Category: 2021

Virginia Montessori Academy

Teaching to empower: Montessori education and independence

Secured a $275,000 loan; created seven jobs.

https://www.vamontessoriacademy.com/

Early childhood education covers a number of basic skills, including the alphabet, shapes, and colors. For Hatsumi Mann, a Montessori teacher, instructing students to be independent is an important addition to this list.

“A lot of our materials are hands-on,” says Hatsumi. “At Montessori, the teacher isn’t hovering over the child. It’s a lot of positivity, letting the kids kind of make their own choices, and critical thinking.”

Hatsumi discovered Montessori education while teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) courses in Japan. Upon returning to the U.S., she became a Montessori lead teacher before opening her own Montessori day program, which she operated out of her home.

These successes inspired Hatsumi to open the Virginia Montessori Academy. When she was unsure of where to start, a colleague referred her to the Mason SBDC.

Bernard Ferret, Hatsumi’s advisor, had previous experience mentoring owners of daycares and preschools. Before opening her doors, she and Bernard met regularly to discuss budgets and locate funding. This was especially important to Hatsumi. “I just wanted to be able to offer Montessori to families who wanted it, who were interested, and can’t really pay that big-center price,” she says.

Hatsumi reflects that Bernard “kept her spirits up” and always checked in, even after the business’s official opening. “If I felt like I was in a bind, he helped me work out the situation to find alternatives,” she explains. “Working with him the whole time kind of helped relieve the stress.”

Since opening in September of 2021, Hatsumi has experienced the positive effects of working with the SBDC. She has received $275,000 in loans — used for instructional materials and equipment — and created seven jobs. The new hires ensure that each classroom has two teachers. The Academy also offers programs for Spanish enrichment and after-school care.

Hatsumi definitely recommends the SBDC to other small business owners. “I probably would’ve made lots of mistakes along the way if it wasn’t for them,” Hatsumi admits.

As the Virginia Montessori Academy expands, the SBDC will continue to help Hatsumi locate resources to provide a quality education for her students.

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Royal Restrooms

Royal Restrooms: Meeting more clients’ needs

Secured $230,000 in loans and increased net income by 33% on 15% increase in sales.

https://www.royalrestroomsva.com/

Although January 2020 was the eve of a tumultuous era, it proved an ideal time for Paul Dowdy to expand Royal Restrooms.

Paul explains that “a lot of businesses had to split their offices” to accommodate social distancing, referring to his partnerships with military sites and other businesses in the Lynchburg area. The need to meet COVID-19’s distancing requirements — in addition to maintaining compliance with OSHA standards — made 2020-21 a prosperous year for Royal Restrooms.

When asked to reflect on his favorite part of the business, Paul cites its constant growth as a result of his partnership with the Longwood SBDC. “We can’t get the inventory in fast enough because we’re getting so many requests,” he says. “We just can’t keep up with supply and demand.”

Paul learned about the SBDC while working at a wedding in Danville. He initially sought help from another small business agency; however, with his company’s rapid expansion, he found that the Longwood SBDC better suited his needs by offering more one-on-one support.

Michael Duncan, Paul’s SBDC advisor, offers such support. He is particularly helpful when making projections and keeping track of finances. This help allowed Paul to secure $230,000 in loans and achieve a 33% increase in net income on 15% increase in sales. Michael is also working to enroll Paul in a finance course at Longwood so that Royal Restrooms can continue to grow. Paul hopes to open 20 offices in the future.

Paul expressed sincere appreciation for Michael’s mentorship and guidance, as well as for the SBDC as a whole. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without him guiding me,” he says. “I like him because he’s straight to the point. We joke, we kid, but when it gets down to business everything is cut and dry.”

Paul has already recommended the SBDC to several other small business owners, and as he continues to expand, he will continue using their resources.

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Massanutten Country Corner

Massanutten business follows SBDC’s steps to success

Received a $4,000 grant and Increased revenue by from $40,000 to $300,000 during the pandemic.

https://massanuttencountrycorner.com/

Jeff and Kristin Gaulard’s Massanutten Country Corner (MCC), which opened in 2017, experienced an unexpected upward trend during the COVID pandemic. “The pandemic had the opposite effect for us — our business actually increased during COVID,” Kristin says.

The Gaulards believe that the Shenandoah Valley SBDC’s advice led to that upturn. “Jeff worked on a business plan with Business Advisor Sara Levinson before we even bought the property,” Kristin says.

A former 1960s-style roadside gift shop, the property included four buildings, all in need of renovation. “Jeff knew how to do the work to renovate, but our retail experience was limited to selling our Cork to Barrel home décor items at wine festivals and craft shows,” Kristin explains.

The Gaulards knew they would need more knowledge to run a traditional small business. Financing was first on the list.

“With advice from the SBDC, we were able to get a People Inc. microloan of $50,000 for renovations and inventory,” Kristin explains. “Sara also helped us decide what we should do with the four buildings we had. We decided on a farm market for the garage, and we thought we could use the building out back for a garden shop.” Those decisions would later lead to success.

“Until COVID, business was really slow,” Kristin says. “April 2020 was our first really busy month — in May our business more than tripled!”

When word got out that MCC had local meat, eggs, and produce for sale, customer traffic increased. “People who were avoiding the main stores started shopping at our farm market,” Kristin recalls. “We were also selling plants and gardening supplies in our garden shop. And, since people were at home and getting into gardening, that did very well also.”

As business increased, the SBDC helped MCC secure a Page County grant of $4,000 for technology updates. “Previously we were doing a handwritten inventory,” Kristin notes. “We used that grant for a new computer and a couple of registers.” Future plans include a café opening in the spring.

Since the pandemic began, Kristin reports, business has continued to improve. “The first year we barely made $10,000,” she says. “We’re up to $300,000 now.”

Jeff and Kristin credit the SBDC for helping them achieve that success.

“The SBDC has been there to support us every step of the way,” Kristin concludes. “I can’t imagine starting a business without them.”

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Weber City Discount Tire

Weber City Discount Tire: On the road to success

Tim Ray and the Weber City Discount Tire staff are a team. “We call ourselves Team Weber City Discount Tire,” Tim says. “There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’ — we wouldn’t succeed without each other.” Early on, Tim added the Mount Empire SBDC to his team, a decision he calls one of the best he’s made.

Retired after 20 years in law enforcement, Tim decided to open a tire business with the assistance of his relatives Donald and Mary Billings of Kingsport, TN. The building previously housed a tire business.

It was 2019, shortly before the pandemic started, and Tim was ready to get his tire business on the road. First, he decided to contact the SBDC. “I’m really glad I did,” he says. “Tim Blankenbecler at the SBDC helped me do a business plan, and the new center director, Becki O’Quinn, helped a lot with the Economic Development Authority (EDA) loan process.” The $25,000 EDA loan was used to purchase a heavy-duty truck and tire changer. “It was a needed piece of equipment,” Tim notes.

With help from the SBDC, Team Weber City was ready to roll. Unfortunately, so was the COVID pandemic. “We were shut down a week and a half before they decided we were an essential business,” Tim recalls. With safety precautions in place, the tire team was back the next day, servicing commercial trucks, farm tractors, and emergency vehicles. “Essential business doesn’t stop in a pandemic,” Tim says. “We saw a little decrease, but thanks to the SBDC and the EDA we were able to keep going.”

The SBDC continued to notify Tim when funding became available. “We’re currently talking to Becki O’Quinn about loan funds to purchase an adjacent building with five additional auto bays and an alignment machine,” Tim adds. That alignment machine, Tim explains, will bring jobs to Weber City, no small feat in a town of 1,300. Along with alignment services, future plans include adding a service truck. “Both will grow our business and bring money and jobs to the county,” Tim says. “The more people we put to work, the better we are.”

Tim credits the SBDC with the growth of his business to date. “The SBDC’s help with a business plan allowed us to purchase necessary equipment,” Tim explains. “Having that heavy-duty tire changer was a good boost coming out of COVID — and just in time for hay season. Tim also credits his manager, Eric Sawyers, with his excellent professional customer service and management skills.

Tim recommends the SBDC with an enthusiastic thumbs-up. “I hope the SBDC is around for many years to come,” he concludes. “Their consultants always give the best advice and assistance. Small business owners really need the SBDC.”

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Vision BBQ

When Vision BBQ opened in Charlottesville in February 2021, owners Mike Blevins and Gabi Barghachie weren’t surprised to find their tables empty. In fact, it’s exactly what they expected.

The duo behind the city’s newest barbecue joint have taken a unique approach to creating a memorable dining experience for their customers by focusing almost entirely on a convenient takeout service, instead of the traditional dine-in model.

“We’re not a place that does a crazy amount of volume, but we put out really good food that people will come and get,” Mike says. “Even with the pandemic being at the height of takeout, we were confident with the business model we have: low overhead and an emphasis on carryout and convenience.”

Originally conceptualized as “The Snack Shack,” what is now Vision BBQ has long been a dream project for Mike and Gabi. Both have extensive experience in the food-and-drink industry. Mike is a veteran of the service industry, having managed restaurants and a large sales team at a beer distributor, and more. Gabi is a 2008 culinary-school graduate, who has cooked at local favorites such as Maya Restaurant in Charlottesville.

Sometimes even the most experienced professionals can benefit from a push in the right direction, and the Central Virginia SBDC provided Mike and Gabi exactly that.

“They’ve been a godsend for us,” Mike says. “Anytime we’ve had questions, the SBDC has been right there to assist. The biggest things they’ve helped us with were our website, social media, advertising, getting our books straight, and navigating this brave, new digital world we’re living in.”

The foray into business ownership was not Mike’s first; and, by the time he and Gabi were ready to launch Vision BBQ, Mike’s connections with the SBDC were well established. From a previous brewery project in Hopewell, he first met Ellen Templeton at the Longwood SBDC, and Ellen referred him to the Central Virginia SBDC when he and Gabi began planning their barbecue venture.

From there, the SBDC Business Advisor Diane Arnold and Assistant Director Greg Dorazio helped Mike and Gabi not only get Vision BBQ started but also establish it as a takeout destination for those seeking quality meals on the go. Now, six months after launching, Vision’s smoker is still running strong, and the front door is opening with regularity even if the dine-in tables remain unoccupied.

“Mike and I just had this idea, and during COVID we ended up with a bunch of free time we used to hone in on what we wanted to do,” Gabi says. “The SBDC helped us get going, and now here we are celebrating our six-month mark. We’re doing well, and we’re as happy as we can be.”

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Valente Pasta

Valente Pasta: Local roots, large-scale expertise

Secured $301,000 equity investment.

https://valentepasta.com/

Started in Charlottesville in 1982, Valente Pasta is the manifestation of a family dream. Owner Mary Ann Valente explains that her mother, who founded the company, was an entrepreneur at heart. Her mother’s enthusiasm, alongside Valente Pasta’s work with the SBDC, has made for a rewarding career.

Mary Ann’s mother was beloved by all. “She was an extraordinarily nice person…Anybody who met her wanted to be friends with her,” she remembers, noting that the two loved working together. “‘It’s bad enough we have to work. Let’s try to enjoy ourselves,’” Mary Ann laughingly quotes one of her mother’s business mottos.

Though Mary Ann only expected to work temporarily at Valente while seeking a permanent job after culinary school, running the business alongside her mother became a long-term path.

“We would run the business based on good practices — common-sense practices — but there are things that you need to access or things you can’t necessarily find on your own,” explains Mary Ann. Thus began Valente Pasta’s work with the Central Virginia SBDC many years ago.

For Mary Ann, the SBDC is an accessible, affordable way to consult with and learn from experts. Throughout a years-long partnership, the SBDC has helped her manage finances, conduct cost analyses, and explore opening a new location. Most recently, the SBDC helped Valente Pasta secure a $301,000 equity investment.

“They have had the strongest knowledge in the fields where I have been the weakest,” says Mary Ann.

The SBDC and Business Advisor Diane Arnold have also provided moral support for Mary Ann and for her entrepreneurial vision. “They have believed in it right alongside me,” she reflects. “There has never been, ‘Are you kidding me? You think that’s going to work?’ It’s ‘Yeah, you’re right, it’s going to work.’”

Mary Ann wholeheartedly recommends working with the SBDC, crediting it for much of Valente Pasta’s success. No matter what lies ahead for this woman-owned business, the SBDC will be there to help.

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ThinkTrends

Turning an artificial intelligence idea into a real small business success

Secured over $200,000 in EIDL and PPP loans.

https://www.thinktrends.co/

Even a leading-edge artificial-intelligence tech company can sometimes require some human intelligence from the SBDC to help it operate successfully.

Just ask Jyotiska Biswas, who founded an AI-related small business called ThinkTrends in Northern Virginia in 2018. “Right now, we’re living in an age of artificial intelligence,” he says. “It’s all around us, whether we realize it or not — in our smartphones, our laptops, and the internet.”

Jyotiska describes ThinkTrends as a “data mining and AI workflow platform” that makes the power of artificial intelligence available to everyone, not just the big tech firms.

With his company now surging, it’s obvious that Jyotiska excels as a computer science innovator. But there have been times when he needed help with some of the non-tech aspects of running a small business. “In 2020, I was trying to get a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan and was having a lot of trouble getting it to go through,” he says. “I reached out to the SBDC @ Community Business Partnership in Springfield. With their help and guidance, I got the loan.”

With that solved, Jyotiska found himself leaning on his advisor, SBDC Director Vijay Vaswani, for advertising and marketing counseling. Jyotiska explains. “Vijay has been giving me some really great marketing advice, which has been very helpful.”

Vijay’s assistance with loan applications and marketing allows Jyotiska to focus on his passion — artificial intelligence.

He describes his company’s niche in AI this way: “To use artificial intelligence, you need to do data science and machine learning, which require a very specialized skill set. ThinkTrends makes this process much simpler. Without writing any code and with just a little training from the platform, anyone can create artificial intelligence to analyze data in a robust way and essentially be able to do what a data scientist does.”

High tech is Jyotiska’s thing, but he feels that any small business could benefit from reaching out to their area SBDC.

“I really like working with them.” Jyotiska says. “We are excited to grow this relationship with the SDBC and see where it takes off!”

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Red Roof Home & Tazewell Test Center

Putting the right people in your corner

Received $1,800 grant for the Tazewell Test Center, and $10,000 grant for Red Roof Home.

For small business owners, good help is vital. As a sole employee, it’s essential. For an entrepreneur like Renee Perkins, who runs not one but two businesses on her own, assistance has been a lifeline.

Renee is the founder, owner, and operator of the Red Roof Home and the Tazewell Test Center, two drastically different businesses. The Red Roof Home is a lodging establishment, while the Tazewell Test Center is a proctoring hub that administers professional exams and employee certifications.

With two businesses, Renee has her hands full. But luckily, she says, she’s not alone: She has the Director of the Southwest Community College SBDC in her corner.

“Margie [Douglass] is just a wonderful person,” Renee says. “She’ll go out of her way to help you with whatever it is you need to do. It’s so great knowing you can just pick up the phone and call. You have a resource for whatever comes up.”

The initial partnership between Renee and the SBDC began in 2017 when she was navigating the early stages of planning for the Tazewell Test Center. That process was well underway until an unexpected project came her way, causing her to change course. That project was the future Red Roof Home, which Renee won at auction.

“The house basically fell into my lap,” she says. “I started thinking about the possibilities — what I would need to do with it and what I could do with it. I had already started working with the ladies at the SBDC for the test center, but once I discussed with Margie what I had in mind for the home, the test center went on the back burner.”

Renee began renovations on the Red Roof Home in January of 2018 and, with assistance from the Southwest trio of Margie, Brittani Clarke-Cayman, and Misty Brandy, hosted her first guests by August of that same year.

But even as Renee’s shift from the test center to the Red Roof Home turned into a full-time endeavor, she still aimed to one day follow through with her initial business plan. When she was ready, the SBDC was waiting to help her get started and to provide encouragement along the way.

“There were times when I was going through the test center working on my business plan where I decided I was going to give up,” she says. “You can’t be an expert on everything. I was already operating the Red Roof Home so, when it came to those financials, I was just ready to throw my hands up. But Brittani said, ‘Renee, you’ve worked so hard. You’ve come so far.’

“Misty told me she’d developed a spreadsheet and that — if I wanted to send her my numbers and give her an idea of what I foresaw happening with my business — she would plug them in, and we would come up with the numbers together. At that point, I was just ready to stop. I was too overwhelmed, but I gave her those numbers, she plugged them in, and it was like a miracle.”

That miracle led to the Tazewell Test Center’s grand opening in September 2021 and the realization of a dream deferred. Renee has since heard from mayors, business owners, and officials from state agencies, all requesting her services to certify new hires or recertify current employees.

Certainly, it’s a lot to handle. But even as a solo business owner, Renee has found she isn’t alone.

“Margie, Brittani, and Misty encourage you to stick with it, and I love that about those ladies,” she says. “I can’t sing their praises enough.”

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two22 Production & Marketing and Manna Tees

Brother/sister duo adds the SBDC to the family

Update: Starting March 1, 2022, both companies are moving into a significantly larger space!

two22 Production and Marketing’s clients grew from a handful to 100+ with no debt; Manna Tees received $7,500 in loans.

Wanting to offer a “one-stop shop” customer experience, brother and sister duo Eugene McCurdy and April Cope decided to operate their respective businesses under one roof last fall. Eugene launched two22 Production and Marketing (formerly Manna Graphics) in 2014; April Cope joined her brother with a complementary business, Manna Tees, in 2020. Adding the Blue Ridge Crossroads SBDC to the team helped work out the details.

“Previously, my training was architectural drafting,” Eugene says. “In 2008, I was laid off and had to figure out what to do next.” After working for a local graphic design company for a time, Eugene decided to start his own business. One of his first stops was the SBDC.

At the SBDC, Eugene received advice on a variety of topics related to starting a business from Blue Ridge Crossroads SBDC Director Mandy Archer and Administrative Assistant Ginny Plant. “They showed me everything it would take to operate a business,” Eugene recalls. “That started with a business plan to see what my business should offer. The SBDC followed that with analytics on local competition. The SBDC really spelled it all out.”

Advice from the SBDC allowed Eugene to open and grow his business without accumulating business debt. “I didn’t need funding at the start,” he recalls. “Basically, all I needed was me and a computer. There wasn’t a lot of overhead.”

While graphics was the focus of the business, website design turned out to be the name of the game for Eugene. “The SBDC helped me see my biggest income producer,” Eugene says. “For me, website design offered the most return on investment.”

With the SBDC onboarding process helping him organize the “big picture” of his business, Eugene was able to concentrate on graphics and website design. “I have a tendency to work in the business but not on the business,” Eugene admits. “The SBDC really helped me with that.” Website development brought in more business. “I started with a small handful of clients,” Eugene notes. “Today I have over a hundred website customers.”

April Cope joined her brother’s entrepreneurial venture last year. Following Eugene’s example, she went to the SBDC first. “I started talking to the SBDC last fall,” April says. “Manna Tees had a grand opening in November 2020.”

An interest in t-shirt design started at a Christian concert some years before, and it grew into a business for April. She was excited to get started but needed direction. “I had a lot of ideas, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do,” she relates. “Mandy Archer at the SBDC really helped me with that. She’s really good at thinking outside the box. For me, it’s been a learning process.”

April’s learning process included funding. With help from the SBDC, April applied for a loan to secure needed equipment. “Mandy Archer walked me through the application process step by step,” April says. “The loan I received for $5,000 was huge for the business.”

Manna Tees was also able to take advantage of the SBA Debt Relief Program. “The SBA paid off half of the loan for equipment,” she adds. “The SBDC also helped with that process.” Overall, the SBDC assisted April in the creation of one job and a total of $7,500 in capital for her business. “I started from zero six months ago, and I now work with about 30 clients,” she says.

Like her brother, April credits the SBDC with turning her toward success. “The SBDC pointed me in the right direction,” she says. “The SBDC really does stay on top of things,” Eugene adds. “Not only do they know every angle, they spell out every detail for you.”

Both Eugene and April appreciate the SBDC’s proactive approach. “The SBDC kept us informed during COVID,” Eugene says. “Mandy definitely keeps up with everything.” Eugene and April also enjoy the creative vibe they share. “We bounce ideas off each other,” Eugene says. “When you’re in a creative business, it helps to have another set of eyes.”

Despite the pandemic, business has been picking up for both businesses. “We recently got spirit-wear orders from a local school,” April notes. “That includes t-shirts, shorts, and bags. Hopefully, that will continue next year as well.”

“Since I started in 2014, my business has doubled,” Eugene concludes. “Anyone who comes in the door for a website — I tell them to go to the SBDC. When you’re starting a business, the SBDC has a huge amount of knowledge for you. It really helps to take advantage of that.”

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Iron & Grace Pilates & Fitness Studio

Staying fit in body, mind, and business

Received a $60,000 EIDL loan and $6,000 grant.

https://ironandgraceva.com/

When Alaya and Chad Sexton left their home state of Minnesota in search of a change in scenery and a more manageable pace of life, they left behind a highly successful fitness studio they had built from the ground up.

Attracted to Central Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and mild climate, Alaya and Chad settled in Lynchburg where, as seasoned business owners, they set up Iron & Grace Fitness shortly after arriving in 2012. By the end of their first year, they outgrew their first Lynchburg location and had cultivated another loyal client base with their unique approach to functional training based in Pilates, TRX® suspension trainers, and kettlebells.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, however, the Sextons’ business — like many in the fitness industry — was forced to adapt. Iron & Grace pivoted to virtual classes. As the pandemic dragged on, Alaya sought financial assistance through the CARES Act, which led to a meeting with the SBDC in Lynchburg.

While that initial meeting was to facilitate an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) application for Iron & Grace, the resulting partnership evolved into one that is still thriving.

“It was so much more remarkable for us than we thought it would be,” Alaya says of her initial meeting with Jennifer Woofter’s team at the SBDC. “We connected with them to start the process for an EIDL grant, but they helped us ferret out a bunch of other parts of our business.”

Alaya and Chad took the SBDC’s guidance to heart and got back to the fundamentals of owning a business. As a result, she says, she regained a perspective and clarity for Iron & Grace that she had not experienced since the business’s early days as an upstart.

“My trajectory with this business was this: I was very on top of all of my metrics while it was growing. Then, once it stabilized, I didn’t set sales goals. I didn’t have a really great marketing plan. I was busy. I didn’t carve out the time to be as intimate with my business, once it hit a place where it felt stable and fine,” says Alaya. “I don’t know that we would have been able to feel as good about our business as we do now without a business coach like Jennifer.”

Now with their doors reopened, Iron & Grace is back to running at a strong pace, and the Sextons are back to doing what they love.

“Our ethos has always been to help people enjoy their bodies, enjoy their lives, and not let their bodies hold them back from things they want to achieve,” Alaya says. “That’s different for every individual.”

The same can be said for any business. Sometimes it just takes the right coach to get there.

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