’s restaurant and catering business continued to expand and prosper, until, as she puts it, “2020 happened.” “COVID temporarily closed the restaurant,” she explains. “We had zero catering and $250,000 in canceled events.” Undeterred by this downtime, Diane began to think about her original idea of “grab-and-go” dinners. She started selling freshly prepared family meals through the Dayton Tavern, a business venture that quickly became popular. “I don’t care how much money you have, everybody likes meatloaf,” she says.

With the “grab-and-go” dinner concept (renamed Your Dinner) now off the back burner, Diane went back to the SBDC for advice. Advisor Don Crawford met with Diane to discuss management, operations, financing, and marketing. The SBDC team also arranged for Diane and her staff to meet with the SBDC’s Retail & Restaurant Advisor Marc Willson.

“We already had a rental space for our catering business,” Diane says. “I decided to rent the whole building for the Your Dinner business. Since we didn’t need all of it, I contacted several other small business owners I knew about sharing the space.” Diane invested her own money to purchase display cases and appliances and to hire three employees to launch Your Dinner. The commitment also allowed two other small businesses to re-locate there and expand. “We now have gourmet popcorn from PrePOPsterous and produce from Radella’s in the North River Marketplace.”

Your Dinner offers everything from fresh soups, salads, and sandwiches to pre-made dinners to take home and heat up. “When you take our food home, put it on your own plate, and heat it in your own microwave, it feels like you made it. There’s a good feeling to it.”

Diane believes in down-home hospitality. It works for her, and she’s happy to pass it on. She is also appreciative of the help she’s received from the SBDC. 

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The Difference Baker

Making a difference with the SBDC

Started the business, gained equity investment, and created 2 jobs

Alyssa Sobecki found success by making a difference. The Difference Baker, the business she launched for individuals struggling with food allergies, is doing well in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic. With multiple food allergies herself, Alyssa found it difficult to find restaurants that catered to gluten, soy, or nut allergies. The solution, she decided, was to open one of her own. “I wanted a local place where gluten-free families could come and enjoy delicious baked goods, sandwiches, and wraps,” she says.

After locating a building approved for a commercial kitchen, Alyssa and her husband, Jason, went to the Loudoun SBDC. “We worked with them from the inception of our business,” Alyssa relates. “We met with Eric Byrd, manager of the Loudoun SBDC office.” Eric gave the couple an overview of their proposed business and advised them on rules and regulations. “Eric walked us through the entire process,” Alyssa says. “It was awesome — help from A to Z even before we signed a lease.”

The Difference Baker officially opened November 7, 2019. Five months later, it closed due to COVID-19. “We were closed to foot traffic for six months,” Alyssa notes. If customers couldn’t come to her, Alyssa reasoned, she would go to them. “I started doing deliveries,” she says. “That summer was slow, but we were able to keep afloat.” Helping with that effort was the Loudoun SBDC. “Eric reached out to see if we were okay,” Alyssa adds. “He kept us informed about all the assistance that was available.”

During the shutdown, Alyssa looked to her marketing team to maintain sales. “One thing I didn’t do was let my marketing team go,” she explains. “That helped us reach new markets. When something like a pandemic happens, you have to find new ways to market your products.”

The Sobeckis also depend on a bookkeeping team to manage the financial side of the business.

“I know what I’m good at doing and what I’m not good at doing,” Alyssa comments. “What I’m not good at, I outsource to professionals.” The Sobeckis consider the SBDC to be a valuable part of their team. “Eric Byrd has been the bridge when I need a point of contact,” Alyssa says. “All I have to do is reach out to him, and he’ll put me in touch with the right people.” It’s a business relationship the Sobeckis plan to continue. “Just last month I had a coaching call with Eric to go over the future of the company,” Alyssa relates. “He’s already in the process of making some connections toward the path of our growth.”

In addition to baked goods and sandwiches, The Difference Baker offers freezer meals to take home, such as chicken pot pies and baked ziti. The menu is growing and continues to change. “My mission goes beyond what you see in our kitchen,” Alyssa says. “The main focus is to bring peace to those who have to deal with food allergies.” 

The Sobeckis are glad they made the decision to visit the SBDC early on. “I connect with a lot of people who want to start a business,” Alyssa concludes. “The first thing I say is, ‘Go to the SBDC.’ I’m so glad we did.”

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Mason & Greens

Parlaying personal views of sustainability

Received a $135,000 loan, a $10,000 line of credit, and started new business

In mid-2019, Justin and Anna Marino were searching for the “right” business to open in Old Town Alexandria, with “right” meaning a retail business that represented their personal environmental views on preservation and sustainability. 

When they found a two-story townhouse on King Street in the Historic District, they began writing a business plan for a first-floor retail shop and a second-level Airbnb property designed to be an eco-conscious alternative to a hotel suite. Alexandria SBDC’s Business Analyst Jack Parker helped them create a viable plan and found a bank interested in the project that was to become the first such brick-and-mortar, zero-waste sustainable products store in the region. They would be offering bulk-grocery products, sustainable-living products, health & beauty, and children’s products. Anna is a “runner” and has over 7,000 viewers on her Blog, in addition to being a well-versed social-media marketer for her online athletic clothing business. Their store also received local media attention prior and during their opening.

In early January, they closed on the $125,000 SBA term loan and a $10,000 line of credit with M&T Bank. Then they began the build-out process on Mason & Greens when the COVID-19 pandemic exploded, causing a veritable shut down of retail businesses. In effect, they were forced to open in the teeth of the storm without eligibility for the EIDL or PPP loan programs. 

The online store, on their well-designed website, was relatively easy to launch, but in-store shoppers and guests for the suite upstairs were another matter. They had some success in May with by-appointment shopping, but the website sales took off right away, surprising everyone including themselves that they were able to breakeven for their first month. After reopening, in-store sales continued to improve and since August, the Airbnb suite has generated enough revenue to pay the monthly rent for the building.

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