By Robin Sutton Anders
When Jessica Kercher started her Simply Vanilla Gourmet Cheesecakes business back in 2018, she was working out of her home as the sole contributor. Today, Kercher engages 40 employees during peak season and has plans to open her third location.
She credits her community for her success. “Lynchburg is made up of a lot of talented people,” Kercher says. “Making sure you protect and partner with your community will make success happen not just for you, but for everyone.”
The power of networking is just one of the key takeaways for participants of CO.STARTERS, a 10-week program that offers aspiring entrepreneurs like Kercher the insights, relationships and tools they need to turn ideas into action.
Now in its 6th year, CO.STARTERS has supported more than 100 Lynchburg entrepreneurs by providing mentorship and guidance in articulating their business models. We caught up with Kercher and a few of her fellow graduates to learn more about how the program led to their success.
Jessica Kercher, Simply Vanilla Gourmet Cheesecakes
When did you graduate CO.STARTERS?
Simply Vanilla Gourmet Cheesecakes got its start when I pitched it at Randolph College’s Mini-Makers Faire. I won the top prize, which was tuition for the fall 2018 CO.STARTERS cohort.
How has the business changed since then?
That’s a crazy question to reflect upon! For the first two years, we were based out of my home and just offered delivery and pick-up options. Since then, I’ve sold the cheesecakes wholesale, then through Farmers Markets and pop-ups, and then the Forest and Lynchburg stores.
What was your biggest CO.STARTERS takeaway?
Network, network, network! Each relationship you nurture will follow you on your journey, and you’ll be amazed when you need their expertise or they give you huge referrals. Be there for them as they were for you, and the rewards will follow.
Kristen Prosen, Mandala Wellness
Tell us a little more about your business.
I help people manage chronic pain through bodywork, and I also teach a lot of wellness education as it relates to herbal medicine and caretaking.
When did you graduate CO.STARTERS?
I opened my office for Mandala Wellness in 2018, and I took the class in the fall of 2019 because I’d heard it was a good program to learn the basics of business, and a good way to connect with other local new businesses.
What was most valuable about CO.STARTERS?
My skills are very specific, so it was helpful to understand the complexities and nuances of things like accounting and taxes—those hard skills that aren’t industry or business-specific. I remember an exercise where we made a list of what a project would cost, and how much money you’d make if you sold one unit of a product. It’s helpful to remember that you’re not in business until you’re making money!
What sorts of connections did you make?
First of all, it was a great way to network with other businesses in the community. But I also really appreciated the opportunity to start a relationship with the Lynchburg local government. It’s helpful to know who is who in the community, and what resources are available for different types of businesses.
Meia Booker, Scrub Connections
What inspired you to start a medical apparel and accessories store?
Over the 15 years, I’ve worked in healthcare, I tried out a lot of different brands of scrubs—some good, others not so good. Many of the high-quality scrubs were so overpriced. I wanted to bring another option to our community that would have a range of prices to meet the needs of all!
When did you join CO.STARTERS?
I launched Scrub Connections in 2019 but knew I needed more information on how to run a business. Later that year, when I came across information from Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance regarding joining CO.STARTERS, I decided to join.
What did you learn?
I was able to gain more insight into my target audience, improve my pitch, understand finances, and get a better understanding of what it really takes to start and run a business.
How has Scrub Connections changed since you started back in 2019?
Shortly after opening our storefront, we had to close down and shift to online. I wish I’d had the opportunity to take CO.STARTERS prior to opening, but fast-forward to today, we are back in person and I was able to utilize the CO.STARTERS tools to help better prepare for success and obstacles.
Lindsey Shrader, Shrader Stone
When did you start your stone masonry business?
We founded our company in 2008 with a residential focus. We took CO.STARTERS in 2017 and really appreciated the chance to test some of our ideas with an audience. We expanded our services in 2019 to commercial clients.
At the time, what was most helpful about CO.STARTERS?
I took advantage of the free sessions with the attorney and CPA, which were both quite helpful.
Was there a lasting takeaway?
I think the biggest thing we learned was to continue to tweak our services—to try new things and to learn from those efforts.
Robin Sutton Anders is a Greensboro, N.C.-based writer and the managing editor of Verdant Word Communications.