Here’s a copy of the essay I submitted to the Master of Entrepreneurship Program at WNC, which is really kinds of a mission statement for Abundance Business Solutions. Consider it a starting point for my Grad School journey.
Abundance Business Solutions
Asheville’s blossoming Golden Age faces a serious threat from a lack of meaningful employment for living wages for its quirky educated work force that also serves as its main attraction. Many possess enough acumen to formulate a good business idea and see it to creation, but few grasp the more advanced concepts of securing venture capital, cash management, financial planning, employee relations, and marketing required to transform their nascent cottage industries into enduring enterprises able to increase their own standard of living and offer fulfilling employment at living wages. And they don’t know who to ask.
Arjay Sutton will use the skills learned in the Master of Entrepreneurship program to build his existing business, Abundance Accounting and Tax Service, add Entrepreneurship Consulting Services, and assist some existing clients and other new clients to transform their small businesses into enduring enterprises capable of raising their standard of living while offering meaningful employment at good wages, thereby helping to sustain Asheville’s continuing prosperity.
Let us take a moment to celebrate Asheville’s Golden Age of Weird. The beer flows, the tourists flock, the roads are gridlocked and the place just plain rocks. We’re Keeping Asheville Weird. And prosperous. What could go wrong?
Asheville’s own Bizarro Age of Pericles faces a few daunting obstacles in its transition from a sleepy rustic mountain town with a thick upper crust and a lot of crusty hippies (circa 2005) to its present aspiration as an A List tourist destination, hub of brewery enterprise, and economic engine for Western North Carolina. Too many cars and not enough roads. Running out of room to grow in a small valley. A housing shortage created more by Airbnb than a lack of housing. Exactly how many breweries is too many?
But The Chief among those obstacles encapsulates all of the above: Asheville suffers from a rapidly escalating cost of living without a corresponding increase in wages and quality employment opportunities, a problem which is now eroding a highly educated, artistic, and motivated–but underemployed and largely impoverished–labor force. And this labor force is an easily transient population that happens to also serve as one of the main attractions: its unique brand of Weird which sets Asheville apart from other A List mountain tourist destinations. And when/if The Weird leave, what’s to separate Asheville from say Gatlinburg or even Roanoke?
As a great philosopher postulated some 40 years ago, “When the going gets weird, The Weird turn pro” (Hunter S Thompson). The seeds of the rapid downfall of the current Golden Age thus sewn, a solution lies within the soil of Asheville’s quirky, talented, broke population (aka The Weird): many of them are entrepreneurs with grand visions and products and services with great upside and earnings potential.
Many possess the ability and some capital sufficient to pursue those business opportunities to the point where they can somewhat support their families better than they would with the low wages on offer in Asheville. And some might afford a friend/employee/contractor or two on starvation wages and the promise of a better future along with perhaps some stock of zero current and questionable future value. But few possess the knowledge, resources, skill, and education to transform those cottage industries into the larger enterprises they envision when embarking upon these ventures. And they don’t know who to ask.
Worse, most of them fail to realize they lack this knowledge and find themselves quickly overwhelmed by persistent cash flow limitations, employee issues, supply chain problems, inability to comprehend and implement the simplest financial planning, or worse: huge debts to various taxation and regulatory agencies they fail to understand and/or angry investors who feel conned. They know how to start a business. They just don’t grasp the business of business.
My analysis arises not from charts, graphs, and statistics produced at great cost in time and resources at one of our fine institutions of business education, but from personal experience both with my own businesses over the course of the past 25 years and with my current roster of clients at Abundance Accounting and Tax Services. I established Abundance from scratch in January 2015 as I recovered from a sudden illness and in light of my experience two years prior in which I had my personal epiphany about my own business acumen.
Early in 2013 I found myself in a three way partnership owning a large night club called The Metrosphere in downtown Asheville. The Metrosphere’s many previous incarnations boasted a solid track record of success and incredible earning potential for the future. (At least so said all the spreadsheets I created). It had fallen on hard times due to mismanagement and bad reputation. The owner was literally on her way to meet with a bankruptcy attorney when I and my other partner prevailed upon her to give us 30 days to see if we could pull together a turn around plan.
First, I squared away the severely neglected books and quickly discovered $5,000 from checks that had bounced and were later covered with cash. That took care of last month’s rent. Next my other partner and I secured some venture capital, booked some shows, and got the ball rolling. And it rolled. For the most part. Our highlight was the month of December, 2013, when—thanks mostly to two large shows—we eclipsed $50,000 in revenue and turned an excellent profit for the month. Unfortunately, the previous months had not been so kind and a second installment of venture capital fell through so most of that windfall served only to bring the bottom line back to zero for the year.
The Metrosphere was an expensive but crucial business experience. I had spent that year working from 10am until 4am almost every day, largely dealing with administrative issues, keeping the books, dealing with employees, purchasing, paying the multitude of taxes and fees, while for the most part robbing Peter to pay Paul. I also got to book some acts and do fun entertainment type of work. But mostly, I managed the entire operation by myself. I didn’t make a lot of money, but I made a lot of useful connections and learned a lot–mostly about what I didn’t know.
A group of investors offered to keep our management and staff on board while taking over the business itself. We accepted since it was clear we needed a huge infusion of capital just to keep the building up to code and maintain the ability to book top line acts necessary for survival in this very competitive music market. But mostly, I realized I simply did not possess the knowledge, resources, skill, and education to transform this incredible opportunity with a very high ceiling into the operation that would comfortably provide for my family and pay living wages to my employees, let alone offer return on investment. I like to describe the sale of The Metrosphere as selling a hole in my pocket.
My stay at the newly renamed New Mountain was cut short by a devastating cancer diagnosis. I spent most of 2014 sick in bed from chemo and radiation fighting for survival while reflecting on what I had learned from my club experience. I concluded that, while I did not possess the requisite skills to singlehandedly run a top notch venue in a competitive music market like Asheville, I was sure people would pay me good money to perform all of the administrative tasks that drove me to exhaustion the previous year.
As I don’t know the meaning of the word quit, I survived my cancer and continue to be cancer free and in excellent health. I spent a lot of that time improving my Quickbooks skills and, as I was recovering, took the H&R Block tax course to enhance my tax knowledge. I spent the 2015 tax season preparing 150 returns for Block at starvation wages while picking up bookkeeping gigs whenever and wherever possible.
Currently, Abundance has ten contracted year round full service accounting and bookkeeping clients and has prepared 85 individual and business tax returns this year to date with more in the pipeline, especially as October 15 approaches. I specialize in small business taxes for restaurants, musicians, life coaches, artists, etc. You know. The Weird. My clients are generally distrustful of The Man and appreciate my down to Earth approach in dealing with taxation and regulatory issues. I offer peace of mind and generally cost only a fraction of what I save them so I have great retention and 100% loyalty. And I fit Asheville like a mukluk.
Total revenue for Abundance this year should double last year and triple the year before. I supplement my income driving for Uber and with my small publishing enterprise (Grateful Dead Songbooks). Last December, circumstance suddenly made me a full time single father of my delightful seven year old son and precocious nine year old daughter, severely limiting those other income sources. It’s been a powerful motivation to build Abundance into something that allows me to work less for more income thus leaving me more time for my family.
I could probably summon the capital and hard work to grow on my own as I always have (with debatable results), but I now find myself in familiar territory. How do I turn the corner? I trust my skills, I trust my instincts, I have a great client base, excellent reputation in a very small town, and I don’t know the meaning of the word quit. I just simply lack the knowledge, resources, skill, and education to transform this budding enterprise with unlimited upside into the vehicle it could become for my family, my employees, and the community as a whole.
And this is why I—and Asheville—need you to admit me to the Master of Entrepreneurship Program at WCU. Of my ten clients, three produce products with huge potential upside, the energy, the commitment, and the desire to become huge enterprises that could comfortably support themselves and their families while paying good wages for meaningful employment right here in Asheville. But they lack the knowledge, resources, skill, and education to transform their businesses.
And I—their accountant and trusted adviser—lack the same to guide them through the scale up that will not only transform their businesses and their lives but the entire community from a collection of highly creative, artistic, motivated, skilled, educated weird waitstaff…into a world class home of a well paid, driven, fulfilled creative class driving the financial success of the entire region, thus securing Asheville’s current Golden Age of Weird for years to come.
I will use the Entrepreneurship Program to two ends. First, I will build Abundance into what I know it can become: A solid tax and accounting firm with a full roster of high quality clientele from the creative class I am helping to sustain, a nice downtown office with a few happy fulfilled well paid employees (I am a huge supporter of the B Corp movement), and a bottom line that comfortably supports my family. I need help learning the skills offered by the Entrepreneurship Program, especially seeking capital, avoiding cash flow problems, properly targeted efficient marketing, managing employees, and how to create and follow a good financial plan.
Second, as I learn these skills, Abundance will quickly begin to offer these services to existing clients who need them now and to future clients who will bring high quality fulfilling employment to this weird workers’ desert, so full of labor potential wasted on low paying service industry jobs.
I know these people because I AM these people. I’ve applied for various accounting and bookkeeping positions only to realize that I’d make more money driving for Uber (which I still occasionally do when possible to make ends meet) or taking a job as a waiter. It takes time to bring in new clients, but with two children I still have to put food on the table. I have chosen this route and committed completely.
But there’s a lyric in a Grateful Dead song (Fire on the Mountain) that haunts me daily: “The more that you give, the more it will take….to the thin line beyond which you really can’t fake.” Sure, I have a Bachelor’s Degree (in English from a high quality school, Wittenberg University), but I realize that while that degree has never led to any job opportunities in journalism as I had envisioned, I did learn during the course of obtaining that degree a certain discipline to my thinking process and to living my life. (I also learned how to write really well).
But the skills I’m drawing from now are self taught and rough around the edges. I taught myself Quickbooks. I learned accounting with free online courses and by just doing it. I was already an excellent tax preparer before Block, but that course and all the free courses I took while I was there made me one of the best. And now I find myself once more at the thin line beyond which I really can’t fake. And the Master of Entrepreneurship Program is how I will move that line once again. And do my part to sustain Asheville’s Golden Age of Weird indefinitely.