Never too young for a business plan

By Heather Bellow

Published April 14, 2017 in The Berkshire Eagle

SHEFFIELD — Megan Smith had an idea for dealing with the endless task of battling overgrown brush and invasive species in Berkshire County's wild yards and fields: Goat-scaping.

"Goats love to eat that stuff," said Smith, 15, a Mount Everett Regional High School freshman. "They would eat it and it would be gone."

It wasn't just a fun idea without any legs, however. As part of the BerkShares Entry to Entrepreneurship program for young people ages 14 to 25, Smith had to work out the nuts and bolts of her overhead for the goats, a little mobile hut to protect them, and a solar powered electric fence to keep them in.

She had to make a real business plan. She had to figure out what she would charge, and where the competition was.

In this case, she said, that is the pesticide Roundup — and humans, of course.

"Wouldn't you rather have cute little goats in your backyard instead of landscapers?" she told a full house.

Smith was one of nine young entrepreneurs who presented their business plans at Dewey Hall on Wednesday. Each was given seed money — $200 in BerkShares, a local currency still in the research and development phase.

Both BerkShares and its entrepreneurship program are supported by the Schumacher Center for New Economics, as well as local banks, businesses and individuals. All these community sponsors see the potential for young people turn ideas into businesses right here in the Berkshires.

"We are investing as a community and hoping it will give back to the community for a long time," said BerkShares Executive Director Alice Maggio.

Maggio calls it a "crowd-sourced business planning program" that pulls local business resources into the mix. These young entrepreneurs go through a series of workshops and get to learn from people like Keith Girard of the Pittsfield-based Massachusetts Small Business Development Center, and mentors with experience and financial wherewithal.

"It's fun," said mentor Howard Lefenfeld, who ran retail businesses for years. "It's nice to take life experience and pass it on to people who appreciate it."

Some of the participants went through the process just to learn how to turn an idea into a business; some already are doing something and want to turn it into a stronger, more serious enterprise. And some had plans that look like they might actually happen any minute.

"College kids drink lots of coffee," said Carla Hamida, a Bard College at Simon's Rock freshman.

She said Simon's Rock students need access to "a decent hot cup of coffee" more often than the college cafeteria is open, and said the free coffee in the cafeteria was horrible.

"It is stale and not strong enough, but they still drink it because there's no competition."

That's where Hamida comes in with her coffee kiosk in the Student Union, one that would sell coffee from Barrington Coffee Roasting Co., a Berkshires-born business started by two Simon's Rock graduates. Hamida has been working with one of the company's co-founders, Barth Anderson — the program's "on-call adviser for students" — and talking to school officials to try to lift this business off the ground.

Jeferson Vera has a plan for a mixed-cuisine restaurant. Pittsfield High School student Andrew LaPatin is a talented cartoonist and illustrator who has already made public murals and wants to do more. Keeley Farnam, 25, is ready for clients for her business: Keeley's Holistic Health Coaching — she just needs a location. Monica Yen already has a discount photography service geared toward students, and wanted to refine her business plan. And Monument Mountain Regional High School student Charley Seckler presented his plan for "Beef on the Beat," a local grocery delivery service with different price tiers.

"For the luxury service I'll come into [your house] and put the food away," Seckler said, adding that second homeowners would likely be the prime takers, prompting much laughter.

Lenox Memorial Middle and High School student Michael Abdalla has a plan to make his family's ice cream shop in Lee, Lucky's Ice Cream & Grill, more environmentally sustainable.

"The ice cream business leaves behind a huge footprint, mostly from packaging," he said. "I see all the stuff that gets thrown away."

And Anna Houston, 27, who works at North Plain Farm in Great Barrington, said there isn't a place in a three-hour radius that will slaughter and process locally raised chickens.

Wouldn't it be nice, she said, to be able to buy local chickens at local supermarkets?

She has a plan: Buy a processing box about the size of a shipping container that can process 200 chickens in an hour. The boxes can be USDA certified, and with that, chickens can be sold anywhere. Right now all she needs is a place to put it and a hook up for plumbing and utilities.

Houston said she's already looking into the regulatory hurdles — like local zoning — she'll have to clear. But with the help of this program, she is already thinking like a seasoned businesswoman.

"Bureaucracy is a problem," she said.

Reach staff writer Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871.