Entrepreneurs gaining business acumen through Gauntlet classes

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(This is the third in a series of articles on the Gauntlet Business Program and Competition, following several entrepreneurs as they progress through the process. Featured this week is Donte Larry.)

U.S. Marine Corps veteran Donte Larry is developing an Airsoft military simulation company and attending the Gauntlet Business Program.

The third annual Gauntlet Business Program and Competition is now underway. Classes held at the Vinton War Memorial on Tuesday nights and at the HIVE Business Incubation Center on Thursday mornings will culminate in the Gauntlet Competition Awards Ceremony on May 11.

The Gauntlet originated with The Advancement Foundation(TAF) founder and president Annette Patterson. Seventy entrepreneurs from 50 starting or expanding businesses are participating in the 2017 sessions, “studying the feasibility of their proposed business, exploring business models, and developing business plans.”

The idea for Donte Larry’s developing business, an Airsoft military simulation company, originated when he was serving in the U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa, Japan, where Airsoft originated in the 1980s. He and his buddies would head down to a popular Airsoft arena after work to play the simulation games and eventually traveled all over Asia for competitions. He says he “fell in love” with Airsoft.

Airsoft is a sport in which participants eliminate opponents by hitting each other with pellets launched from replica weapons called airsoft guns. The weapons fire plastic 6 mm BBs instead of paintballs. Protective gear is worn to blunt the impact. Players work as teams. Airsoft is played on indoor or outdoor courses.

Airsoft is somewhat comparable to Paintball, although Larry says that it is much more realistic in the use of military tactics and weaponry, more accurate in firing, and also quieter, less messy, less expensive, and less destructive. (Videos of Airsoft competitions can be viewed on YouTube for a better understanding of what the sport involves.)

Larry is from Roanoke County, a graduate of Hidden Valley High School. When he returned home from military service, he determined there was an Airsoft market in the area. Larry says Airsoft is a “niche sport” taking hold across this country, having first gained popularity in Far Eastern countries, especially those with military bases.

This is his first official business venture.

He learned about the Gauntlet classes and competition when he was at the HIVE Business Incubation Center in Vinton for the Dave Ramsey Financial Peace program. Kelly Robertson, the Operations Manager for TAF, told him that she thought the Gauntlet program would be a good fit for him.

He plans for the Airsoft business to be a full-time venture, which “will get to the point where we can travel and take the game with us for weekend competitions.”

He sees his initial customers as young adults— high school and college students— law enforcement personnel, and adults with a military background.

Larry says Airsoft also has law enforcement training applications, which he hopes to explore. Airsoft could provide a better training scenario for local public safety personnel than what is currently available.

He hopes to present two options to customers— they can bring their own equipment or rent or buy from him in a type of pro-shop.

The constraint in his plans is finding a suitable location, which would require from 10 to 15 outdoor acres or an enclosed space of 5 to 10 acres— possibly an old building that can be repurposed.

Robertson has been working with Larry on finding a location.

“We’re always keeping an eye out for potential storefront space and/or properties for our entrepreneurs,” said Robertson. “We are connected with various property owners via networking, our Skills Based Volunteer Bank contacts, word of mouth, and even real estate ads.

“I am an adviser to Donte Larry, helping him get his business plan together and trying to scout out the best location for his business,” Robertson said. “If any of our entrepreneurs ask us for our help or advice we are always willing to assist them and to find a resolution to their problem.”

Larry said he is finding the Gauntlet classes and especially the business owners featured in the Entrepreneurial Showcase each week to be very beneficial in developing his own business model and plan. He and the other entrepreneurs say that hearing the trials, tribulations, and mistakes others made in starting up their own businesses with eventual success has been comforting, eye-opening, and motivating.

Gauntlet students are now about halfway through their classes. They will be making presentations on their businesses to a panel of judges beginning in late April. Factors included in scoring will be their presentation in addition to their feasibility, business plan, class participation, and homework.

During the Gauntlet Awards Ceremony, $200,000 in cash and in-kind prizes will be awarded.