Lynchburg entrepreneurs test ideas in recently established Co. Starters program

Kate Scullen, owner of Hill City Creative, created her graphic design marketing company this spring after leaving the Academy Center of the Arts as its director of marketing.

She knew she eventually wanted to start her own business but wanted to be as prepared as she could first.

That’s where Co. Starters came in.

The program, run by the city’s economic development office, is a nine-week program that aims to equip aspiring entrepreneurs with the resources, tools and relationships to turn a business idea into action.

The program led Scullen to learn more about taking care of her finances and figuring out the legal side of her business.

Having a weekly structure in the program each week forced her to organize her business plan.

“I figured out what kind of business I wanted and learned from different people already in the field what they had done to be successful,” she said.

Opportunity Lynchburg, run by the Lynchburg Economic Development Authority, launched Co. Starters in 2016.

Thus far, 50 businesses have graduated from the program. Some started their businesses right away after attending. Others came in with a business already launched but wanted to learn how to grow it.

The program is run in the style of a “cohort” instead of a classroom. Each cohort consists of no more than 15 people.

Anna Bentson, assistant director for economic development and tourism, said the cohort format allows entrepreneurs to speak freely and work alongside peers in a relaxed and casual setting.

“It’s a way for us to help people who have a dream,” she said. “We are building a more resilient, effective and successful entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

Each week, the class focuses on a different aspect of starting a business and finishes with a pitch night at the end of the program. Topics include marketing, legal questions, accounting, how to start small and scale the business, raising capital and working with business partners. It is held from 6 to 9 p.m. Mondays in the Greater Lynchburg Transit Company Transfer Center.

Gerald Cox, owner of One Way Out Escape Rooms, attended Co. Starters this fall. He found out about the program only a month or two after he launched his business.

“I thought it would be nice to network and be a nice exercise to do everything I could to run and manage our business the right way and take advantage of programs and resources for start-ups in the city,” Cox said.

He said it was an affirmation of what he was doing right in his business and got pointers on what he could improve on. The best part of the program was being able to get in touch with legal and accounting experts and get advice from fellow entrepreneurs.

The national program began in Chattanooga, Tennessee, as a way to jump start entrepreneurial ideas and provide a foundation for success. There are 68 active communities participating in the program.

The city’s economic development team traveled to Chattanooga in 2015 to see how the program was shaping its community and brought it back to Lynchburg.

The curriculum costs $5,000 per year, which is paid by the city, Bentson said.

“We want to grow our own and support start-ups and local businesses,” Bentson said. “Typically they have longevity. They might stay small, but the dollars spent in a local business stay in that community.”

The economic development office had heard relationships in the business community were not as strong as they could be, Bentson said.

“There are so many resources and knowledge that come from knowing each other, that’s the beauty of Co. Starters; the format is not classroom setting, it’s really peer-to-peer learning,” she said.

In the upcoming years, Bentson hopes there will be a greater alumni network who can continue to grow their businesses. Though the cohorts wouldn’t be replaced, she may consider creating more focused groups in the future such as one for tourism-based businesses, recreation-based business or arts-based businesses.

“We still have good interest in the program, but we are looking at ways to grow it and maximize on all of those outcomes,” she said.

Elise Spontarelli is executive director of Vector Space and a facilitator of Co. Starters. She said she knows how overwhelming the process of starting a business can be.

“I liked being able to share my own experiences while walking students through the Co. Starters curriculum,” she said.

“There is a big focus on customer relationships and doing hands-on research while you complete the class,” Spontarelli said. “Students are encouraged to be talking about their idea to potential customers, finding mentors in their field or line of business and exploring the feasibility of their business idea throughout the course.”

Stephanie Atkinson, owner of Live Trendy or Die, The Conscious Mercantile and the Windblown Apothecary, was in Co. Starters in spring 2016. She said the program provided a network of people who wanted to help her achieve her goals.

“The specific details help you know how to physically go through the steps to open a business, but more than anything, you meet people,” she said.

She wants the program to start facilitating potential landlord-tenant relationships so Lynchburg will have an advantage over small cities on the rise in Virginia.

“I am successful partially because I have three landlords who are willing to listen to my needs and work with me,” she said. “We have a great relationship that enables my businesses to become permanent attractions.”

Kristin Harris, owner of Kristin Harris Design LLC, is an artist and media producer who has been in business for 35 years. After spending most of her career in Washington, D.C., she moved to Lynchburg 10 years ago.

She decided to participate in the program this spring so she could learn how to hone in on her educational, web-based resource for elementary-school kids called Anim8Nature.

Harris was interested in making connections with other business owners in Lynchburg.

“It reminded me that simplifying the focus of my project was an important aspect of its success,” she said. “It’s easy to have a lot of ideas, but it helped me to focus and cut out the non-essential parts.”

She learned how to craft and pitch an elevator speech — an explanation of what a business does that can be delivered in around 30 seconds or less — and had a better opportunity in how she communicates to people in a short amount of time.

“It’s a good experience if someone is in a position to make the investment both financially and time-wise. Sharing information with other business people is a valuable experience,” she said.

The program is open to those of all ages and in any stage of their business.

Cox, the owner of One Way Out Escape Rooms, said some in his group were looking for a business idea rather than guidance in setting up their business.

“For a couple participants, they didn’t have an idea. They had possibilities and wanted direction on forming an idea,” he said. “What they wanted out of it was different from people who had a tangible idea.”

Though most people in his group were working toward a specific idea, Cox said the process sometimes was slowed down by those who didn’t have an idea for their business.

“The best way to prevent that might be to have a more stringent vetting process,” he said. “To prove you have an idea.”

Harris said she hopes the program eventually also will focus on online businesses.

Natasha Coan, owner of Foraged and Cut, arranges flowers for weddings and events in the area. She started the business right after finishing the fall 2016 cohort.

She wanted to make sure Lynchburg was supportive of entrepreneurs trying new things.

“I feel like they see the importance of local,” she said of the city holding the Co. Starters program. “A lot of cities don’t get that and still support chain stores and restaurants, and as Lynchburg notices they want to build up downtown and other areas, they have to rely on local people to do that.”

Applications for the spring cohort are due Jan. 31.



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