Federal funds are helping small businesses in Western North Carolina get to the next level. A $1.25 million Small Business Administration grant is fueling a Mountain BizWorks initiative called ScaleUp WNC. The program aims to educate participants about best practices while giving them access to peers who’ve successfully grown businesses — and capital to help make it happen. The goal is to increase revenue and, in turn, create local jobs.
WNC is one of eight regions nationwide targeted by the ScaleUp America program. Matt Raker, Mountain BizWorks’ director of community investment, says those regions were chosen for their economic vitality and support for entrepreneurs.
Many companies, he notes, succeed in getting off the ground but lack the resources to continue the upward trajectory that’s needed to increase profitability. ScaleUp, says Raker, offers unique opportunities to select small-business owners and managers. “Accomplished mentors and advisers engage with the participants one-on-one, providing support and technical assistance that can make all the difference in reaching their goals. And for those accepted into the program, this all happens at no cost to them.”
In the local program, two-thirds of participants are women or minorities or operate in a rural community. Launched last year, it already has 30 graduates, and 15 more are currently taking the eight-session course. By 2020, Raker predicts, “ScaleUp WNC will have invested in the management and leadership development of 150 high-potential small businesses across the region. Many of them are now on track to hire 15, 25 or more employees over the coming years. Others may have less job creation but will be national or international leaders in their field.”
Shooting from the hip
Nathan Masters, CEO of the Candler-based Simple Shot Shooting Sports, says he hit a point where he wasn’t sure what to do with his business. The ScaleUp WNC alum says his business got off to a great start but quickly plateaued. “To keep that growth, you gotta do exponentially more, and that means scaling the business,” he explains, adding, “It’s tough taking something that cruised along nice and easy, and then you realize you need to ramp it up to the next level of growth.”
Masters says his five-year goal is to have upwards of $2 million in annual sales and then look for a buyer. As for his current reality, he acknowledges with a chuckle, “I’m still in that awkward stage of growth, but now I’m moving forward with a much clearer picture of how to structure my business for that growth, rather than just moving along. I’ve figured out how to work on the business rather than within the business.”
Feedback from the first 30 graduates, says Raker, has been positive, and there are already signs of growth. “One-third of our first year’s participants have already secured growth capital and are investing in their growth plans. Many others who aren’t seeking capital have met other critical milestones, such as landing new major accounts, launching new products, hiring key team members or securing patents and trademarks. We’re just now getting to the one-year anniversary of our first cohort’s graduation, when we’ll start collecting detailed data on company growth and economic impact.”
Boot camp for businesses
The current group’s goals are as varied as the companies they represent. Melanie Boggs, co-owner of the West Asheville-based Brian Boggs Chairmakers, says her business has seven full-time employees; her plan is to expand to about 20 people and find an industry partner to build their furniture designs. The program, says Boggs, provides “an opportunity to be in a think tank with other local businesses.”
Laura Stewart, co-owner of Organic Planet Cleaning in Asheville, says getting current finances in order is imperative. “To understand how your business is going to grow and where you can take it, you really need to get a good grasp of your financial worksheets,” notes Stewart. ScaleUp, she continues, “is like a boot camp. I could sit in an accounting class all day and just be bored to tears, but this is more involved.” Stewart says her three- to five-year goal is to have 10 employees making at least $50,000 a year.
Local business mentors are helping these entrepreneurs take aim at their goals. Asheville resident Ray Green, CEO of the Florida-based Paradigm Learning, donates his business simulation products to ScaleUp WNC. His company typically works with such corporate heavy hitters as Boeing and Halliburton. But as Green points out, “We were a small business 22 years ago, so we looked at the opportunity to donate our programs to the small-business community of Asheville. We think small businesses are the backbone of our economy.” The daily sessions Paradigm Learning offers to all ScaleUp WNC participants, he notes, would normally cost $500 per person per day.
Access to business simulations is precisely the kind of insider industry experience Daniel Klein says he needs. The owner of the Swannanoa-based Port City Amplification recently bought out two silent partners and needs a better understanding of business finance and marketing in order to achieve his goals.
“I don’t know of any other program like this that’s free and gets you in touch with so many knowledgeable people about how to grow and scale a business, how to work with lowering overall costs, how to get in touch with nontraditional funding sources. … Everything about this program is unique.”
Klein hopes to move his operations to a bigger warehouse and expand from one full-time employee to “double digits.” And if it pans out, he’d like to contribute his own expertise as a ScaleUp mentor.
Getting accepted into the program, though, isn’t easy: More than 45 businesses applied for the 15 available slots in the current course. Each business can send up to two representatives, for a maximum of 30 participants.
“We’re looking for small businesses — and, specifically, their founder or management teams — that have demonstrated initial success in the marketplace and have the capacity for significant growth,” Raker explains. “The type of business is less important: Our alumni include everything from software to consumer products to professional services companies. What’s more important is their potential for sustained growth and, ultimately, to create quality jobs and economic opportunity for our region.”
Applications (due by Sunday, April 17) are being accepted for ScaleUp WNC’s next course, which starts in June. Details and the application form are at scaleupwnc.com.