Local programs offer help to new and expanding businesses

DOWN TO BUSINESS: Wallwerx, which sells a line of workspace organization products, rents warehouse space through A-B Tech's incubation program, which works with emerging entrepreneurs. Photo courtesy of Wallwerx

When Boomer Sassman first contacted A-B Tech’s Small Business Center more than a decade ago, he was looking for affordable office space for his growing web design agency, Big Boom Design.

Sassman had heard about the center’s business incubation program, which invites emerging entrepreneurs to rent office, warehouse or lab space on the school’s Enka campus for below market value. After being accepted into the program, he opened a small office for himself and two employees, meaning he no longer had to meet with clients and employees at coffee shops.

“But I realized pretty quickly that it’s not just cheap office space, that there’s a whole hell of a lot more to it,” he says of the incubation program. “It’s more of a peer group. There’s business coaches and counselors. I could just knock on the door and ask them questions based on what I was dealing with. It was way more than I ever imagined it could be.”

The Small Business Center offers the incubation program in addition to a variety of other services for people looking to start or expand small businesses in the area, says Executive Director Jill Sparks. It is one of several groups, along with Mountain BizWorks and the Western Women’s Business Center, that are focused on helping small businesses succeed.

And there is a reason small businesses are important: 99.9% of American businesses are small (employ fewer than 500 people), according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. And 82% of them are one-person shops, called nonemployer firms. According to the U.S. census, in 2021 there were 31,141 nonemployer firms in Buncombe County alone.

“Roughly 50% of the folks that come visit us at the Small Business Center do not have a business yet,” Sparks says. “They are in that exploratory research phase. They have moved to Asheville and can’t find a job. They have been laid off. They have gotten out of jail or rehab. They have quit their job. They have retired — there are a variety of reasons.”

During the 2022-23 fiscal year, the center held 101 seminars and offered business counseling, seminars, coaching and other services to 188 people, she says. Those people created a total of 19 new businesses, creating 122 jobs. “You see every kind of business you can think of,” says Matt Raker, executive director of Mountain BizWorks. “We’ve got a really creative entrepreneurial community here.”

Business trends

While small businesses come in all varieties in Western North Carolina, certain trends hold true.

“We do see a lot of folks who want to get into the food business,” Sparks says. “Another trend is the outdoor economy. And oftentimes, we’ll see folks who want to solve a social problem and are thinking about starting a nonprofit.”

Retail, health care/wellness, agriculture and the construction trades are other commonly seen new business types, Raker adds.

There is a lot of help out there. For instance, the Small Business Center offers seminars for people looking to start nonprofits and will offer agribusiness programs in the fall. And Mountain BizWorks hosts an outdoor economy conference every fall and started an outdoor entrepreneurship and innovation accelerator program in conjunction with the Outdoor Business Alliance.

“That will be a really fast-growing industry in Asheville and across Western North Carolina over the coming decade,” Raker says. “That’s only going to continue to become more important, not only on the experience side of tours and outfitters, but also on the outdoor gear manufacturing side. We’ve got a really strong base of those small businesses here with products sold all over the world.”

Mountain BizWorks offers training through its Foundations Business Planning program and offers loans of up to $500,000 to help Western North Carolina small businesses launch and expand.

About 200 people a year go through the Foundations program, which runs for 18 hours over six weekly sessions. A typical program cohort is made up of eight-12 people. “We’re all working on your business plan, giving feedback, testing things, and then learning some of the skills of business planning.”

Well-known Asheville companies, including French Broad Chocolate, LaZoom Tours and Chai Pani Asheville, went through the program, he says.

The demographic transition known as the “silver tsunami,” in which scores of baby boomers continue to exit the workplace, is also a factor. Half of local small businesses could change hands in the coming decade as older owners retire, Raker says. He encourages business owners approaching retirement to have succession plans and not simply close down shop.

“A lot of these are important businesses, and they’re employers,” Raker says.

Meeting challenges

Sparks and Raker offered new businesses advice on to how to deal with some of the challenges they will face:

  1. Know your target market

“Try and get as much market research as you can as quickly as you can,” Sparks says. “Who are the people who are willing and able to buy your product or service? We’ll have folks that come in and say, ‘Well, everyone in the world is my market.’ Well, gosh, in that case how are you going to then decide where to advertise?”

The Enka-Candler Tailgate Market, held Thursdays in the Small Business Center’s parking lot, provides a way for people to test whether there is a market for their products. The center has a table at the market that it lets people use for a month to get feedback. “If people are buying your product right then and there and it flies off the table, you might have something.”

Additionally, new entrepreneurs should think through the implications of such decisions as where to locate a business. If someone, for example, is intent on opening a coffee shop across from a Starbucks, business experts with the center will talk to them about the challenges that may create, Sparks explains.

“You don’t want to rush into it,” Mountain BizWorks’ Raker adds. “You can believe you’ve got the best idea, but you really do need to study the viability of the idea.”

  1. Know your costs and prices

It is common in Asheville for small-business owners to have a background in the arts or some other creative field but little experience with finance, Sparks says. For those people, it can be difficult to keep track of expenses as a business grows.

“A characteristic of an entrepreneur is that tenacity to go for it,” Sparks says. “But at some point, you can’t do it all, and bookkeeping is probably one of the services that should be outsourced if finance is not your specialty.”

Another mistake people make is underpricing their products. The problem is especially pronounced for women business owners, she says. But she points out that making as much money as possible can allow businesses to offer full-time employment and other benefits to people in the community.

“If your market is willing and able to pay a high price, go for it and do good with your profit,” she advises.

  1. Know your culture

Small-business owners should be clear about the type of culture they want when trying to attract employees in a tight labor market, she says. Area people, especially young workers, are interested in working at places they think align with their values. Even something simple as, for example, a monthly kayaking outing can make the hiring process easier

Sparks also has noticed business owners in recent years focusing more on their own physical, emotional and spiritual health. “If you are really going to carry the load of an entrepreneur and of your employees and of your customers, how can you be your best self so that then you can put that into your passion?”

  1. Know how much capital you need

People looking to open businesses often don’t know how much money they need or how to get access to it, Sparks says. That’s why organizations such as Mountain BizWorks, the Western Women’s Business Center, Self-Help Credit Union and Thread Capital, which provide loans to startups, can be invaluable.

“Bank funding is very difficult or is totally unavailable for very young and very small companies, including startups,” Raker says. “We’re a nonprofit and have resources to help provide that funding so people can have the opportunity to get into business regardless of their background or financial needs.”

Lack of capital also can be a problem for companies that need physical space, Sparks says. The incubation program aims to help with that problem by offering office space rentals starting at $8 per square foot and light manufacturing/storage space starting at $4 per square foot. Office space often rents for up to $29 per square foot in the area. Tenants can rent space for up to four years.

Wallwerx is in its third year of renting 17,000 square feet of warehouse space at the incubator and hopes to stay for a fourth year, says Mark Zalme, the company’s founder and CEO. Founded in 2019, Wallwerx sells a line of workspace organization products through Amazon.com and the websites of Home Depot and Lowe’s Home Improvement.

Zalme says the company has benefited from the affordable rent and access to a cohort of like-minded entrepreneurs.

“Starting a business is difficult anyway, but certainly being connected mitigates a lot of the risk,” he says. “You’ve got people you can lean on who’ve already chartered a similar path.”

Big Boom Design, which builds websites for clients using WordPress, moved on from the incubator after three years. But owner Sassman has stayed involved with the Small Business Center by teaching classes on Google analytics.

The company rented office space for a number of years, but now all its employees work from home.

“COVID happened, and I finally just realized that we don’t need office space; we’re a web company,” he explains. “I think remote is everybody’s preferred method if possible, although I do miss that collaborative approach. A couple of times a year, I grab my whole team and we go to A-B Tech. We’re back where it all began.”


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About Justin McGuire
Justin McGuire is a UNC Chapel Hill graduate with more than 30 years of experience as a writer and editor. His work has appeared in The Sporting News, the (Rock Hill, SC) Herald and various other publications. Follow me @jmcguireMLB

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