South Launches Minority Business Accelerator
Posted on April 10, 2017
For 28 years, Anthony Richardson has worked tirelessly to grow his landscaping and construction company, Best Price Services, into a one-stop shop for residential and commercial clients across the Mobile area.
From new construction and grass cutting to demolition and flipping houses, his versatility and work ethic have allowed Richardson to provide a comfortable living for his wife and four children. His desire, however, to reorganize his holdings and “work smarter” culminated recently with his front-row seat in the Minority Business Accelerator program, made possible by a $25,000 PNC Bank grant and spearheaded by the University of South Alabama along with a consortium of community partners.
“It’s an amazing opportunity to help take my business to the next level, and I’m hoping it will help me think about things in new ways that better serve my clients and help my bottom line,” said Richardson.
Dr. Michael Chambers, South’s assistant vice president for research innovation, said the program represents a broad group of stakeholders, including the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce, Innovation PortAL, The Exchange 202 and the Alabama Small Business Development Center.
Only five of 17 applicants were selected for participation in the accelerator, and Chambers said the intensive, eight-week program features instruction intended to help these homegrown companies better understand customers’ needs and pivot accordingly.
“Our plan is to give those who complete a stipend of $1,500 each to do something that advances their business. Maybe it’s building a prototype. Maybe it’s identifying an untapped customer base. The idea is to move them forward and encourage innovation,” he said.
The program will conclude with a pitch session, and Chambers said the winner will receive one year’s membership in downtown Mobile’s premier co-working space, The Exchange 202.
In addition to Richardson’s Best Price Services, Minority Business Accelerator participants include:
- Elegant Knights Limo-Party Bus, owned by Mary Taylor
- Shotgun BBQ, owned by Edward & Angela Pedersen
- Gaines Plumbing, owned by Jermaine Gaines
- Greg's Barber, owned by Gregory Morris
How it works
Chambers, himself a serial entrepreneur, told participants during the April 4 introductory class that listening and responding to customers’ evolving needs pays higher dividends than sticking blindly to even the most well-researched business plan because, quite simply, things change.
“I’ve been on both sides of the table, as a business owner and as an investor,” said Chambers, who founded and served as president and chief executive officer of Swift Biotech after selling InnoRx Pharmaceuticals, an ocular drug-delivery company, to SurModics in 2005.
The mistake many entrepreneurs make, he said, is drafting a fantastic 50-page business plan “that nobody reads,” when all potential investors want is a one-page summary explaining who they are, what they do and how much funding they need.
“The bottom line is we will help these budding businesses explore their customer base, craft their value proposition and then put it into actionable terms to help them grow their businesses,” he said, noting each of the five MBA participants currently report annual revenue of $400,000 or less.
Building a better network
Richardson, who also launched a car dealership four months ago dealing exclusively in high-end imports, is hopeful the MBA’s customer-discovery phase will help him restructure Best Price Services’ focus.
While the grass-cutting services account for the lion’s share of his annual revenue and have resulted in three contracts with the city of Mobile, Richardson said the work is seasonal, leaving a four-month winter lull that forced him to diversify his offerings.
“I’m hoping this class will give me some insight into how to restructure my business in ways that lead to new contracts,” said Richardson, 48.
“The great thing about this setup is we can all help each other along the way. We’re really in this together, and that takes a lot of pressure off right from the beginning,” Richardson said, adding, “I’ve been doing this for 28 years, and I’m still working on it every single day. I think I’m most excited about getting out there and figuring out exactly what the customer needs instead of me guessing.”
Mary Taylor spent a career in the military, in transportation and administration, before launching Elegant Knights Limo-Party Bus in Mobile. “I want to reach more customers and that includes retail and contract customers,” Taylor said.
Above all, she would like to leverage her military transportation expertise to land government contracts.
“The first (MBA) class actually blew my mind,” she said. “It’s like I’m starting all over without starting at the beginning, and this is giving me an opportunity to launch my business from within my business.”
In addition to Chambers, the MBA program’s teaching team includes Todd Greer, chief catalyst for The Exchange 202; Thomas Nelson with USA’s Mitchell College of Business and the Melton Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation; Mel Washington, South Alabama regional manager for the Alabama Small Business Development Centers; and Innovation PortAL Executive Director Hayley Van Antwerp.
In his overview class April 4, Greer told MBA participants that stagnation simply cannot exist in their vocabulary if they want to see their ventures succeed.
“Life changes, so sometimes we have to change the plan,” Greer said. “The value proposition is a simple thing, but it only matters if it hits the customer, and that is why you have to ask the right questions. What is it you offer that is different, that has value? It comes down to understanding who your customer is, what they need, what pain are they experiencing and what they hope to gain. What we’re going to do is discover who your customer is and then validate it.”
Chamber said the Minority Business Accelerator program fits with the University’s core values of education and community outreach. Leveraging expertise from the University and its partners to help small businesses develop feeds job expansion and a growing regional economy.
“Every business in existence was small once, and helping small businesses survive and thrive is critical to a healthy economy and South’s commitment to creating a healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem,” he said, adding, “A lot of success in business is not making mistakes. Programs like the Minority Business Accelerator don’t eliminate mistakes, but they certainly help you identify — and with any luck — avoid them wherever you can.”
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