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Washington County, VA Backs Business Challenge

Annual contest leads to new companies, expansions.

By Kevin Litwin on April 23, 2016

Kayaking at Adventure Mendota in Washington County, VA.
Courtesy of Adventure Mendota

And the winner is … everyone who participates.

From January to March each year, a Washington County Business Plan Challenge takes place to spark entrepreneurism as well as encourage existing small companies to expand. The annual challenge is a contest that produces a handful of winners, but most of the participants benefit from what they learn during the competition process.

“This is an important economy-building challenge geared toward small businesses, which are defined in Virginia as having 250 or fewer employees, and I’d venture that 96 or 97 percent of all companies in Virginia are small businesses,” says Sandy Ratliff, Southwest manager of the Virginia Department of Small Business & Supplier Diversity, one of the backers of the yearly event.

Ratliff says the six-week challenge features competitors attending Tuesday night workshops at the Virginia Highlands Small Business Incubator to learn about starting a business, legal accounting and insurance, credit management, marketing and promotion, whether to be a self proprietor or LLC, what bankers consider before approving business loans and more.

“The final night is like Shark Tank – we call it Pitch Night, with each participant getting eight minutes to pitch their product idea or service to a group of impartial judges,” Ratliff says. “The contestants are graded, with the winners announced a couple weeks later at a Washington County Chamber of Commerce Business Breakfast.”

Startups Can Win Cash

The competition features more than $25,000 in prize money awarded to first-, second- and third-place winners in a startup business category; and first-, second- and third-place winners in a category for existing small businesses that are expanding. In addition, $5,000 is awarded to an entrepreneur who will establish their business in the town of Damascus, and $5,000 to one who will establish their business in the town of Glade Spring.

“The challenge attracts about 18-22 contestants each year, and even if a participant doesn’t win, they receive valuable tips to help launch their business,” Ratliff says. “The Business Plan Challenge is free, and all prize money is raised locally by companies looking to make Washington County more successful and forward-thinking in areas such as new technology, value-added agriculture, outdoor recreation, light manufacturing and retail.”

Testimonials to Success

Angie Wilson is a past challenge winner, and she put her prize money toward business marketing, website development and clientele expansion for her Cuttin’ Up Hair Salon that she opened in 2015. Another winner is Katherine Hayton, who established a Sweet Works customized cakes and cupcakes bakery in Abingdon.

Yet another challenge winner is William Gibson, who opened Gibson’s Service Center in May 2015.

“The Business Plan Challenge was a great help to me, learning about insurance, finances and other factors to start my business,” Gibson says. “The people with the chamber and everyone involved with the challenge are excellent to work with, and my business continues to grow larger every day.”

Eva Beaule and her husband, Michael, are also challenge winners, and in 2015 the couple opened Adventure Mendota River Outfitters.

“We are a seasonal business that runs from April through October, and we honestly expected to serve 150-200 customers during our first year,” Eva says. “However, because of all the networking and marketing opportunities we encountered during the Tuesday night challenge training sessions, we served 2,600 customers during our first year of operation.”

Adventure Mendota offers tubing, kayaking and guided fishing opportunities at the north fork of the Holston River. The tubing course spans 1 mile while the kayak course stretches 5 miles.

“Outdoor recreation is a big tourism draw here, and we honestly want to do our part to help grow the local economy of Washington County,” Eva says. “I’d like to mention that the Business Plan Challenge is affiliated with the Washington County Chamber, and everything that their staff does is invaluable for helping small businesses succeed.”

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