(This is the fourth in a series of articles on the Gauntlet Business Program and Competition, following several entrepreneurs as they progress through the process.)
The third annual Gauntlet Business Program and Competition is now in week six. Classes at the Vinton War Memorial and the HIVE Business Incubation Center will conclude with the Gauntlet Competition Awards Ceremony on May 11, and the awarding of $200,000 in cash and prizes.
The Gauntlet originated with The Advancement Foundation (TAF) founder and president Annette Patterson. Seventy entrepreneurs from 50 starting or expanding businesses are participating, “studying the feasibility of their proposed business, exploring business models, and developing business plans.”
At the Gauntlet session on March 7, John Mays from Twin River Outfitters was the Entrepreneurial Showcase speaker. His paddle sports business is located on the upper James River in Buchanan. He and twin brother Dan bought what was originally the James River Basin Canoe Livery and launched it under a new name in 2005. Since then they have moved to riverfront property and added tubing, rafting, and expanded their canoe camping trips.
Currently their inventory includes 45 canoes, 85 kayaks, and 120 inner tubes for trips on 100 miles of the area waterways. Mays told the class that the concept for the business came about when he was in the Naval Reserves stationed in Iraq. Business has increased from 3,000 customers the first year to 12,000 this past season.
He shared advice on the steps to take in establishing and operating a successful business:
- Pick a good location in proximity to your target market.
- Make sure you have sufficient start-up capital.
- Utilize Internet marketing when feasible to reach the most people (99 percent of their marketing is online).
- Manage cash flow. Their business is seasonal, so thought must be given to the off seasons when expenses still accrue.
- Be prepared to wear many hats in your business, especially initially.
- Be willing to continuously evolve your business based on changing times and customer demands.
He warned the entrepreneurs in the class that often it takes several years to turn a profit, as well as long hours, investment of your personal financial resources, and most likely keeping your day job until the business becomes self-supporting.
Participants in the Gauntlet Business Program are assigned advisors and mentors as they bring their visions for their businesses to fruition. Mays is serving as an advisor for Holly and Jonathan Hart, who are also planning a business in the outdoor adventure industry in Roanoke or Botetourt Counties.
Holly Hart said, “Once again a great tribute to the Gauntlet for their ability to help us to connect with other small business owners that prove to be invaluable resources.”
The Harts plan to open “Blue Mountain Huts,” targeting “the outdoor adventurer, the outdoor enthusiast.”
“We are planning on keeping our day jobs,” said Hart. “Fortunately, we both have some flexibility with our schedules, but our plan is to continue with our full-time positions at this time. Our goal is to find grants before obtaining loans and we are attempting to build and grow as we go to help minimize the amount of debt we will initially take on. I think our idea was realistic from the beginning, but it is fascinating to see how our original idea has evolved and is still evolving.
“Fortunately, John Mays and his brother Dan are advisors to us,” she continued. “I was able to meet with him and his brother and had close to two hours of their time to bounce ideas, concepts, and thoughts about and get their feedback and input. Invaluable! I cannot say enough.”
Heather Oltmanns is planning to open a children’s clothing consignment shop in Vinton.
“I have been looking for a good business location that I can afford but, as of yet have not found anything,” said Oltmanns. “As far as start-up capital, I still am not sure how to figure out how much I will need. I think that for me starting out with social media and word of mouth are going to be the main ways I will market my business. I do know that it may take a while to turn a profit. I have been planning to continue to work to be able to sustain the business.
“As far as modifying my vision I have been trying to figure out if I can start the business out as an online business with delivery first and then move into a store,” she added.
Lois Fritz signed up for the Gauntlet classes with the goal of making her non-profit New Freedom Farm in Botetourt more sustainable. She has taken as her mission to “Heal Humans Through Horses,” especially veterans with PTSD.
“As a non-profit, I have been working my full-time job as a forensic nurse examiner; it has given me flexibility to do both my job and start my non-profit,” said Fritz. “My goal is to be at the farm and available to veterans and their families six days a week.
“I searched for two and a half years for the perfect location,” noted Fritz. “It needed to be flat (for handicapped veterans), and have easy access, which we have, we are two miles off I-81.”
As far as start-up capital, Fritz says she might not be the best example of how to proceed.
“I literally closed on the farm with $17 left in checking, but I had wonderful horses, a barn full of hay, shavings, and grain,” says Fritz. “True story– I borrowed $25 from my husband, aka ‘Mr. Budget’ for my 2016 business license. I had and still have faith– which there is no price to put on the that.”
As for wearing many hats, Fritz says she is literally the chief stall mucker, feeder, trainer, veteran liaison, IT department, janitor, and event organizer.
“I would never change any of this for the world,” Fritz says. “It is my passion, vision, and mission in my heart and soul. The hours invested are golden. I start my day at 0430 to do administrative things quietly in the house. At 0700 I feed, muck, assess horses; from 0900-1600 there are veteran visits; at 1700 I feed. At 1800 I regroup and make appointments for the next day, and work on more admin things. This is on days that it is not my real workday where I get a pay check. On those days, I feed before my 0700 shift, work a 24 and 12 hours, attend court cases, etc.”
As for advisors, “I am actively working with a lovely lady here in Buchanan who has volunteered her time and professional skills to help me write and apply for grants,” added Fritz. “Annette Patterson of The Advancement Foundation has been an advisor/mentor to me.
“My ultimate goal is to have enough funding to be the program director full-time here at New Freedom Farm,” said Fritz. “The hours are long and my schedule includes a strong need to be focused and disciplined.
“As a non-profit, there obviously will not be a profit, but my goal is to be able to sustain the non-profit and expand to help as many veterans a day as I can,” said Fritz. “In the United States, 22 veterans a day commit suicide related to PTSD, substance abuse and/or traumatic brain injury– 22 too many.”