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Young Morgan County entrepreneurs compete, get business advice

By Michael Wetzel  

For the Enquirer  

Jesus Martinez’s plans for operating a lawn care business by offering better communication with customers impressed the three-judge panel and captured him the win Thursday in the second annual Decatur Morgan CEO competition, modeled after “Shark Tank” TV show. 

The Decatur Morgan CEO program provides education aimed at helping prepare young people to become better entrepreneurs or entrepreneurial thinkers and contribute to economic development. 

The panel of judges at Thursday’s competition posed as investors and potential investors evaluating the business ideas the students wished to develop. Some students had already begun businesses, while others were receiving input on business concepts. 

Martinez, a Brewer High School senior, said the graying of America and a busy society will be key components to the success of his company, Green Aconite. 

“People aren’t taking the time to maintain their lawns like they would like them to be,” he said. “My company will provide good, reliable service and have good communication with (its customers).” 

He said he has worked with his father’s lawn care business the past few years and plans to start small and add employees as his workload increases. 

Panelist Tom Counts, executive vice president and co-founder of 3-GIS, a Decatur-based fiber network management company, urged Martinez to talk with real estate agents and homeowner associations to capture a larger targeted market. He also suggested that Martinez invest in a credit/debit card service such as Square to better serve customers. 

Panelist Robbie Laney, chief operating officer of Magnolia River, said finding labor could be a major challenge for Martinez as his business grows. He also suggested that Martinez offer discounts for customers who provide his business with favorable online reviews. 

Kenya Congress, a panel member and owner of Royalty Funnel Cakes in Decatur, said she was concerned about Martinez’s labor costs and how many workers he might need in the future. 

Martinez said he hopes to have 10 employees in five years. He presently is the company’s lone employee. He won $100 for having the winning presentation. 

Sidney Manasco, a Hartselle High senior, presented plans to open Opal + Grace Boutique. Decatur Heritage Christian Academy senior Ty Tyson pitched his idea of a custom-designed sock company, and Decatur Heritage senior Juliana Hudry described her plans for a short-term handmade soap company. 

All of the students said they plan to target their customers through social media platforms Instagram and Facebook. Manasco said she also will launch her online business May 1 at shopopalgrace.com. 

She said she plans to pursue bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business at the University of Alabama at Birmingham while operating her online boutique specializing in affordable and up-to-date fashions. She plans to do her own photography, editing and marketing. 

“Our customer service will set us apart,” she said. “We want everyone to feel beautiful.” 

Tyson, who said he plans to major in business at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, said his Let’s Talk Socks company would provide quality socks and generate conversations. 

His planned retail price is $16 a pair, with his cost of manufacturing and shipping being $6. His products will be made in the United States, he said. 

He sported a pair of North Carolina State University socks during his presentation. 

He said he hopes to sell 500 pairs of crew socks in his first year, and at least 5,000 in five years. He wants to expand to ankle socks and later into T-shirts. 

“Once people wear them, that’ll also be my advertising,” he said. 

Congress urged him to reach out to schools, sports teams, churches and businesses to increase his customer base. 

Hudry, who is headed to the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, where she plans to become a trauma surgeon for the Army, is selling her Scents & Sensibility soaps to raise at least $500 for the Circle Ranch in Danville for children in need. She said her bars will sell for $5 each or three for $12.99. She plans to have her products in some of the small boutiques in Decatur. 

Laney said Hudry’s product faces stiff competition and suggested she change the name to “Charity Soaps” and stress that 100% of the net proceeds would go toward the nonprofit organization. 

“My business is short-term,” Hudry said. “I want it to be classy and perfect.” 

Laney said he was impressed with all of the young entrepreneurs’ presentations. 

“It was an awesome example of entrepreneurship and what the county has to offer,” Laney said. “They were all very deserving.” 

Counts reminded the students most startups fail but had an encouraging word to share. 

“You guys are all tier 1 and are going to be successful,” he said. “Eighty percent don’t succeedm but 80 percent don’t do the (planning) work you’ve done.” 

Decatur Morgan CEO facilitator Joy Laney said 13 students were accepted into the program in 2020 but some opted out, partially because of the pandemic. 

“We met every school day and visited with businesses a couple days a week,” she said. “We started when school began in August. The change in the kids is phenomenal. Some had unbelievable growth.  

It’s not just about owning and running a business: The program teaches soft skills, how to look somebody in the eye, how to give a proper handshake, how to dress for business.” 

Congress hosted the students’ end-of-year trade show from 9 a.m. to noon May 1 at Royalty Funnel Cakes at 1614 Beltline Road SW, when the students showcased their products and services to the public.