One-year wonders

At a time when many small businesses are contracting or closing, why would anyone dare to start a new one? And what steps could they take to up the odds of staying afloat?

To find out, Xpress surveyed five Asheville businesses that opened about a year ago; all are surviving, and some even thriving, despite the down economy. Here are excerpts from their answers.

Privai Academy

Privai Academy, a spa-training facility, opened in January 2009 and now has 11 employees, including co-owners Ilana Craig Alberico and Christina Stratton. Alberico provided these answers.

How did you plan to succeed in a down economy?

We knew there was a need in the community for higher-level massage therapy, aesthetics, continuing education and spa-management training. Once we identified what was lacking, we put together a team of advisers who developed a curriculum unlike any other. We invested heavily in the research and planning needed to make this school successful.

What's worked? What hasn't?

Our graduates have a 100 percent pass rate at the state board to date. Because our sister company is Innovative Spa Management and we manage spas throughout the U.S. and Caribbean, we are able to provide ample job-opportunity services to our graduates. And our product line really sets us apart. Privai is a natural-product line that uses green tea and antioxidants in the formulations. We have found that asking for suggestions is key to our commitment to quality. We listen to the suggestions and make changes that will improve the program.

The company name [pronounced "priv-EYE"] has been hard. Priva is a species of lemon verbena that's rich in antioxidants that we used in the formulations of our products. We added the "i" on the end of it to bring attention back to oneself and the impact that each of us has each day in caring for ourselves, others and the earth. Even though we love the name, it is hard for people to pronounce.

Has your business grown during its first year? How?

We added a massage-therapy licensing program, increased our continuing-education offerings to include aesthetics, hired two new employees and developed a partnership with Blue Ridge Business Services, who will soon provide QuickBooks and accounting classes to support the community of private practitioners in the area.

What advice would you offer other startups?

We started our business in a recession, but there is really no bad time to start a business if there is a demand for what you are providing. Research. Plan. Put more money aside than you think you will need. Be passionate. Stay true to your vision. Get a mentor. Find someone (or, in our case, a whole advisory board) that can guide you along your path. If you are going to have employees, understand that they are your biggest and best asset.

Privai Academy is located at 6 Roberts Road in Asheville. Call 277-3883 or visit for more information.

Castell Photography

Castell Photography, a fine-art photo gallery, opened in April 2009 and has three employees. These answers came from owner Brie Castell.

How did you plan to succeed in a down economy?

Two ways: To diversify and to be different from the rest.

First, we are Asheville's only fine-art photography gallery, but we are not a typical gallery setting — there are no white walls, there is always music playing, and customers are encouraged to really enjoy their time in this environment.

We also diversify — in addition to fine-art-photography sales, we offer commission-based services such as portrait sessions, fine wedding photography and boudoir photography. We also accept wet-plate collodion commissions — an antiquarian process dating to the 1850s. We can archive your family photo albums, digitally restore old and damaged photographs, and make digital reproductions of artwork such as paintings, drawings, etc. We provide fine-pigment printing of digital files, develop negatives and make traditional black-and-white prints in our fully equipped darkroom.

What's worked? What hasn't?

My staff and I meet once per week to discuss this exactly, sort it out and plan for the future.

I really cannot think of too many things that haven't worked. It is more a question of what works best and making it better, and then finding out what maybe isn't generating the right kind of attention so that we can put our efforts elsewhere.

Has your business grown during its first year? How?

It is actually astonishing how much we have grown in only one year. We have received major attention through the press. We added what we call The Fine Art Photo Booth during Bele Chere in July 2009 to attract more attention and bring people in. It was so successful that these "booths" are now a feature here in the summertime, and we also take them on the road for a variety of events and charitable fundraisers. We also linked up with UNCA to collaborate on a juried student-photography exhibition.

What advice would you offer other startups?

For me, the most important thing would be to surround yourself with creative and motivated people. I have been exceedingly lucky to have found the two wonderful women who work with me. They inspire and challenge me every day to be better, stronger and wiser.

Castell Photography is at 2 C&D Wilson Alley, off Eagle Street in downtown Asheville. Call 255-1188 or visit to learn more.

Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar

Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar opened in February 2009 and has eight employees, including co-owners Donna and Thomas Wright. The following answers came from Thomas.

How did you plan to succeed in a down economy?

Our plan to succeed was simple: Pray for good luck. Opening in the worst recession of our lifetime requires a great amount of stupid ambition combined with a willingness not to judge the immediate results with the long-term goals. It is comforting to realize that no one, old or new to the business, did well in 2009, and that the invisible pendulum of economic cycles would reverse its course.

What's worked? What hasn't?

Things that worked well were ones that are irrelevant to the condition of the economy. The following universal rules of retailing apply to all cycles: First, find a good location for your business — one that will give you exposure to the market and clients that you feel are essential to success. Second, offer a new mousetrap. The economy is oversupplied with things and services. To succeed, one should look for a product that is either in short supply or fills a need not yet supplied within the market. In a shrinking market, the pie is getting smaller, so a new business cannot rely on the ever-increasing size to gain a share of the public's attention.

Has your business grown during its first year? How?

Our growth has been due, exclusively, to the loyalty of old friends and new friends. The local attendee will set your base and define your reputation. If we cannot bring a person back in for a second helping of enjoyment and mirth, then why should we come to work?

What advice would you offer other startups?

True intelligence is knowing when you are lucky. Working hard when you are lucky is a powerful alliance.

Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar is at 1 Battle Square downtown. For more information, call 252-0020 or visit http://batteryparkbookexchange.

Short Street Cakes

Short Street Cakes opened in February 2009 and has three employees, including owner Jodi Rhoden. Xpress spoke with Rhoden, who'd sold her baked goods privately for several years before launching the business.

How did you plan to succeed in a down economy?

I waited for a long time to find the right space, worked very hard to keep a low overhead, and got my budgets really tight so that I could provide really fine quality that was still affordable, while remaining viable as a business.

What's worked? What hasn't?

What has worked has been being really authentic with my customers: being myself and offering simply what I can do and what I love, and telling them why. What has also worked has been the advice I received from my dad when I started this business: "You don't have to be the best to succeed. You only have to do what you say you are going to."

To be honest, what has not worked as well for me has been "entrepreneur's hours." As a mom, I have discovered that I don't have the luxury to run myself into the ground — I have had to step back at times and create some balance in my life.

Has your business grown during its first year? How?

I think the main form of growth is that we have gotten more confident in what we do, and have expanded what we are able to offer. We just launched our spring menu and will be expanding our hours, too. I'm looking forward to hiring seasonal staff to help with the wedding season and continuing to provide a venue for art and community.

What advice would you offer other startups?

Don't fool yourself into thinking that you can cut corners, and don't fool yourself into thinking that it will ever be easy. Being direct, accountable and responsible in your work is hard at the beginning but pays off in the long run.

Short Street Cakes is at 225 Haywood Road in West Asheville. Call 505-4822 or visit to learn more.

Comic Envy

Comic Envy opened in November 2008. The store, which sells comic books and graphic novels, has one full-time and two part-time employees, including owner Darren Williams, whose answers are presented here.

How did you plan to succeed in a down economy?

The plan was to do a slow growth. After about year, we made it to the point where we could scrape by. When I look back now to when we first opened, the store was so bare. In our business plan, we said we were going to dedicate a percentage of money each week and each month to bringing in something new. Over time that's what we did, and that made it hard on me and my wife personally, because we had to sacrifice some things that we needed. But we knew it was needed for the growth of the store.

What's worked? What hasn't?

What's worked has been being a place where people can hang out and talk, and they don't feel like they're being judged for what they read. And also — not to toot my own horn — I have a better variety of comics than anybody in town.

What hasn't worked is, going back to when I first opened, I thought I'd have a nice little steady stream of customers right away, and so I over-ordered a lot of stuff at first. I very quickly learned that ordering is a science, and that if you do it wrong it can break you.

Has your business grown during its first year? How?

There has not been a month where we haven't seen growth. I'd say, on average, 10 percent growth each month, and that's probably being conservative.

What advice would you offer other startups?

Make a great business plan — that's what I did. And the key is being friendly. I get more customers in here because they like me and like talking to me than for any other reason. It's great that I have the wide selection, but even if you have the selection and you're a jerk, they're not going to come back.

Comic Envy is at 1 Kenilworth Knoll, Suite 4. Call 252-7600 or visit for more information.

Thanks to Mountain BizWorks and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce for helping Xpress connect with these startups.


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About Jon Elliston
Former Mountain Xpress managing editor Jon Elliston is the senior editor at WNC magazine.

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