Thinking of making the leap to entrepreneurship in Charlottesville? Your first stop ought to be the Office of Economic Development, which offers a broad menu of services to would-be business owners. We spoke with Jason Ness, business development manager, about what he and his colleagues can do to nudge your startup dream closer to reality.
How did you get into this line of work?
I’ve been in Charlottesville about 10 years and initially worked in workforce development. I transitioned into small business development almost six years ago.
When someone comes to you with an idea for a small business, where do you start?
The first thing is to assess where they’re at. We get people in different stages, from “I have an idea” to “I have funding and a location.” We can help with data and demographic information, competition analysis and marketing plans. If they’re more advanced we have some internal programming.
What are those programs about?
One is the microgrant program called Advancing Charlottesville Entrepreneurs (ACE). These are competitive grants given quarterly for companies with fewer than five employees. They go toward everything from equipment to marketing plans. It’s incredibly unique as far as local government giving away grants. For example, Pearl Island Catering received grant funding from ACE to wrap their van, the Flavor Wagon.
The other program is the GO HIRE program. GO stands for Growing Opportunities. City-based businesses can hire city residents and we will subsidize 50 percent of their wages for the first eight weeks. That lessens the burden on the businesses for that onboarding phase. These are semi-skilled jobs and the average wage is $14 per hour. City businesses can also get help with credential training, to help employees gain skills to make them more attractive to wage raises and promotions. It’s customized to the business—we’ve reimbursed trainings on AutoCAD, solar energy education and CDLs [Commercial Driver’s License].
What are the other local agencies that you partner with?
The Small Business Development Center provides one-on-one business consulting and classes. The Community Investment Collaborative started six or seven years ago to help under-resourced entrepreneurs. They have a 16-week course on how to start a business, and they give out loans.
What do entrepreneurs often need help thinking through?
Generally most people already have a career, so how do they keep going with that while building their business? CIC is great for that with their nighttime classes. A lot of people have questions about where to get money. They may be relying on personal credit, which can be an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on your background. We walk people through getting a business license, plus zoning and finance regulations. As Three Notch’d Brewery was looking to expand and outgrowing current zoning regulations, we helped write a zoning amendment to help them stay within the city.
Any other services your office provides?
We’ve recently started a “Made in Charlottesville” branding campaign to promote businesses that design and manufacture products in the city. We have up to 75 businesses in three categories—products, food and beverage and technology. They range from WillowTree, the largest, down to one- or two-person shops.