Category: 2019


Finding a formula for growth

PurSolutions was awarded a $225,000 NSF-SBIR grant, increased sales by 3 times, created 3 new jobs.

Beattie Sturgill, Emma Sturgill, and Prashant Singh can tell you all about the science of cytoskeletal proteins, but they learned that finding a formula for success in the world of small business is not so easy.

The three co-founders of PurSolutions started their bootstrapped venture in the complex life-science industry in 2015. Their focus was the manufacture of proteins used in cancer and disease research. Good science and good business, as the partners soon discovered, require different areas of expertise.

“In 2015 we went to see Betty Hoge, Director of the Central Virginia SBDC in Charlottesville,” Beattie says. “We needed help navigating the small business world.” In Betty Hoge, the PurSolutions partners found both a coach and a counselor. “We met one or two times a month,” Beattie recalls. “We would talk about problems we were having, and discuss solutions with Betty.”

Betty helped the partners navigate available resources, verify and refine their business model, and find ways to expand to new markets. “Being a small business with only three partners, we were extremely invested in our company, and that can cloud your vision,” Beattie notes. “We took our ideas and strategies to Betty and she would provide valuable insight. The SBDC provided a valuable third-party review of our business that helped us grow.”

Practical applications of these reviews were soon apparent. “For example, we had some hypothesis about some market trends we were seeing. So Betty had us do some customer outreach, and helped us to refine our hypothesis based on the data,” Beattie explains. The SBDC’s development tools were also helpful. “Tools like the Growth Wheel helped provide a forward looking review of our company,” Beattie says.

When PurSolutions applied for a NSF-SBIR grant, the SBDC was there to help. “Betty was definitely instrumental in helping us develop a strong application,” Beattie says. “She provided key facts and helpful feedback during our reviews with her.” The award rate for this grant is only 12% nationwide. “That we received that SBIR grant is a testament to the assistance and support provided to PurSolutions by the Central Virginia SBDC,” he adds.

The SBDC also advised the company on filing several patent and trademark applications and on expanding its workforce by employing talented professionals in multiple facets of the business. Future growth was also a topic at the SBDC meetings. “Company growth was the focus of almost every talk we had with Betty,” Beattie notes. “It was the heart of every meeting.”

After working with the SBDC for three years, Beattie and his partners are confirmed fans. “I tell other business associates about the SBDC,” he concludes. “Even if they’ve been in business for years, I still recommend a visit to the SBDC. It’s like having a checkup with your doctor — it’s a good business practice.”

PurSolutions was awarded a $225,000 NSF-SBIR grant, increased sales, and

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Lend A Box

Thinking inside the box

Since 2016, Lend A Box received a loan of $182,000, increased sales by $60,000, and created 14 new jobs.

Janice Gambaccini and her sister Stephanie Zimmermann launched a successful business by thinking inside the box. “Finding a box should be a simple thing,” Janice says. But on one rainy moving day in 2011, it was that hard. “I was moving and needed some boxes pronto,” she recalls. “But it was raining, and I didn’t want to go out to look for them.” Janice searched the Internet to no avail. There were no boxes to be had, online or off. “Out of this incredibly frustrating day, the idea for Lend A Box was formed,” she explains.

The sisters charted their concept on paper and started making plans. Lend A Box opened for business and made its first deliveries in 2013. “Lend A Box takes the stress out of moving and helps you along the way,” quotes a company slogan. “We offer a service, not just a product,” reiterates Stephanie.

Janice and Stephanie attended a class, Things to Consider When Launching a New Business, at the Mason SBDC in Fairfax. “We liked what we saw at the SBDC but didn’t take advantage of all their services immediately,” Stephanie notes. “We were too focused on getting the business open.”

Three years later, Janice looked again at the SBDC’s offerings. “I reached out to Timm Johnson at the Mason SBDC,” she relates. “We wanted to start growing the company, and we needed to get a loan from the bank. Previously Stephanie and I had funded everything. Timm helped us to create an amazing financial story so the bankers could see where we were and what we were planning to do,” she continues. The business plan was presented, and Lend A Box obtained the loan. “It’s essential to have a business plan that paints a picture of where you are and where you’re going,” she adds.

“The Lean Business Start Up class inspired us to launch additional services,” Janice adds. “One we call ‘concierge storage,’ which means you don’t have to manage storage. We pick everything up and catalog it online. When you need your holiday decorations, just call and ask for boxes 5, 6, and 7. We’ll deliver them. And, when the holidays are over, we’ll put them back in storage for you.”

Lend A Box also added moving and packing to its services. “We move for you, unpack, and then pick up the crates,” Janice says. “If there’s a gap, we’ll hold boxes in storage until you’re ready for delivery. It’s a nice seamless experience.”

The sisters are more than pleased with their connection to the SBDC. “It was such an amazing load off my shoulders when I found Timm and realized I didn’t have to figure everything out on my own,” Janice concludes. “There are experts at the SBDC, who will spend time with me and help me figure out what I need to do. It’s a huge, really fantastic resource.”

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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 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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Vista Fitness 24

Work around the clock: 24-hour gym comes to Altavista

The SBDC helped Justin and Alyssa obtain a $32,000 loan, open their gym, create 2 jobs, and reach profitability after 1 month

Justin and Alyssa Campbell are experts when it comes to motivation. As the owners of Altavista’s only 24-hour gym, they had to be, in order to realize their goal of opening their own fitness facility. Justin explains, “In a small town, we had concerns that a new gym might not have a big enough customer base, especially when there is stiff competition from the local YMCA.”

However, with a high concentration of manufacturing facilities in the area requiring employees to work odd shifts and late hours, Justin and Alyssa felt sure that a clientele existed who wanted, and needed, 24-hour access to a gym. “We firmly believe that fitness must be convenient to become a habit,” says Justin. “With Vista Fitness 24, we are able to fit around our clients’ lives instead of them having to work around a facility’s schedule,” he adds.

Alyssa and Justin attended two separate business boot camps to prepare for the opening of Vista Fitness 24. One, named Pop Up Altavista, was a business-launch competition that also gave participants a crash course in the basics of starting a small business. Through this event, they connected with the SBDC – Lynchburg Region and advisors Stephanie Keener and Nathan Kolb.

“It was at the second class that things got very real for us,” Justin says. “We knew that it was definitely happening, and we were clinging to every piece of information we could get. The one-on-one sessions with the advisors were so helpful for us,” he adds. “The SBDC counselors worked with us through the loan process and then worked with a student team from the community college to build our website.”

In January 2018, Justin and Alyssa opened the doors of Vista Fitness 24, a storefront nestled in the heart of downtown Altavista that offers guests cardio equipment, strength-training machines, free weights, and a wide variety of classes. Members have key cards and free childcare during select hours, key features that keep their patrons coming and meeting their fitness goals. “We hope to cut out as many excuses as possible for our clients not to come,” says Justin.

The timing for a 24-hour gym in Altavista was perfect. “We have been on an upward membership trajectory since we opened,” says Justin. “We were amazed to be able to reach profitability after the first month. Our clients are our biggest advertisers. We get so much positive feedback from them.”

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Scrambling to success

Scramble landed a $500,000 loan and, within its first eight months, hosted over 100,000 visitors, generated $1+ million in sales, and created 30+ jobs

When the idea for Scramble first formed in Laurence Smallman’s mind, he was “across the pond,” visiting family in his native U.K. “We were with my brother in Birmingham,” Laurence, a father of three, says. “He took us to a World of Play indoor play place, and it was an amazing experience. The children played, while he and I chatted and kept an eye on them. Everyone left after 3 hours, very happy.”

Laurence realized immediately that there was nothing comparable in Northern Virginia, where he lived. Inspired by the popular indoor play system, Laurence envisioned a massive, vibrant space that would encourage independent self-guided play, as well as exploration, activity, and imagination for children of all ages. “I researched how to start a business and linked up with the Alexandria SBDC,” says Laurence.

Working closely with Business Analyst Jack Parker, Laurence developed a business plan while commencing an exhaustive two-year hunt for Scramble’s perfect home. The desired space needed to be at least 12,000 square feet with 20-foot ceilings, in addition to room for birthday parties, a bookstore, reading area, and a café for parents. It was a tall order, finally filled by a property on Eisenhower Avenue in Alexandria. Jack helped Laurence search for a lender who would recognize the potential of Scramble. In June 2017, Scramble closed on a $500,000 loan from EagleBank, and opened its doors that November.

Despite spending nothing on marketing, Scramble has thrived, generating over $1 million in sales within its first eight months. Like any proud parent, Laurence views the success of Scramble with great emotion. “It’s still sinking in to me,” he says, “that I’ve gone from having an idea, pushing through difficulties and persevering despite the challenges, acting as my own general contractor, then opening Scramble and managing the amazing success of having what I feel is a steady business ready to grow.”

Laurence’s impulse of bringing a new concept of play to the U.S. has met enthusiastic approval. Investors, who want to expand the Scramble model to other locations, have already approached Laurence, which has not surprised him. “Our play equipment is the best in the world and the only one of its kind in the U.S. It gives families the chance to engage in play that is vital to our development and the amazing human beings we are,” Laurence adds.

“Without the SBDC, I would not have had the confidence to tackle the bureaucracy, while also dealing with the business-related aspects of financing, writing a business plan, and finding a location,” Laurence says. Today, that confidence has paid off. “Seeing families and their children playing in Scramble, hearing parents celebrating some new achievement of their son or daughter, the many smiles and happy faces – these are my biggest joys,” says Laurence. “I look forward to coming to work every day.”

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Premier Pediatric Therapy Source

Problem solved: Private practice takes big steps

Premier Pediatric Therapy created 3 new jobs and exceeded their previous yearly sales by 21%.

Where many might see problems, Debbie Allen, owner and clinical director of Premier Pediatric Therapy Source in Alexandria, sees only new ways to succeed.

Debbie founded her private practice in 2011 to offer the best therapeutic resources available for children. While living in California, she helped her employer create an occupational and physical therapy department from scratch. “That job inspired me to start my own practice and build it in a way that allowed me to stay true to what I value as an occupational therapist and how I wanted children and families to be served,” Debbie says.

And that’s just what she did when she moved to Virginia and started Premier Pediatric Therapy Source. The group includes speech pathologists, occupational and physical therapists, and a registered dietitian, who all work with special-needs children in Northern Virginia. Debbie, who holds a doctoral degree in occupational therapy from the University of Southern California, is passionate about making a positive impact on her clients. “I believe the families we serve sense our motivation not only in me, but in my team as well,” Debbie adds.

In 2016, Debbie joined the Business Incubation Center at the Community Business Partnership (CBP), that offers offices to startups and entrepreneurs, along with business assistance and resources. It was here that she connected with the SBDC at CBP. 

“The SBDC has helped me in every area of my practice,” Debbie says. “I use their counseling services religiously, because my practice is constantly evolving. I’m entering into unchartered territory, and I know someone in the SBDC can always help me navigate or at least find me someone who can. They have helped me with HR issues, financial projections to plan for future growth, contracts and lease proposals, hiring interviews, marketing, and so much more,” Debbie adds.

All the help paid off magnificently. In 2017, Premier Pediatric Therapy Source launched an outpatient program and opened a clinic in Alexandria. “This program took off much faster than I anticipated,” Debbie says. “It’s been exciting to see so many children being served who are benefiting from our services. In early 2019 we are moving into a larger clinic, because we’ve outgrown the one we are currently in,” she adds.

“The SBDC counselors and volunteers have been instrumental in helping me increase my knowledge and confidence in business ownership,” Debbie says. “Because of their guidance, I’m confident my practice is heading in the right direction.”

Looking back over the last seven years, Debbie feels a deep sense of pride in the steady growth that Premier Pediatric Therapy Source has maintained. Even with 10 full- and part-time employees and sales figures already nearly a third higher than the previous year, Debbie remains unwavering in the vision that started it all. “I think when you’re motivated to make a difference in someone’s life, people are naturally drawn to you, and we have certainly seen that by the amount of referrals we receive on a weekly basis.”

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Port City Brewing Company

The SBDC: A lifeline to international trade

Port City started with 4 employees in 2011 and now has 54, and international sales, a new endeavor for the company, brought $50,000 in sales in 2018.

After successfully working for a number of years with the Alexandria SBDC on their domestic business, Port City Brewing Company wanted to test the waters of international trade last year and quickly discovered a need for more expert advice. Fortunately the Virginia SBDC International Business Development Program was there to throw out a lifeline. “When we first started looking at exporting to the United Kingdom, we thought we’d go it alone and figure all this out on our own,” Bill Butcher says. “Working with Aaron Miller at the SBDC really helped us navigate a new facet of our business we really were not familiar with.”

Bill and Karen decided to open the Alexandria brewery eight years ago. “I spent 20 years in the wine business,” Bill explains. “For many of those years, I worked for the Mondavi family of Napa Valley, as the high-end brand manager for the Mid-Atlantic.” Bill’s area of expertise was in brand building, sales, and distribution. “Over those years I always enjoyed good quality beer and watched as the craft-beer industry grew and became more sophisticated,” he adds.

In Alexandria, Bill found an area in need of more options for quality craft beer. “Karen found that the Metro DC area was the only top 25 Metro area in the country that did not have a craft-beer brewery that packaged their beer,” Bill notes. They decided to remedy that situation and opened their own brewery.

It has been a time of rapid growth for this brewery and others across the nation. Bill points out, “When we opened in 2011, there were 40 breweries in Virginia; now there are 240. Nationally, there were 2,600 breweries in 2011; today there’s over 7,000.”

Port City has also experienced rapid growth. “We started with four people,” Bill says. “Today we have 54 employees. We’ve been hiring a lot of people since we opened.” Last year, Port City produced 16,000 barrels with distribution in nine states with the bulk of sales in the Washington D.C. area. It seemed like a good time to look for new markets overseas.

“Preparing for export was a big undertaking for our company,” Port City’s Manager of Marketing and Beer Strategy Chris Van Orden says. “The guidance from Aaron and his Virginia SBDC team has proved invaluable.” “Chris is our point person with the SBDC,” Bill adds. “He has attended embassy events arranged by the SBDC to introduce us to contacts in the UK. It’s been a tremendous help to open the door and make connections to develop our business.” Those connections have already produced results.

“We are now active in the UK market, and we’re working with a French importer,” Bill notes. “We’ve also been able to ship some beer to Canada. There’s a lot of interest developing in those markets. This year, our international sales will be about $50,000. We expect to grow our UK business by about 15% a year over the next several years.”

Bill is pleased with the help he has received from the SBDC and plans to stay connected. “The SBDC has been an effective way for us to learn about new market opportunities,” he concludes. “As more arise, we definitely want to take advantage of their services.”

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Owners and key financial decisionmakers of for-profit businesses, share your recent experiences. Did your business seek financing such as loans or lines of credit in the last 12 months? How would you rate the financial condition of your business?

The Federal Reserve’s 2022 Small Business Credit Survey is open for responses, and the Virginia SBDC Network is a partner on this effort. By taking the survey, you contribute to data that directly informs the Fed, federal government agencies, service providers, policymakers, and others—ultimately benefitting your business and other businesses like yours. Take the 10-minute survey now. 

The survey is open to businesses currently in operation, those recently closed, and those about to launch. All responses are confidential.

The survey closes November 4, 2022. Questions? Contact Grace Guynn at