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Starting a Business in the Age of Coronavirus

The Collider connects Asheville entrepreneurs with business development resources in a time of increasing uncertainty

Mickey Snowdon
Apr 9 · 9 min read

The Collider is well-known for its action on climate change, but it’s also a center for business and technology innovation and development. As both a member-driven network and a nonprofit organization, The Collider provides resources and events for its members and the greater Asheville community.

Free Business Resources for All

One of these resources is North Carolina’s Small Business Technology and Development Center’s (NC SBTDC) Taking the Leap event, a free, four-week course aimed at helping budding entrepreneurs start their dream businesses. Taking the Leap held its inaugural Asheville course in February and March of this year at The Collider.

According to Ben Robbins, Business Launch Specialist, launching small businesses is a new direction for NC’s SBTDC, as the organization has traditionally focused on developing mid-sized small businesses. SBTDC was started in 1984 and is hosted by the UNC System, which regularly matches the organization’s Small Business Administration (SBA) grant. Robbins is the first SBTDC employee hosted by UNCA; the rest of the Asheville regional center is hosted by WCU.

The SBA recently decided to quadruple its target for startups, making the SBTDC responsible for helping 450 entrepreneurs statewide launch their businesses in NC over the course of a year. In order to hit that number, they hired six new staff members who are solely focused on helping pre-venture clients (entrepreneurs who have not yet registered their business or accrued any revenue) and initiated the Taking the Leap program.

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SBTDC’s Business Launch Specialist, Ben Robbins, is tasked with launching 50 western NC businesses a year.

Robbins says the only requirements for participants to join Taking the Leap is that they need to be serious about starting a business and haven’t already registered for an LLC. This season’s course, held at The Collider, produced two small businesses — Climate School Asheville and SugarWhirled Cotton Candy Catering Co. — with at least three more participants close to formalizing their businesses.

Collider Members Take the Leap

Collider member Sherry Wheat and her colleague Mary Olson are starting Climate School Asheville (CSA), a company that offers regional business leaders the opportunity to engage with innovative climate change solutions in a learning environment. The pair says their idea is to leverage professionals from the Collider network and the greater Asheville area in order to provide climate expertise to CEOs and business owners in the Southeast.

Olson says CSA’s goal is to educate business leaders on the most relevant climate vocabulary and introduce them to professionals who have been in the climate industry for a long time. “We want to help people position themselves as leaders ready to tackle climate change with their businesses as a vehicle,” she says.

Combined, these women bring years of relevant experience to CSA; Wheat has an extensive background in ecological design, business-to-business marketing, and co-founded one of Atlanta’s first solar companies, Hannah Solar, while Olson worked with national and international governments on nuclear energy policy and research for nearly 30 years.

Olson says CSA plans to offer two, two-day long courses a month, which will be branded as the Executive Climate School (ECS). The first course on the curriculum is “Climate 101,” where clients will learn the “climate ABCs”. Wheat and Olson say part of what makes their program unique is that they plan to source their educational material from the climate community, rather than creating their own agenda. “We’re going to ask the community what they think the climate ABCs are, and then we’re going to put together an outstanding program. Will it change? Probably. Education isn’t static. We’re willing to adapt to new information,” Olson says.

Wheat and Olson are confident that Climate School will benefit Collider members and climate professionals in the Asheville community. “These are experts in climate who are already a part of a network and who want to help people. Not only is this a short time commitment for them, but it’s a lucrative opportunity,” Olson says. Wheat adds that these workshops will also benefit climate professionals because it will expose them to some of the region’s top business leaders.

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Wheat and Olson say their Executive Climate School courses will benefit Collider members by paying them to teach and exposing them to regional business leaders.

Olson says their goal for Climate School is to be fun. “There’s a lot of doom and gloom with climate change, and while we plan to discuss the facts, we want to harness peoples’ creative energy to discover solutions.”

Sweet Tooth

Emmalee Butler is the proud owner of SugarWhirled Cotton Candy Catering Co., a small batch cotton candy company that caters weddings, birthday parties, farmers’ markets, and other events. Her cotton candy is far from the ordinary fluff commonly found at fairs and sporting events. Butler makes her product with organic sugar and all-natural flavors and coloring. While most large cities in the US have artisan cotton candy catering companies, Butler says this is a niche offering currently not available in Asheville.

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Butler’s logo for SugarWhirled Cotton Candy Catering Co. She plans to take her business public when the county and state lift their coronavirus ordinances. Image by SugarWhirled.

Before Taking the Leap, Butler had already developed a rough business plan for SugarWhirled. Her business foray began with introductory coaching at Mountain Bizworks, but she progressed so quickly that her coach advised her to sign up for the Taking the Leap event at The Collider.

Butler’s first step was filing her business as a Limited Liability Company (LLC), which Robbins helped her do in her first week. She says that Taking the Leap helped her flesh out some of the “un-fun” aspects of business planning she hadn’t wanted to do on her own, such as cash-flow projections. The course also introduced her to websites for stock photography like Unsplash, and social media management products like Hootsuite, and taught her marketing tricks like the best times to post on social media and which platforms to use for various communications.

According to Butler, the pacing of the course helped her stay focused on the next task. “After the LLC, it was like, now I need to start thinking about a CPA, then I need to find some insurance brokers to talk to, etc.,” she says.

Butler worked at Earth Fare for 12 years before the grocery chain closed. She served as Operations Support Manager in Fletcher’s corporate office for the last couple of years where she acted as the communications liaison for the entire company. Before the store closed, she had begun working on a plan for her cotton candy business. When the store announced it was closing, Butler dove head-first into the project, securing a space at Haw Creek Commons’ shared commercial kitchen and refining SugarWhirled’s recipes.

Butler felt a sense of comradery with her Taking the Leap cohort. She says that working in small groups gave her an unbiased perspective that helped her view her business from different angles. Her cohort also encompassed a diverse background of business experience, with some participants simply incubating ideas, while others sought to expand or improve their established companies. Even in a group of four people, Butler says there was always an established businessperson available to talk with.

A Wealth of Information

According to Robbins, although there are a lot of organizations in the WNC area focused on launching small businesses, it behooves them to work together rather than compete against one another. “When we can help each other help entrepreneurs succeed, we all get to count those metrics and we all win,” Robbins says.

Asheville SCORE, AB-Tech’s Small Business Center, Mountain BizWorks, SBA, and the Western Women’s Business Center were all present at Taking the Leap to pitch their organizations to participants and to describe their ideal client. Butler says it was helpful to have all of these organizations present in the same room during the last class. “We have so many resources around town, and to use them all at the same time really elevated my approach,” she says.

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Taking the Leap draws in business resources from the western NC community. Pictured at the table in the front of the room are representatives from local accounting, consulting, and bookkeeping firms.

Business in the Age of Coronavirus

Immediately after Taking the Leap’s first cohort wrapped up their course, coronavirus swept across the world, shutting down businesses everywhere. While restaurants and bars in Asheville were undoubtedly hit the hardest by the pandemic, businesses throughout the city felt the economic sting of Buncombe County’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” ordinance.

While Wheat and Olson originally intended to hold Climate 101 in a physical event space, they are now considering transitioning the course to an online format. Wheat says that as a small business in its infancy, it’s important for CSA to adapt to current economic and social conditions.

According to Wheat, coronavirus has caused everyone to slow down physically and mentally. She says the virus has given her the opportunity to reassess her values and priorities and to pursue online outlets for ECS courses. Olson says she sees the pandemic as a teachable moment for climate change and a chance to unite the Northern and Southern Hemispheres over a common problem. “Coronavirus is teaching us how interconnected we are globally, and I hope we can all find a way to capture this insight,” she says.

Ultimately the pair are optimistic about some of the changes the disease presents and are willing to work within a lengthier time frame than they originally intended since they remain committed to offering in-person programs in the future.

Before Buncombe County schools shut down in response to the pandemic, Butler was ready to go live with her website. Now she plans to wait on publicly announcing her business until the state and county’s “Stay Home” precautions have dissipated. Butler thought about bagging her cotton candy and offering door-to-door delivery service but ultimately decided not to because she didn’t want to add to the single-use plastics waste stream. “Plus,” she adds, “My business is meant to be experienced in person at an event. It’s fun and adds an element of playfulness and nostalgia to a gathering.”

Similar to Wheat and Olson, Butler says coronavirus provides her with some silver linings. “It’s given me the opportunity to pause and streamline my business. It’s a good time for me to really hone in on the details and confirm how I want to launch,” she says.

Butler says she also plans to use this mandated downtime to talk with caterers and venues, work on her mailing list, and prepare her social media.

Robbins also remains hopeful in the midst of this unprecedented crisis, and is even planning another Taking the Leap course for April and May of this year.

“It may seem counter-intuitive to try to get folks to consider launching a business in this turbulent environment, but entrepreneurs are exactly the type of people who stare into the face of chaos and see opportunity,” he says. “This virus is a reminder that there is never an ideal time to launch a business.”

Robbins says he and his team are adapting to the state’s new social distancing guidelines, and he encourages anyone interested in starting a business to do the same by joining this spring’s Taking the Leap cohort online.

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The February/March 2019 Taking the Leap cohort next to the Richard Branson quote, “Screw it, let’s do it.”

Due to coronavirus, Asheville’s next Taking the Leap event (April 28 — May 19, 2020) will be held completely online through the Canvas learning system and Zoom videoconferencing. Budding entrepreneurs are encouraged to register here.

The Collider is currently working on offering many of its events and resources online. Check The Collider’s page regularly for updates.

The Collider Blog

Where climate stories are told.

Mickey Snowdon

Written by

Writer | Climate warrior | Outdoor enthusiast | Bibliophile

The Collider Blog

Where climate stories are told.

Mickey Snowdon

Written by

Writer | Climate warrior | Outdoor enthusiast | Bibliophile

The Collider Blog

Where climate stories are told.

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