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Features VLF takes a look at business risk takers

Local entrepreneurs finding innovative ways to survive

As defined by Webster's Dictionary, an entrepreneur is someone who organizes and operates a business or businesses, taking on financial risk to do so. Entrepreneurs are key components in economic development and often become innovators in their fields.

Macon County's Economic Development Commission's (EDC), which is headed up by director Tommy Jenkins, is one of several organizations involved in various forms of economic development in Macon County which include Southwestern Community College, the Franklin Chamber of Commerce, The Highlands Chamber of Commerce, The Franklin Main Street Program, Venture Local, The Highlands Main Street Program, Franklin Young Professionals, and the NC Dept. of Commerce, to name a few. Jenkins says it is important that these organizations work together to build a stronger, diversified economy and encourage entrepreneurs.

The EDC's Business Development Center (BDC) is proving to be a vital resource for entrepreneurs. According to Jenkins, Macon County constructed the BDC in 1986 with the mission to nurture and encourage new business development. The facility is funded in part with Appalachian Regional Commission and EDA grant monies. “The BDC is a multi-use facility for business start ups in Macon County,” said Jenkins. “Its purpose is to provide physical space and opportunity for aspiring entrepreneurs. Applications are submitted to the Macon County EDC. After an EDC review, the Macon County Board of Commissioners must approve the lease agreement.”

Since Jenkins assumed the position as the EDC Director last year, he has brought new focus to the development center. “In the past, the facility was seldom used for what was intended, mainly being used for temporary community college space and providing additional space when needed for existing manufacturing operations,” explained Jenkins. “In 2009, the county, realizing the importance of entrepreneurship and small business to our economy, began a revitalization of the facility, renaming it the Macon County Business Development Center.”

Macon County’s Economic Development Commission encourages enterpreneurship through the Business Development Center located at the Industrial Park. Photo by Vickie CarpenterAlmost at capacity, today the BDC features space for practically any type of start-up business, from technology to advanced manufacturing. “With the addition of fiber optic internet service, a BDC entrepreneur can compete on a global scale,” noted Jenkins. “Currently, there are four businesses in the BDC and we are anticipating additional announcements in the near future.”

According to Jenkins, users/startups who have utilized the BDC include businesses in manufacturing, financial services, spa and home therapeutic products, communications and a producer of specialty polymer coatings for healthcare related industries.

“In the past, the BDC has provided existing manufacturers with needed temporary space and has served as a training facility for community college and private entities,” said Jenkins. “Today’s BDC is providing entrepreneurs with the tools needed to succeed; affordable lease arrangements, world-class fiber-optic connectivity, business plan assistance, access to alternative funding sources and networking opportunities.”

With the current state of the economy, Jenkins believes that the BDC is more important than ever. “The current economic downturn has magnified the need to build a diversified economy and business startups will play a crucial role in providing the new job opportunities of the future,” he said. “The BDC provides a platform for today’s entrepreneurs to succeed.”

Some independent entrepreneurs find themselves being led to do things to make a difference in the community. In 2005, Franklin native Bobby Coggins, or more commonly known as “Thunder Pig” started an internet blog as a way to have his opinion heard.

“I started blogging in the spring of 2005 with the intention of using it as a soapbox, to post photos and to post links to things I had found on the Internet that I thought were interesting,” said Coggins. “At first, I focused mainly on international and national politics, but gradually became more interested in state and local politics as I noticed there seemed to be no one else doing it. When I started blogging, I was working on developing a subdivision in Maggie Valley.”

“[I plan to] use this blog as a soapbox to have forth on things I think are important to cheer for or cheer against, tell about what is happening in my life, post pix, and link to places [on the Internet] that are interesting,” Coggins first wrote on his blog “Thunder Pig” on May 14, 2005.

To date, Coggins has uploaded over 800 videos and countless blog posts. He has also expanded his operation to include social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook to have his opinions heard. At 1,582 posts, 2008 stands as the year Coggins posted the most on his blog. In January 2012, he received the most hits or visits to his blog, with 229,163. On March 17, 2009, he gained his most popular post with a story about legendary moonshiner Popcorn Sutton's death, which has received 95,089 hits to date. His most popular video stands to be a gunfight at Ghost Town In The Sky, which has been viewed 152,354 times.

In January 2010, Coggins expanded his network to begin recording local government meetings and events. “The incident that made me think about recording local meetings was the Nov. 13, 2007, meeting of the Macon County Commissioners where Jimmy Goodman was taken off the Macon County Planning Board without cause when he was still willing to serve,” explained Coggins. “I thought more people should have been outraged by it, and believe that they would have been if only they could have seen it happen for themselves. It was a couple of years before I had gained the video editing experience I felt necessary and the camera capable of recording the meetings.”

The tagline of his blog is “Blogging the World Around Me” and he has published just over 5500 posts since May 2005. Coggins blog consists of anything from taking a photo of a nice sunset to covering the release of Landing of the Mars Curiosity Rover video game. “When I started, I was primarily focused on issues relating to the Global War on Terrorism and national politics,” he said. “Over the past couple of years, I've become focused on documenting the meetings of local governing bodies on video because I believe that is the best medium for documenting exactly what happened at those meetings.”

“Unless there is an ongoing controversy, I rank covering meetings in the following order: 1-Macon County Commissioners 2-Franklin Town Board of Aldermen 3-Macon County Planning Board 4-Macon County Board of Education 5- Macon County Economic Development Commission 6-Franklin TDA,” Coggins explained of his process. “Other things I cover if I have the time to do it and the money for fuel to and from the event. For example, in previous years I covered events as far away as Buncombe and Henderson counties, but as the price of fuel increased, my combat radius has decreased accordingly. Right now, the price of fuel is the greatest limiting factor in what I decide to cover.”

Coggins noted that he believes local events are where a person has the best opportunity to make a difference. “I believe that not enough people pay attention or have access to the meetings,” he said. “I have chosen to document local events on video because the video camera has no opinion on what is in the field of view. It also serves as an excellent stand-in for people who can't be at the meetings.”

“When I post a video of a local governing body online, it allows people to see exactly what went on at the meeting,” said Coggins. “They can watch the video from their home on their computer or TV (if they have a Roku), their phone or tablet as soon as it is posted, or they can go back and watch it again a few years later to refresh their memory. My ultimate goal is to allow people to make a more informed decision based on what they've seen their elected officials do at these meetings when they go to the polls on election day.”

Coggins has a schedule to make sure he is able to record an event and upload it for public viewing, never a quick feat. “The process I go through is to make sure I have the batteries for my cameras, audio recorders and phone charged and that I have them with me when I leave the house,” he said. “I record the audio of the meetings for those who don't have fast enough Internet to watch the video. I try to keep my camera on what is happening at the meeting while I am simultaneously writing a play by play of what is going on and posting that to the Internet. I try to take photos of everyone who speaks. When I get home after the meeting, since I now have both a desktop and a laptop, I can process the audio, photos and compose a write-up on one while I process the video on the other. When I just had the laptop, I could only do one thing at a time, and it would be days after the meeting before I could finish a post on a meeting. Now, I can have everything done within 12- 16 hours after most meetings are over.”

According to Coggins, it usually takes four hours to upload a video of a two hour meeting to YouTube, which is where Coggins posts most of the video since he has become a YouTube Partner.

Starting as a hobby, in true entrepreneur fashion, Coggins found a way to begin generating revenue from his blog. “I've made money by being an Amazon Affiliate (linking to items for sale on Amazon and getting a percentage of the sales), by donations from people who like what I'm doing, and lately, by ads placed on my blog and in my videos,” he explained. “I think I've spent more money on blogging than I've made overall. Or, perhaps it is better to say that I've spent most of what I've made in buying and maintaining the equipment I use to blog. Photographic and video cameras, computers and their associated accessories and the diesel to put in my truck to get from place to place.”

In his seven years of operating the blog, Coggins experienced a dip in revenue when the recession hit. “The recession hurt the amount of donations to my blog, and ad revenue has also seen a significant drop,” said Coggins. “The recession also has hurt my plans for expansion, and the growth in technology has allowed me to do more things more efficiently with less money.”

In a business that relies solely on technology, a field that is ever-changing, Coggins has found it difficult to keep the best equipment, while maintaining the blog with the revenues he has available. “The growth in computer power allows me to process a video much faster than it used to take. Two years ago, a video of a two hour county commissioner meeting would take 16-24 hours to process. Now, a two hour video takes 8-10 hours to process,” said Coggins. “The advent of social media has had the most effect on my blogging. As a resource, a blogging tool and as a networking device, social media has been a great equalizer. If I run into a problem or have a question, somebody on Twitter or Google Plus either knows the answer, or knows someone who does. I have yet to fully implement using social media on my blog, but I'm getting there.”

According to Coggins, the increase in social media has made his blog more accessible, but has also began consuming his free time. “The downside is that it can become an incredible time sink if I'm not careful,” he explained. “There are so many people posting so many wonderful things that I could waste entire days just reading what other people are doing. For example, ever since the rise of social media in 2008, I have posted less and less each and every year since, both due to the amount of time I've spent reading and posting items and the amount of time it takes to cover local events/meetings. I think that this year will see more posts than last year, mainly because I've made a conscious effort to post more.”

In the future, Coggins hopes to continue building the traffic to his blog in order to expand in surrounding counties. “I've always had a goal in mind about how I wanted to make money and a time line for that to happen,” he said. “The recession has forced me to put off planned expansion of local coverage of meetings/events in Macon and Jackson counties. I've entertained the idea of taking on investors or partners, but that hasn't yet panned out as a viable alternative.”

Coggins also intends to transition from his blog to functional website more suited to display the events he covers. “I plan to spin off my coverage of local and state-level government meetings to a website designed for that, and to keep blogging like I've been doing on my blog,” said Coggins. “Lately, I've been neglecting the basics of posting photos and videos and writing opinion pieces like I used to do. I miss that and want to get back to it.”

Heather Futch’s five-year-old son Tristin was the inspiration behind the “T” in Green T.As long as time and money allows, Coggins plans to continue blogging the world around him. “It's been a labor of love and obsession for the past seven years. I hope to still be at it seven years from now, using whatever technology becomes available,” he said.

Lots of entrepreneurs find themselves agreeing with Coggins in the sense that by making a business a hobby it becomes a labor of love. Recognizing the need for a curbside recycling service, Heather Futch began Green T Recycling to provide citizens in Macon County with an environmentally friendly method of disposing of their recyclables.

Green T Recycling of Macon County specializes in commercial and residential curbside recycling pick-up. “We do all the sorting and even provide a recycling bin at no extra charge,” said Futch. “Our primary goal is to give the residents of Macon County an excuse-free way to recycle. At Green T Recycling, we take pride in the beauty of our county and strive to educate and service the public in a way in which the people and environment will both benefit.”

Futch explained that the idea of Green T Recycling of Macon County started in 2005 when she was living in Jackson County. “I did extensive research on the subject of recyclables and collection of which included but was not limited to recycling procedures all the way down to how to get the business license to do collection in the city and on county levels,” said Futch. “Jackson County has a very different way of handling their pick-up as they accept any and all, and many private haulers who pick up both recycling and trash, I decided to make the move to Macon County in 2007 as I had researched the need for such a service here.”

The business’s name was important to help explain the intention of the service while incorporating the goals of making a better tomorrow for today's youth, explained Futch. “‘Green T’ came from the fact that I would be performing a ‘green’ service and the ‘T’ derives from my five-year-old son's name, Tristin,” said Futch. “I wanted to do this for a brighter future for him. The name of the company is a constant reminder to me that I can make a difference and take an active role in the environmental issues we face today for a greener tomorrow. Our slogan asks the question ‘Are YOU Good for the Environment?’ which hopefully gets the public to sit back and question how they are doing their part.”

According to Futch, as long as items being recycled have been rinsed out, Green T Recycling provides the bins needed for recycling and also doesn't require customers to separate the recyclables. “To make it as easy as possible for people to recycle, we sort through the recyclables and separate it for our customers,” said Futch. “We pick up items for recycling once a week at commercial and residential properties throughout the county.”

Green T accepts aluminum cans, plastics, mixed papers, broken down cardboard, glass, and even bags of clothing that can be sorted through and either salvaged to ship to third world countries or be reused for woven rugs and things.

Green T Recycling caters to residents and businesses alike throughout the entire county. Green T also has a lot of parttime customers who live in Macon County half the year and live the other half of the year in an area where recycling is mandatory.

“They find it difficult to ‘break the habit’ of recycling so Green T comes in handy under those circumstances as well,” explained Futch. “All customers are given a copy of Green T Recycling's guidelines which include rinsing out all containers and the separation of paper as applicable.”

“Basically I wanted to bring awareness to recycling and to inform the public on the recycling options available here in Macon County,” said Futch. “I recognized a void in Franklin and wanted to work to fill that while bring the community forward into the ‘Go Green’ initiative to best preserve our surroundings.”

While still keeping her day job working with mentally and/or physically challenged people, particularly children, Futch runs Green T Recycling with the hopes of encouraging a more healthier environment in Franklin. “Right now I would say that business is stagnant, with a few new customers trickling in,” said Futch. “While the recession has made it more difficult to get the business up and going, I think a lot of the problems I have faced come from the fact that so many people are unaware of their recycling options.”

Futch, who works in compliance Macon County's Solid Waste Department on recycling, says that she hopes to continue working to grow her company. “I, of course, want to build up my company and work for it to eventually be the way I make my living,” said Futch. “I was to promote recycling in Franklin by educating the public on the benefits of recycling. I have worked closely with Joel Ostroff, the recycling coordinator of Macon County, since the beginning. He has helped me to understand and follow the procedures and guidelines of this beautiful county on recycling.”

“It is very important to me to educate the public on the benefits and necessity of recycling,” said Futch. “I feel that the main issue on Green T Recycling's lack of recent growth has to do more to do with the lack of knowledge on the importance of recycling and the fact that people just simply aren't aware that a curbside service exists. We are talking about something that should be deemed mandatory ethically.”

Futch noted that in North Carolina it is actually against the law to dispose of plastics and glass in landfills and although there is no one available to enforce the law, it is technically illegal. “It is important to me to help people understand what the laws are and what recycling is in order to preserve the beautiful area that we live in and to help save our natural resources,” said Futch.

Once entrepreneurs are able to fully make the transition from hobby to business, some still find it difficult to balance the demands of the business with economic challenges.

With the dream of always wanting to own his own business, Tony Angel took his more than 20 years of experience in the broadcast field and founded Tony Angel Media. In 2007, Tony Angel Media was formed to specialize in creative marketing for small businesses including: website design, graphic design, marketing strategies, plans and campaigns, brand development and more.

“It was always a dream of mine to have my own business,” said Angel. “When it has been time for a change in my career path, God has always opened a door for me. It took a step of faith on my part however I am extremely happy with my choice and feel very blessed to be able to do something I have a passion for. I am grateful for the trust put in me by all my clients and am most thankful to still be serving small businesses everywhere.”

Although based in Franklin, Angel has clients all over the Eastern United States. “My customers are from all over the United States,” said Angel. “I have clients in Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and many great local clients as well both large and small from Macon County, the EDC and Angel Medical Center to Curtis TV and Hedden Brothers Well Drilling.”

According to Angel, his professional career led him to becoming an entrepreneur and starting his own business. “Throughout my career I have always worked closely with small business owners, first in my 20 plus years as a broadcaster, then with the Franklin Chamber of Commerce and now as a business owner myself,” said Angel. “Each small business has a niche to fill in the marketplace and my goal is to help them do it successfully and affordably.”

Like most other businesses across the county, Angel felt the hit of the recession. Often having to keep his business running on a day to day basis, Angel has started to see things pick up and can breathe a little easier now. “As a friend of mine used to say, "The last I had was good." All kidding aside, business has picked up,” said Angel. “I had a fantastic first year in business then the economy tanked. As all other business owners have done, I limped through the worst of the recession. Sometimes operations were day to day.”

Although grateful that the improving economy has brought him more business, Angel finds himself trying to find a happy medium between maintaining and growing. “Today, at this very moment, business is great. I find at times that I actually have more than I can get done in a timely fashion,” said Angel. “It's a source of frustration for me. With the uncertainly in the economy I just don't feel like I can bring anyone else on board. Things are still so volatile that it could all go away tomorrow. So I take it a day at a time and count my blessings to still be in business.”

Not only is Angel a small business himself, but his clientele is dependent on small businesses needing his services. Because of this unique relationship, Angel has an overall perpective on the effects of the recession. “I recently read that over 270,000 small businesses have been lost during the recession. That's a shocking number especially when you consider many of those businesses were cornerstones of communities that had been part of their respective community's fabric for years,” said Angel. “Like other small business owners in the area, I have had to work hard to uncover new opportunities and basically reinvent my business. If we can make it through this tumultuous time we'll all come out the other side as much stronger businesses and business people.”

Angel practices the same thing he preaches to his clients when it comes to marketing. “Each business’s needs are different. For some it's social marketing for others it’s radio and print,” said Angel. “You just need to know which eggs to put in which basket to make your business successful and a lot of late hours and hard work.”

A firm believer that a strong economy is built from within, Angel has developed his entire business around a desire to help entrepreneurs turn into small business owners and to watch small business owners to grow and flourish. “Home is where the heart is and my heart and focus is on making Franklin stronger economically and as a community. I buy everything that I can locally,” said Angel. “At the end of the day it's not Wall Street but Main Street that keeps our country afloat. Many of our local businesses have been around 50 plus years and that is a testimony to their ability as business people. They are the role models for us newer business owners.”


See next week’s issue for the continuation of the Venture Local series





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