They say, “It takes a village to raise a child,” but community involvement can also be crucial for new businesses. Mountain BizWorks recently demonstrated how that approach can work for local startups
On Nov. 17, entrepreneurs presented business ventures to a capacity crowd of 200 at Pleb Urban Winery during Mountain BizWorks’ third annual Mountain Raise.
The event, named after the tradition of barn raising, brings together investors, community members and local entrepreneurs looking to expand their businesses. Seven companies took to the stage to present a five-minute pitch promoting their products or services. The purpose of the evening was to network and attract investors.
“Tonight is about dialogue,” said Chris Grasinger, High Country regional manager at Mountain BizWorks and emcee for Thursday’s event. “We want you to engage, talk to each other, ask the hard questions, answer the hard questions.” Presentations were bookended by an hour of networking.
For anyone who’s run or donated to a Kickstarter campaign, the idea of crowdfunding will be familiar, but crowdfunding wasn’t available for businesses until 2016. That’s when a Securities and Exchange Commission decision allowed anyone — not just accredited investors with $1 million in assets or a $200,000 annual income — to invest in private companies outside stock exchanges. Investors can commit as little as $250, broadening the pool to include what Grasinger described as “all walks of life.”
Accordingly, the crowd gathered inside Pleb was a mixture of investors, community members, friends and supporters of local businesses.
“We’re talking to a room full of allies,” says Luke Peniston, co-founder of North Cove Leisure Club and one of the entrepreneurs who pitched at the event. “They just genuinely care and they’re excited to see local businesses thrive and love to see new entrepreneurs show what they’re working on. The energy in the room is phenomenal.”
The presenters had completed at least one of two programs offered through Mountain BizWorks: ScaleUp and Invested. ScaleUp, Grasinger says, is for the “most mature” companies — meaning they’re already established and making between $150,000 and $5 million in annual revenue but are looking to expand their businesses. Invested is about “learning what it means to take on an outside investor,” said Grasinger, with a focus on crowdfunding.
Not everyone who completes a BizWorks course is invited to participate in Mountain Raise. “There are so many moving targets, things you have to check off the list in order to get to a point where you’re ready to take on investments,” Grasinger told Xpress. “It takes a lot of planning and a lot of time.”
Part of the planning involves meeting SEC requirements, which includes legal and financial documentation, and nailing down exactly what the business stands for and how it will make a return on the investments. After working directly with business owners during the five-week Invested class, or three-month ScaleUp course, Bizworks is able to gauge who’s ready to pitch at Mountain Raise and who needs more time.   
“The reason why we are very selective is not only can it be bad for your investors to invest in something that’s not properly organized or planned; it’s also going to be very risky for the entrepreneur,” explains Grasinger. “So, we’re protecting our community, our entrepreneurs, by making sure that they’re fully prepared to step into this next evolution of the business.”
This year, seven companies were ready to pitch. Max Runzel, CEO for HiveTracks — an app that allows beekeepers to keep track of the health of their hives — said that as the first to pitch, he “hoped it would land well with the community” and by the end, based on the vibe of the crowd, he “perceived the best feedback.” After taking the Invested course this summer, he says the business felt primed for crowdfunding.
“It’s been a journey,” James Wilkes, founder of HiveTracks, told Xpress. The idea to design an app where beekeepers could collect information about their hives came to him in 2010 while working on his family farm in Boone. Since then, Wilkes says, it has “organically spread” and is now used in 150 countries to track 225,000 hives worldwide.
Also pitching an app, Edmund Washington, owner of two No Grease barbershops, presented a personal grooming app that would provide better online booking and inventory management for tattoo parlors, hair salons and barbershops. During the event, Washington said the biggest thing he was looking forward to was networking and building relationships.
David Billstrom, CEO of Kitsbow Cycling Apparel, says he’s been an entrepreneur since he was 14 (as a kid, he loved winning games of Monopoly). He promoted Kitsbow’s “human-centered clothing” to the crowd, citing its sustainability, durability and quality. Before joining the company, he worked as an investor, so he appreciates Mountain Raise for its ability to bring people together. He attributes the success of the company to its “resilient workforce” — all but one employee was hired locally when it moved to Western North Carolina from California in 2019. The company is employee owned. As Billstrom says, “Employees profit. Not me, not Wall Street.”   
For Sheila Shanti, founder of Adventure Cocoon, the idea to create a travel wrap was born from a need for safety — for herself as she was traveling through India and later for others. The company, which converts upcycled saris into colorful, comfortable, wearable sacks, employs women in India who have survived sex trafficking. Through “education, empowerment and employment,” 98% of survivors who work with the company have been able to avoid revictimization.
Mark Zalme, founder of 828 Labs, and Dominic Taverniti, COO, made up the night’s only co-presenting team as they discussed their product Wallwerx — the “high-quality, in-one-place, in-your-face alternative” to home organization. The two set up a product demonstration featuring a pegboard hanging system outfitted with clear plastic jars and appendages meant for holding items such as pots and pans and tools.
Zalme, who grew up in the Midwest but has lived in Asheville for 30-plus years, says he’s grateful for Mountain Raise because it allows for “tremendous outreach and connection.” Taverniti, who joined the company just three weeks before the event, said it was gratifying to hear the audience engage — cheering, whistling and laughing — during the pitch. “Getting that feedback is encouraging,” he noted.
DeWayne Barton, founder and CEO of Hood Huggers International, pitched a new project called Blue Note Junction, “a unique real estate commercial project at the crossroads of health and entrepreneurship” committed to the wellness of people of color. Barton presented his pitch as a spoken-word performance, describing a “diversity of bodies, activities and opportunities” with “sweet smells from a commercial kitchen” and a “saxophone player at the edge of the artists village.” He urged the audience, “Let’s build community together and let’s heal and deal at the same time.”
Returning for a second year, Peniston, co-founder of North Cove Leisure Club, outlined plans to expand its property and scope. It currently offers disc golf, a restaurant and a wedding venue, and plans to add short-term lodging, expanded wedding facilities, additional amenities like mountain bike trails and a pickleball court, and a 3,000-person outdoor music venue.
Not only did Peniston and co-founder Kyle Sims complete the Invested Course, but they also joined Bizworks’ Waypoint Accelerator, a program designed for outdoor entrepreneurs.  
“I think it would be fair to say that [Mountain BizWorks] has been integral to us getting where we are, every step of the way,” Peniston told Xpress
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