The Biz: Building business from the ground up

If you’ve ventured into any small, local business recently—whether it was a restaurant, retail store or other establishment—there’s a fair chance the proprietor or service provider got his or her start through Mountain BizWorks’ Foundations program.

Cradle of business: These are just a fraction of the local businesess created locally thanks to Mountain BizWorks’ Foundations program.

The local nonprofit, which now has offices in Sylva and Hendersonville as well as Asheville, has literally helped launch more than 1,000 local businesses, leading neophyte entrepreneurs through the exacting and often difficult process of taking a raw vision or idea and making it a reality.

In the eight-week, 24-hour program (offered in both English and Spanish), students study how to craft a solid business plan: developing a mission statement, estimating startup and overhead costs, and learning about setting profit goals, cash flow, marketing, licensing and record keeping. The course also covers managing personal finances and the requirements of entrepreneurship, while providing direct, supportive feedback on participants’ business plans, says Resource Specialist Chris Berthiaume.

The cost for the course, which is filled on a first-come, first-served basis, ranges from $75 to $350, depending on income and household size. Graduates can choose to move on to advanced training in such areas as marketing principles and the use of financial tools such as QuickBooks Pro. Business owners, says Berthiaume, can also get one-on-one coaching by a trained business professional through the nonprofit’s GO (Growth through Objectives) program.

“Foundations was really helpful,” says Russ Keith, owner of Asheville’s EcoTrips downtown shuttle service. Keith, who now is in the GO Program, says he doubts he would have been able to get the business up and running without Foundations.

“You’re putting in numbers and it really shows you whether your business really is capable,” he says. “I had the idea, but I knew I would have to have some business support, and BizWorks provides that. It’s incredible, the whole program they do. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.”

Keith is just one of a number of the people who’ve used Foundations to start a successful business venture, notes Berthiaume. The full list forms a veritable who’s who of local small businesses, including celebrated restaurateur Hector Diaz, musician Dave Desmelik, West Asheville’s Charley Wilson (aka “The Organic Mechanic”), successful restaurants such as Sugo and the Early Girl Eatery, The Wedge Brewery, BioWheels, fashion designer R. Brooke Priddy, “and the list goes on and on,” says Berthiaume. “It’s pretty incredible. It’s hard to step somewhere and not step on a Mountain BizWorks business.”

Foundations’ success rate is high: The vast majority of students complete the course, producing a certified business plan, he reports. And while creating a highly profitable business is one metric, Berthiaume emphasizes that success can be measured in many ways.

“Not every person that comes to Mountain BizWorks wants to be the next Bill Gates,” he says. “Many don’t, in fact. So are they going to be successful if they can simply make ends meet and enjoy their jobs? We would say yes. They won’t be out there getting on the news or winning major awards … but that’s still success—to start their own small business, do something that they love, and do it well.”

Students, he adds, run the gamut, but many simply “wake up one day and say, ‘You know, I’ve always wanted to do this,’ or ‘Nobody is doing this: I want to try to do it.’ That’s all they have; they don’t have anything more and nowhere to go, and they hear about us and come and see us.”

Offered in some form since 1989, the classes have become increasingly popular over the past few years, particularly among the area’s Spanish-speaking residents. The last Spanish-language class had 16 students—four more than the typical English class, says Berthiaume—“And we had a certification rate in there of almost 100 percent.” To build on that momentum, he notes, “We’re adding a QuickBooks bookkeeping class in Spanish, and that’s on its way to being full as well. We have had tremendous amounts of growth, and that is something we are actively promoting: reaching out to Latino entrepreneurs and small-business owners.”

Still, making it with a small business can be tough, and Berthiaume is quick to add a cautionary note: “We don’t claim that anyone who comes through here is going to be successful 100 percent. Our goal is to give everybody the chance to be successful—to give everybody, as much as possible, an equal playing ground so that they can get into small business and give it a try.”

For more information on Foundations and other Mountain BizWorks programs, check out www.mountainbizworks.org.

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