Young entrepreneurs group guides tomorrow’s leaders
Photos by Kara Thorpe
In April of this year, the first welcome signs of spring were popping up across the region. Most of the season’s new growth took the form of plants, flowers, and trees. But in Gainesville, a very different kind of seed was sprouting. It started out as a simple idea nurtured by five passionate founders intent on helping young people learn about and launch businesses. As spring gave way to early summer, however, what had been just a thought a mere two months earlier morphed into a tremendous showcase of innovative ventures run by children and teenagers aged six to sixteen. The Young Entrepreneur Business Fair was born.
The story of how this dream quickly became reality is all about the community coming together to support a common cause.
When Caelyn Driscoll, 11, of Needle and Cloth, expressed interest in selling her whimsical pincushions and headbands, her mom wanted to help. After all, Tricia Driscoll, who owns Knotty Origami, is an entrepreneur herself. Caelyn and Tricia sought help from Stuff! Consignments owner Meighan O’Toole. Initially hoping for a pop-up space in the popular Gainesville store, they found that Meighan had a vision for something much bigger. Before long, the emerging team had enlisted the help of Bill Denny, who runs the Bill Denny Group at Long & Foster Realty and who had already established a grant for young entrepreneurs. Another friend, Lucrecia Reyes of Lucrecia Designs agreed to pitch in. And attorney Lori Battistoni volunteered her legal assistance. Backed by the energy of these capable founders, the initiative was well on its way to fruition.
Rather than a single pop-up shop featuring Caelyn’s creations, the greatly expanded objective was for an event that would allow the area’s young entrepreneurs to develop and raise awareness of their businesses. Meighan got the word out to her considerable social media base and promoted the event to her customers. Tricia enlisted her powerful marketing and public relations skills, using what she calls the shotgun method, in which she blasted every platform in every neighborhood. “Regardless of the nexus to the event,” she says, “I sent our press release.” Her efforts landed coverage on NBC 4, a live broadcast on Fox 5, and articles in local publications. Bill’s offices provided meeting space, and he and the other founders leveraged their significant networks. Even the kids got in on the act, handing out fliers in class to make sure peers and parents heard the news.
When participation appeared to be outgrowing early projections of five to ten entrepreneurs, the event needed a larger venue than the Long & Foster offices. That’s when Jason Flis, owner of Eclipse Restaurant Sports Bar & Billiards, came to the rescue. The June 24th fair included 19 businesses run by 21 young entrepreneurs. More than 400 people came and the businesses made an average of $300 to $350. Over 40 local companies supported the initiative through monetary donations, raffle contributions, and mentoring.
In addition to product-based businesses, the event showcased services and resellers. The diverse list of participating companies included cupcakes, spa products, pet-based services, lawn care operations, and much more. Product-based companies sold more than those offering services, but service businesses benefited too, as they were able to begin building a pipeline and establishing clientele who hired them after the event. Resellers had mixed outcomes, with a Lego business selling out while a high-end sneaker reseller learned his niche market was best suited for online sales.
The goal, of course, was never about sales, but about the learning process. Each young entrepreneur had an adult mentor to help them prepare. They wrote business plans, created their table displays, and had business cards. Asked what she learned, Caelyn offers, “Business is hard. Fun, but hard.” Stephen Brown, 11, of Warrenton, owns the Magic Stand, which offers magic tricks to lemonade customers. By his own admission, he had let his dedication to magic drop a bit. The fair reenergized him and he’s hoping to possibly do shows or teach. He likes that customers are “mesmerized” by magic.
On the heels of the resounding success of the first fair, the founders are now making plans for the next one, which is set for June of 2019. The two-month race to the first required an intense pace, so having the luxury of more time will make it possible to hold an even more ambitious event. From January through June, there will be a series of workshops with multiple mentors and founders on hand to help. There will be a different topic each month, including how to create a business plan. Each participant will pay $50 to cover all monthly workshops, table rentals, food on the day of the fair, and six months of development and logistics. Importantly, applicants are not required to have a specific business in mind when they apply. They just have to have an interest in learning about entrepreneurship and building a business.
All of the founders are quick to say that the first event came together only because of the overwhelming support of the community. For it to be sustainable, the community will have to join forces again. To that end, anyone interested in being involved should email firstname.lastname@example.org. The event needs individual volunteers as well as businesses to help with sponsorship, workshop participation, donations, and raffle items. Tricia says, “We have a place to put you into the equation to make next year’s event even better than this year’s.”
With enthusiastic founders and young people at the helm, the future of The Young Entrepreneur Business Fair looks bright. As soon as the fair was over, calls from as far away as Texas came in, with people wanting to launch their own fairs. The founders, however, are firmly committed to focusing on what they’re building right here. How fortunate for our area’s young innovators that a brilliant idea has taken root in their own backyard. The adults may be the truly lucky ones though. With obvious awe and respect, Bill shares, “We’re so inspired by these kids.”
For more information regarding participation as a young entrepreneur or to be involved in supporting the event, visit https://youngbusinessfair.wixsite.com/youngbusinessfair or go to https://www.facebook.com/TheYoungEntrepreneurBusinessFair/.