Hard-pressed success

For some students, figuring out what to do after graduation is a big question mark. For students like Will Correll '13 of Memphis, Tennessee, it is the chance to focus completely on opportunities that have been waiting on the sidelines.

Will CorrellThis budding entrepreneur has more concepts than time to work them all out. But this May, he will be completely focused on a new business venture, Olde Virginia Cidery.

"The craft hard-cider industry is an off-shoot of the craft beer trend, but it is growing much faster than craft beer. Cider also has local and historical aspects to it that I really like, so now seems like the right time to start this business."

During a long December weekend, Correll competed against dozens of other students in START! Peninsula, a small-business incubator hosted by Christopher Newport University. Friday afternoon, every participant gave a one-minute pitch. Correll was one of only ten to be chosen to fully develop his business. With help from a team of local businesspeople, Correll worked on a marketing strategy, an engineering plan, and pricing and distribution models. Sunday afternoon, he had five minutes to pitch to a panel of judges, then answered their questions. In the end, he was one of three students chosen to receive $10,000 seed money for his business.

Any successful entrepreneur will tell Correll that building a business is a lot of hard work, and the competition was no different. "I ended up working about 60 hours that weekend. My nightcap, after I sent my team home at 2:00 a.m., was to go to IHOP and work for another three hours."

The competition is usually geared toward technology, so Correll's business plan stood out as particularly innovative. "A lot of people were creating apps and some of them were terrific, but the cidery attracted a lot of attention. That definitely helped."

"I didn't expect to win. Of the ten finalists, seven were great ideas that should be implemented. I think it came down to the fact that $10,000 really will go a lot farther for some of our ideas than for the others."

This was not Correll's first time in pitching a business idea. Thanks to the Center for Entrepreneurship and Political Economy, which also sponsored his involvement in the START! competition, last year Correll faced a panel of Hampden-Sydney alumni giving students feedback on pitching investors.

"I was torn to shreds. We weren't ready, but it was time to present. I really learned a lot and I think that is why I did so well at the competition. That experience showed me the level of detail and questioning potential investors expect when you are pitching an idea."

Correll will get the chance to present to more potential investors thanks to the START! Peninsula program and he is in the process of deciding which Peninsula city will be the base for his business.

The Peninsula region is perfect for his business, says Correll: "This is the time to do it, the place to do it. Cider has historical and cultural significance in this region. Hard cider is a part of the craft brew explosion-a small part but a growing part."

He has recruited a brewer who has developed a proprietary recipe for the cider. The flavor is on par with brands already in the market but it features a unique ingredient that helps differentiate it from the competition.

As the summer gets nearer, he is looking to gear up. "I am putting together three packages for potential investors. A big investment will get us up and running full-scale with statewide distribution. It's a big dream, but considering how quickly the industry is growing right now, a very bold investor might see it as being worth it. Usually with something like this you want to start smaller, but with sales up 60 percent this year, you don't want to miss that."

The START! Peninsula organizers will give Correll and the other participants more opportunities to pitch investors and Correll is looking for more on his own. How much investment money he raises will be up to how persuasive he can be.

Correll's head is swimming with business ideas, and Olde Virginia Cidery is likely just the first of many he will pursue. Though right now he is focused on graduation, every free minute he is thinking about the business he hopes to be running right after he crosses the stage.