Forget the stereotype of an entrepreneur as a hard-driving 20-something or middle-aged man. There is plenty of evidence locally that the entrepreneurship bug can bite women as well as men and at any age. For those individuals, the Wilmington area is flush with resources to help people at both ends of the age spectrum start a business or bring a new idea to birth.
Take Hannah Wilson for example. The home-schooled teenager, who just completed high school, has worked in software development and website design for the past three years. In February, she launched her own design business, Hanoona Media, which has attracted 10 clients so far.
“I’ve done business cards, a couple of logos – a wide variety of things,” she said. “Clients will ask you to do other things for them.”
Hanoona Media is housed at tekMountain, the startup accelerator at CastleBranch Corp. There, Wilson has been able to mix with other entrepreneurs and tap into resources to help her understand the business-building journey and market her company.
Wilson knows there are plenty of other teens who, like her, have a yen to follow their own entrepreneurial dream. She figured they would like to connect with each other, so she started Teenpro.net, an online community that offered advice from well-known entrepreneurs such as Seth Godin as well as a platform for sharing their experiences and lessons learned.
The effort overwhelmed Wilson, and she had to discontinue Teenpro. “I burned out; it was too many hours,” she said.
“I still wish there were something like this,” she continued. “There are really talented teenagers out there who are making a place for themselves. A lot of teenagers depend on adults to teach them, but if you want, you can go online and teach yourself.”
Two of Wilson’s fellow tenants at tekMountain, Calvin Keller and Michael Waverka, are availing themselves of the tech community’s help as they develop their app Voodoo, an anonymous discussion board.
The two rising sophomores at University of North Carolina Wilmington came up with the idea last year as they were sitting around in the dorm, thinking of nonexistent applications of social media technology.
“We started making a business plan and looked for app development help from WaveRider, which was not part of tekMountain at the time but which has since moved there,” Waverka said. “WaveRider put us in touch with Audrey [Speicher, tekMountain director] and Sean [Ahlum, business development director], who talked us through the business process.”
The introduction to tekMountain came at just the right time, Keller said.
“We had gotten to a point where we had done all we knew how to do. When we met with Audrey and Sean, we presented our information, and they gave us some information on business plans and customer development, and also gave us some tasks to do,” he said.
Because the two are UNCW students, tekMountain provides a place to work and the use of printer and scanner as well as access to human resources – all free of charge. If Voodoo decides to become a member of tekMountain, there will be a fee, Waverka said.
For now, the two college students are the grateful recipients of hands-on help from their incubator colleagues such as Say It Social and tekMountain leadership.
“Every meeting we’ve had [with Speicher and Ahlum], we discuss what we need to accomplish, and they give us new tasks,” Waverka said.
The university has helped as well, Keller said. He worked with one of his professors on data analysis and customer development strategies including the design of a Survey Monkey instrument to gauge potential Voodoo users’ interest in the app.
By the end of 2015, Keller and Waverka hope to be far enough along in their project to pitch it to investors, they said.
There also is help aplenty for older adults who want to start a business, and those resources were in the spotlight at a recent Encore Entrepreneur forum presented by SCORE Cape Fear Region, SBA and AARP.
Attendees heard from representatives of those organizations as well as from the Small Business and Technology Development Council (SBTDC) and Cape Fear Community College’s Small Business Center.
Doug Tarble, director of the Small Business Center, said most of his clients are startups, and older entrepreneurs are often different from younger ones.
“If I’m dealing with someone over 50, the vast majority are not looking to become millionaires but to supplement their income,” he said. “This may shock you, but most do not need a business plan. If you’re over 50 and want to supplement income, the chances are you have the knowledge and ability to do what you want. You are translating your hobby into a business. You don’t need money; what you do need is marketing help, a marketing plan.”
Tarble gave two examples of successful startups he counseled. One was a woman who worked from her kitchen making fruitcakes, another custom designed pillows.
“The pillows designer started out on Etsy, but she then created her own website,” he said. “Even if you are a home-based business make sure your distribution network is solid.”
Fran Scarlett, director of the SBTDC branch at UNCW, said she and her colleagues require their clients starting a business to attend a business basics seminar. They also caution clients – existing businesses and startups alike – that the most important part of a business plan is the financial information.
“Bankers start with the back [of the plan] and look at the numbers. If the numbers don’t make sense, they aren’t going to talk with you,” she warned.
The panelists at the Encore Entrepreneur forum debated the availability of small business loans for older entrepreneurs, with Tarble saying that a startup that cannot self-fund won’t be attractive to lenders. Don Spry, the regional SBA manager, disagreed.
“I have hundreds of folks with access to capital,” he said. “Come back to me, and we’ll find capital for you, but you need a business plan.”
Spry is also bullish on older entrepreneurs.
“If you are over 50, you are more likely to be successful” in starting a business, he said. “Veterans are 250 times more likely to be successful.”
On the forum’s panel was Pat Holleman, a co-owner of Port City Pottery & Fine Crafts, which was started nine years ago by seven retired women.
Working with SCORE volunteer Sara Raleigh, the women found a space in downtown Wilmington’s The Cotton Exchange, designed their space to showcase their handcrafted wares and have consistently increased sales.
Holleman acknowledged the importance of other panelists’ advice but said that the extra ingredient in making her gallery a success is a “rah-rah culture.”
“Happiness is very important,” she said. “It’s people over product.”