In business vernacular, "start-up" is a funny word. It earns the bearer automatic respect among those who like to heap praise on the myth of the American entrepreneur. But respect doesn't pay the bills, and starting a new venture can be expensive. Five local entrepreneurs who are looking to break through are fast learning the ropes in the Richmond business community — how to overcome product-development hurdles and sidestep city zoning pitfalls, and what kinds of prayers "angel" investors are inclined to answer. But they're also giving a bit of insight into just why the Richmond region is a pretty darned great place to launch the Next Big Idea.
1. RVA Farms
For Duron Chavis, founder of RVA Farms, nurturing his big idea from a kernel to the harvest has depended most on his willingness to pick up a shovel and dig. His riff on the community garden model sprouted last year on two city-owned properties, one in the Randolph neighborhood and the other on South Side, not far from George Wythe High School. On those plots, Chavis uses hoop houses to grow produce that's sold to low-income residents of the city's "food deserts" — areas where grocery stores are scarce. He also sells his goods to area restaurants riding the locavore trend. That the nonprofit does generate revenue makes RVA Farms organic in more than one way: It promises to be a self-sustaining operation, providing both jobs and food for residents of the city's poverty-challenged neighborhoods. Beyond his two plots, Chavis has worked with George Wythe students on their "Edible School Garden Project," which he envisions as a partnership likely to bear fruit in the form of the future employees for RVA Farms. Now Chavis wants to expand the effort and is seeking additional grant funding through Mayor Dwight Jones' poverty-fighting initiatives to build capacity and expand food access. He originally planned a crowd-funding initiative to raise $10,000 but has postponed it instead to nurture a volunteer base for his current operations. Soon, Chavis hopes to hammer out an affiliation with Altria, which approached him about providing volunteers and assistance. "They reached out to us … about whether we'd have enough work for 200 people to do on a one-acre site," says Chavis, whose high-intensity, high-yield gardening methods also mean plenty of work. "I was like, ‘Yes! We need more people.' " Despite the charitable angle of his endeavor, Chavis has plenty in common with his fellow RVA entrepreneurs, who don't struggle for encouragement from the city's well-heeled set as much as they do for the funding needed to keep the dream alive. "The biggest challenge has been financing," he says. "We came out of the gate looking for investors, but they didn't really get it — we're looking for people to invest, and they're looking for high return on investment." Chavis says that Richmond investors can be risk-averse, even when an idea has a proven track record. "Localized food production is very new to Richmond — people don't really understand that there's money in food [farming]," he says. "[I'm] trying to explain to people this is a viable business model, that people are doing this all over the country. There's a B-corporation in Baltimore with six hoop houses grossing $100,000 yearly."
2. Cookies, Then Milk!
Nicole Bredeson isn't so much a start-up as she is a start-over, but she's finding Richmond to be a fine fit for her product. Cookies, Then Milk! is more than an indulgent treat for postpartum snackers. Her cookie recipes are formulated from all-natural, healthy ingredients that promote breast milk production. While the business was a good idea in Florida where she's from, she's finding that her cup runneth over in the Richmond region, where there's an enthusiastic market for buying local, natural products and innovative start-up ideas. She won $3,500 in the University of Richmond's 2013 Business Pitch competition, and says the prize money hasn't been the only reward for winning. "There are actual people — actual multimillion-dollar business owners — who think this could work," says Bredeson, who graduates from UR in May and is meanwhile running the company from her house. Her main meal ticket remains online cookie sales, but after graduation she plans to ramp up her push to find local distributors and retailers to carry her products. Meanwhile, it's Richmond's culture of support, from the top earners all the way to the day-to-day consumers, that's been truly heartening for this Florida transplant. "The difference here from most towns in Florida is that small businesses seem to be thriving [in the Richmond area]", she says. "There are children's consignment stores and local restaurants instead of chains every two feet. I'd say for just about anybody starting a business, the most important thing is to be in a community where you feel supported." So, is there a disadvantage to being an entrepreneur in Richmond? "Not really," Bredeson says. "Everyone wants to help."
Rob Forrest always had lots of ideas, but he never really thought he had what it took to act on them. A co-founder of Speakeasy, an in-development app that aims to give restaurateurs constructive feedback from their customers while the leftovers are still warm, Forrest says Richmond has shown him otherwise. Places like 804RVA, a Broad Street collective think-space and idea incubator where Speakeasy is operating, offer daily proof — and positive reinforcement — for the city's nascent idea-smiths who just might become tomorrow's industry breakouts. "It's just this spawning ground — atoms colliding," says Forrest. "When you're ready to start a project, you feel like you've got support behind you. You're not just throwing a message in a bottle into the ocean." Increasingly, Richmond is a place where those bottled messages get uncorked, says Forrest. Given Richmond's increasingly fertile fields for idea planting, there aren't yet quite enough people willing to invest in this season's crop. As winner of the 2013 i.e.* Start-up Competition, Speakeasy received a $10,000 boost — but a boost doesn't sustain flight, and Forrest has had to seek alternative fuel sources. Now, with the advice of startup investment incubator New Richmond Ventures, Forrest is readjusting the original Speakeasy app to target the ever-expanding industry of hospital and medical practice administration. "We were kind of hoping to get some investment interest," Forrest says of the restaurant concept, but "we kept hearing we need to see this milestone reached … and we kind of felt like the goalposts kept getting moved." So he decided to stop playing the game: "We stopped looking to start getting started and just got started." And without abandoning the restaurant idea — he plans to come back and further develop it as a phase two — he shifted gears. "We started to realize maybe the opportunity right now wasn't in restaurants, but in health care management, with the patient-as-customer philosophy in this health-care reform era." Of course, the shift has meant learning a whole new set of rules. In the restaurant industry, it's as easy as bellying up to the bar to get a meeting with the manager or owner. "It's a lot harder to get an appointment with a health care manager." Still, he says, there's a clear need for his product in health care, where "the industry is woefully behind in technology," and it all would be that much easier if Richmond's investment community were a bit more willing to place a bet on a fast horse. "We have people who have ideas and want to do it here in Richmond — we want really badly to have that Silicon Valley support in Richmond," Forrest says. He believes the "underground subculture" of the local entrepreneurial community could become a real economic engine if city leaders would do more to promote Richmond as a community that embraces risk takers. "It would be great if [Mayor] Dwight Jones was out with entrepreneurs, meeting with them and promoting them," he says. "If [city leaders] were saying, ‘We're not just going to meet with the Amazons of the world, we're going to meet with the people who are working after their day jobs on a passion project.' We've got really passionate people taking big personal risks."
For Dragon Grips co-founder Hunter Pechin, launching a business is not just a matter of finding an entrepreneur-friendly environment, it's also about finding partners for technology innovation. The concept behind Dragon Grips seems simple: heated silicone pads inside a bicycle's handlebar grips to make bike commuting less of a finger-freezing punishment in the wintertime. "The story behind the idea was one of my classmates at the [VCU] Brand Center who biked to school regularly was complaining about his cold fingers and asked, ‘Why can't I channel the energy I'm expending to this one part of me that's cold?' " says Pechin, who is enthusiastic about Richmond's willingness to embrace a new idea. Basking in the afterglow of winning the i.e.* Start-up Competition's people's choice vote (and $2,500), Pechin and his team have found themselves with a problem that enthusiasm alone won't overcome. They need a generator that's small and powerful enough to convert pedal power into enough heat to keep hands toasty. So does Richmond have the brain power necessary to generate a hot solution for Dragon Grips? Absolutely, says Pechin, citing VCU's engineering school. "Also, we were put in touch through the [VCU] da Vinci Center with a company called Spark Engineering, which actually does product design." And once Dragon Grips passes the prototype phase, Pechin hopes that Richmond might sustain the product roll-out as well. For now, says Nick Marx, one of Pechin's collaborators, the project is in a holding pattern — Pechin, Marx and their third partner, Sam Cantor, are scattered across the country. Pechin's in Richmond, Marx lives and works in Los Angeles, and Cantor's in Portland, Ore. "It just moves a little more slowly now that we all have full-time jobs," Marx says
Gayle Turner describes himself as a "serial entrepreneur," and when he runs down a list of a half-dozen businesses — some wildly successful and some not so successful — that he's launched from his hometown of Richmond, it's easy to see why. His latest, the Storytellers Channel, capitalizes on America's growing interest in both video exhibitionism and the preservation of family histories. Turner coaches, directs and records people interested in telling their stories; the performances are produced as a digital family keepsake. He says that if any town is willing to tune in and give his idea a try, it's Richmond. "We did our first workshop Dec. 9," says Turner. "I have 14 stories now." He plans to post them all to storytellerschannel.com for the world to enjoy. Of course, there have been stumbling blocks along the way, says Turner, who like any good entrepreneur has made mid-flight course corrections to his initial plan as needed. "I've had to realize that some of the assumptions I made about the business model — I won't say they're wrong, but they haven't proven themselves right yet," he says. Under his original model, the company's revenue would come from fees paid to conduct a series of storytelling workshops and from ticket sales to storytelling events staged by the workshops' participants. As well, money could come from sponsorships, advertising and selling the narrative content through various media. And because storytelling can open avenues of communication, Turner also offers consultation for corporate retreats, allowing companies to engage in team-building exercises where employees share their narratives with one another. Getting this business model up to speed, though, has been a challenge. The general audience he assumed would be wooed by storytellers' narratives didn't materialize, so now Turner is working on a social-media component to make up the difference. On the upside, he's had a lot of moral support to help him push through the start-up phase. "I know it sounds trite, but I'm stunned by the amount of support, assistance and encouragement I've gotten here." Nevertheless, Turner adds, encouragement from the region's financial titans doesn't often help bring a start-up's bank account out of the red. "We have a very, very modest [community of] angel investors, venture capital investors," he says. "It's still fledgling. It's not that it's bad — it's in the early stages."