Without free advice from volunteers at the Community Investment Collaborative, Audrey Reid would be hard-pressed to grow Imbibe Solutions, her nascent wine and beer quality control firm.
Deborah Andersen would be facing paying steep fees for advice starting GOAL, or Get Outside and Learn, a consulting business that will help schools develop outdoor education programs.
The CIC held its fifth Resource Fair Wednesday at CitySpace, bringing 22 local entrepreneurs together with 11 volunteers from local law, marketing, accounting and insurance firms for free 45-minute advice sessions.
The event was open to any and all small or growing entrepreneurs, regardless of whether they had been through the CIC’s Entrepreneur Workshop. The goal, said CIC President Stephen Davis, is a widening of the organization’s reach.
“Our mission is to help under-resourced entrepreneurs start and grow small businesses,” he said. “There are more folks who [need support other] than just who might end up in our program. We think our success is stronger the bigger the network we build.”
The volunteers, who are recruited by CIC staff out of the organization’s network of local professionals, are often out of reach for small companies trying to save all the money they can.
“It’s a complement to a lot of the stuff they are learning in the workshop or experiences they have had in the real world,” said Waverly Davis, CIC client services coordinator. “We understand how hard it is to access these higher-priced professionals.”
Participants ranged from CIC graduates with established businesses, like Reid, to prospective business owners currently enrolled in the program, like Andersen.
“I would say 90 percent of the folks who come through are folks CIC works with in other capacities, and when this current workshop closes we will have more than 200 folks who are graduates of our program,” Stephen Davis said. “A fair number of the folks who participate are in our current workshop and are just thinking about their business starting or have legal questions, or accounting questions.”
Reid, who got her beverage quality control business off the ground earlier this fall, graduated last year from the CIC workshop and later attended the University of Virginia’s i.Lab startup incubator. She came to the workshop looking for marketing advice.
“Brewers and winemakers can be a little hard to get a hold of, so I’m trying to get ideas about how to approach them and reach out to them,” she said.
Reid’s business has grown by about one client per week, and she is looking for an intern. Without the workshops, she said, some of the money for growth would be funneled to advice for insurance and marketing.
“They give great advice for how to start a business,” she said. “Money is really tight, starting a laboratory is not cheap … so I am very hesitant to pay for advice, so I seek it out wherever I can get it.”
Andersen came to the workshop looking for legal and accounting advice. Once her venture is off the ground, she said, she would like to have for-profit and nonprofit aspects of the business.
“The nonprofit would help military families, specifically who have an active-duty member who is deployed,” she said. “I wanted to know how the for-profit consulting might help the nonprofit, and also how to keep them separate.”
Andersen, who taught for middle school for 22 years at Collegiate School in Richmond, said she hopes to launch next spring.
Legally, pitfalls early on pose a large risk for small companies, Ken Shevlin, a first-time volunteer and corporate lawyer at Williams-Mullen, said.
“Especially for those who have not started a business before or gone to a lawyer to start a business before, the language even is new and sort of intimidating,” he said. “We just have to have a conversation about where they are and what they plan to do.”
Shevlin, who met with three participants Wednesday, said he saw the event as a way to strengthen the small business community.
Stephen Davis said he hopes the event will attract more outside participants as the CIC’s profile and influence grow.
“It was built around program participants, but we knew that other folks would need it and we’re kind of slowly promoting it more publicly to bring folks in who might not be connected with us at all,” he said.