The Advancement Foundation (TAF) kicked off its fourth annual Gauntlet Business Program and Competition with an introductory session at the Vinton War Memorial on February 6.
Kathleen Carr, who serves as the director of Small Business Development for TAF, and Becky Freemal, TAF board chair, greeted about 50 aspiring entrepreneurs in Vinton, while TAF President Annette Patterson and Kelly Robertson, the director of Marketing and Resource Development, launched an expansion of the Gauntlet program simultaneously in Alleghany County. Those classes are located at Dabney Lancaster Community College in Clifton Forge.
TAF is a non-profit organization founded in 2007 by Patterson that leverages community resources to provide support, connection, and solid business planning for entrepreneurs—to “ignite small business growth.” The Gauntlet evolved from TAF.
Patterson says the Gauntlet is Virginia’s largest business training program and competition. It has grown by leaps and bounds in the four years of its existence.
In addition to recruiting entrepreneurs to take part in the program, the Gauntlet has enlisted 200 mentors to coach entrepreneurs of new and existing businesses in Roanoke County, Botetourt County, and– now for the first time– in the Alleghany Highlands.
This year about 100 entrepreneurs, representing 75 different businesses, have signed up to participate in 10 weeks of business training that culminates in the Gauntlet Competition. At the Gauntlet Awards Ceremony scheduled for May 17, $250,000 in cash and prizes will be awarded to those who complete the program, submit and present their business plans to be judged by a panel, and reap the benefits of their hard work. An additional $125,000 will be available to participants in the form of low interest loans.
During the introductory meeting, Freemal promised the entrepreneurs in the Gauntlet program that, while they would face challenges, they “would never feel alone or be alone,” with constant support available from program leaders, mentors, and fellow Gauntlet participants.
She highlighted some success stories from past Gauntlet competitions such as last year’s Blue Mountain Adventures team who struggled in the program at first and were plagued by self-doubt, but ultimately persevered and went on to win a contract with Explore Park to build camping sites.
Freemal said that small businesses generally fail because of lack of knowledge in business planning, inexperience, and/or insufficient funding. The Gauntlet business program addresses those issues.
Carr explained the basics of the Gauntlet program.
Participants in the Gauntlet program commit to attend 10 classes; they work with at least two mentors in developing their business plan; and the staff connects them with a wide variety of resources applicable to their individual needs.
On opening night, entrepreneurs were asked to complete a self-assessment on their business (proposed or existing) and their business knowledge. They were assigned homework for next week, including developing an “elevator pitch” to sell their business to a complete stranger in just a couple of minutes by saying “who you are and what your business does.”
They were asked to complete an online DISC assessment that will help them take stock “to better understand themselves” and to increase their self-knowledge of what motivates them, how they respond to conflict, what causes them stress, and how they generally solve problems.
Carr and Freemal emphasized the importance of keeping pace with the program. Participants were given a business plan template and encouraged to begin work on it immediately.
In the Gauntlet program, each week a successful entrepreneur speaks to the class about his or her own history in business and the challenges faced in growing a business, as well as offering advice on how to survive in the small business world.
The guest speaker is followed by an informational session on some aspect of business planning including learning to manage time and money, targeting and acquiring customers, determining start-up costs and projected cash flow, building savings, developing marketing plans, developing a support system, and locating community resources for assistance.
Local business owner Brent Hershey will be speaking during Gauntlet Week Two about market analysis.
One of this year’s Gauntlet participants is Dustin McCarty of Vinton, who already owns a business– Ridgeline Aquatics– but would like to expand from a restricted space. He currently propagates coral in his basement in several 30 and 50 gallon tanks and mainly sells the coral online with overnight shipping–in salt water. Yes, he grows coral “several hours’ drive away from any oceans.”
McCarty has analyzed the market and discovered that there is not much local competition for coral propagation, although there are many hobbyists. Customers are generally aquarium enthusiasts or small businesses with aquariums on display such as offices or restaurants.
He says that there are challenges in his business such as the need to be ever cognizant of water chemistry; however, he has a science background and worked previously as a science teacher.
McCarty says growing coral is basically creating an ecosystem in a box. Fish waste is actually food for coral; the coral grows back when pieces are broken off and then sold.
“Our oceans are in trouble,” says McCarty. “Be it from climate change, fishing, pollution, tourism, or (regrettably) the aquarium industry, coral reefs around the world feel the impacts of human actions. Any time an organism is removed from the wild, it impacts the ecosystem. On the small scale, this is not a problem; however, the aquarium industry, as a whole, removes millions of organisms from our oceans annually. Ridgeline Aquatics is dedicated to helping the industry become self-sustainable by propagating and growing corals in closed systems away from our oceans.”
This is his first business venture. McCarty says he already has an amazing support system with his wife Lindsey, who also works from their home.
Visit his website at Ridgeline Aquatics at www.ridgelineaquatics.com to see photographs of the coral available for purchase.
Annette Patterson is fond of encouraging quotes, especially for entrepreneurs working to bring their dreams to reality, and shared some in the packet of information Gauntlet entrepreneurs were issued at the first class. Those include, “To get something you never had, you have to do something you never did,” by J. Lamar Ferren, and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.”