That was part of the message that a panel of business and academic experts brought to Big Stone Gap’s Visitors Center during the New Economy Network’s “Successful Entrepreneurship in Southwest Virginia” presentation Thursday.
Shankar Naskar, entrepreneurship professor at The University of Virginia’s College at Wise, joined MountainRose Vineyard owner Suzanne Lawson and Clinch Life Outfitters owner Maddie Gordon to talk with an audience of about 30 area residents, activists and other business owners about their experiences in small business development in the region.
Naskar began the evening’s discussion with a talk about the difference between a traditional small business and an entrepreneurial venture.
When farmer and regional sustainability activist Anthony Flaccavento pointed to small businesses filling an existing need, Naskar agreed and described how entrepreneurs often stated from a “what-if” idea for a product or service not available in their chosen market.
Once a person makes the leap from what-if-this product/service-exists to how-can-I-make-it-happen, that person is on the entrepreneurial path, Naskar said, The next step becomes a start-up business, and he said that is where the region and potential entrepreneurs need to identify what they need to start that new business.
Entrepreneurs go through a process of identifying risks and uncertainties on the way to looking at innovation and novelty in their product, Naskar said. After that, they need to look at whether the demand in their market is sufficient and if customer traffic for their business make the venture practical.
If the answers to that point are positive, Naskar said, the entrepreneur has to start looking at their needs — funding, supply chains, employment — and finding resources and partners to meet those needs.
Naskar said potential entrepreneurs have a wide range of resources in Southwest Virginia, from state Small Business Development Centers at community colleges, UVA Wise’s own entrepreneurship program, free information on regulations and programs at websites including the federal Small Business Administration and grant programs through organizations like the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Virginia Coalfield Development Authority.
Lawson said her family found themselves pulled into her son’s initial dream of farming. After he went to Virginia Tech to study engineering, she said, he called them one day to tell them he wanted to start a vineyard.
Almost two decades later, Lawson said she learned about how to find funding, grow grapes on reclaimed mine land in Wise County, make and market a line of wines, add value to that business through other related products and services and expand their business into tourism too.
Lawson said the entrepreneur and small business owner needs to be flexible about their business.
“I even clean the bathroom too,” Lawson said. “You do what you have to do to run a business.”
Gordon said she started Clinch Life Outfitters in St. Paul from a combination of factors — a love of fishing and the outdoors, having already worked in her family’s assisted living business, and a business opportunity from the closing of another sporting goods store in the town.
“The locals are who make our business go forward,” Gordon said. While Clinch Life appeals to tourists coming to town and looking for hunting, fishing and kayaking, Gordon said she has found that a business’ success is not always a go-it-alone proposition.
“We also work with other businesses,” Gordon said. “We partner with restaurants and the Western Front Hotel for our customers.”
Even though customers often bought fishing tackle from big box stores in other towns or the Tri Cities, when Clinch Life got started, Gordon said, word-of-mouth and customer experience has seen that change. Customers know that her business sells good tackle at lower prices and that the tackle she sells is reliable.
Gordon and Lawson agree that developing a personal connection to customers is key to their success. Lawson said a couple from Richmond called about ordering a case of wine. After telling them she could ship it — another capability MountainRose and other Virginia wineries successfully fought for under state law — Lawson was told that the couple enjoyed driving to Southwest Virginia.
“If you provide that genuine connection, people will make that connection,” Lawson said.