By Richard Anguiano
Adam Williams said he first thought about running his own business when he was 16 and a student at Belleview High. Now 29, Williams and his wife, Shanna, 30, realized that goal in February when they bought a Creative Colors International franchise from the retiring owner.
Entrepreneurship is practically in his family’s blood, according to Williams, who said he picked up business lessons working on the family fish farm, helping with his sister’s tanning salons and helping his brother repair and detail his cars.
He said he tried real estate and other options, but didn’t find what he was seeking until getting a job working for a Creative Colors International franchisee three years ago. CCI offers on-site repair of leather, vinyl and other materials, and Williams gets much of his work from local car dealerships.
“CCI’s kind of the perfect blend,” Williams said. “I get to work on cars and run a small company. It’s a beautiful thing.”
He is now setting his sights on a venture capital business within 20 years. In the meantime, he said, he has developed a two-year training program aimed at educating and inspiring entrepreneurs. The program includes lessons in various aspects of running a business and includes a path for the would-be business owner to become debt-free within 18 months, he said.
“We don’t have employees,” Williams said. “We have future partners. We try to surround ourselves with entrepreneurial-minded people.”
Gabe Pierannunzi doesn’t have a driver’s license yet, but he’s not afraid to take the wheel of his own company. The homes-schooled Ocalan, who recently turned 17, launched Appuccino, a mobile applications venture, a month ago.
The fledgling firm is set to take up residence May 1 in the Power Plant, the business incubator of the Ocala/Marion County Chamber & Economic Partnership.
Ryan Lilly, the CEP’s director of business creation, said he first met Pierannunzi at a networking group for information technology professionals and was impressed to see someone that young at the gathering.
“It was very apparent that he understood his product and his technology very well,” Lilly recalled.
From there, Pierannunzi inquired about the Power Plant, in which start-up companies selected for the program get access to technical help from the Small Business Development Center at the University of North Florida, among other agencies, along with access to CEP networking opportunities. Participants have to pay rent during their residency.
Lilly said he took Pierannunzi on a tour of the Power Plant and encouraged him to apply for the program. From there, the teen gave a presentation to the Power Plant’s admissions committee.
“It was fun,” Pierannunzi said. “I really enjoy presentations.”
Philip R. Geist, area director of the Small Business Development Center at UNF, was among those on the committee hearing Pierannunzi’s successful pitch.
“He came across as at least 10 or 15 years older than he is,” Geist said.
Pierannunzi is just one of a number of Marion County residents under the age of 30 trying their hands at entrepreneurship. Finding data on young entrepreneurs is not easy. For one thing, federal law prohibits Geist and others at the SBDC from asking the ages of prospective small business owners seeking help.
Geist said, however, that anecdotal evidence suggests more people younger than 30 are interested in going into business for themselves. He said he has worked recently with several clients who have not yet graduated Marion Technical Institute, the public school system’s career education facility.
“They’re saying ‘When I graduate, this business will need to support me,’ which is interesting,” Geist said. “And, in one case, someone is saying ‘This business will need to pay for my college because I’m going to go on and take some formalized classes.’ ”
Increasingly, he said, the local SBDC office is seeing clients who appear to be around 30 or younger and who are going into business, many on a consultant basis, to sell skills that have been downsized or outsourced — about three dozen per year now, compared to fewer than a dozen 10 years ago.
For his part, Pierannunzi said he sees a “gap in the market” for a company that focuses equally on design and implementation of mobile applications. He said he is more interested in the entrepreneur’s path than the track of many of his peers.
“I look at everybody else and they go to college, which gets them in debt, obviously,” Pierannunzi said. “Then, when they get out of college, the jobs are becoming fewer by the second. That’s not really the path I want to pursue.”
Nick Floyd’s college education at UCF had a lot to do with his starting a business. To help pay for his studies, Floyd, a graduate of Trinity Catholic High School, got a job at a test-preparation company in Orlando. He said he quickly realized a demand in his hometown. Floyd opened Top Performance Tutoring in June. Between his studies at UCF and commuting three days a week to and from Orlando, he now books 22 hours per week of one-on-one tutoring in the evenings at his office on the third floor of the Alarion Bank building in downtown Ocala.
Floyd, 21, is set to graduate from UCF in the coming weeks, but said “this is what I want to do for the foreseeable future.”
“This is the busiest we’ve been yet,” he added. “The May and June SATs and ACTs are coming up. That’s a very common time for people to come take their tests.”
Floyd said he drew upon his business minor and a “decent amount” of his own funding.
“The start-up costs weren’t particularly high for this because there’s no inventory,” he said.
Tranzon Driggers subleases the office space to Floyd. He said the classroom spares him time and fuel costs traveling to appointments and is “a good environment for studying for these tests, which can be really stressful.”
With the business growing, Floyd said he hopes to hire a scheduler and two more tutors soon. The latter need will take more time to fill, according to Floyd, who said he scored a perfect 1600 on his SAT.
“As far as getting a perfect score, I didn’t do a lot of preparation going into the test,” he said. “I actually had to study the test and learn all the strategies after the fact because I wanted to do this.
“In order to bring on more tutors for test prep, I need to teach myself how to teach other people to teach it to other people,” Floyd added, laughing.
So what are the qualities young entrepreneurs bring to the business community? Geist said he has noticed among younger clients coming to SBDC a level of maturity “not evident in the general population.” He said he also has noticed a high level of technical skill.
Pierannunzi, with whom Geist and SBDC will work at the Power Plant, would appear to be a case in point. According to his mother, Suzanne, Pierannunzi was able to operate the family CD player at 2 and designed a home computer network at 5.
“I didn’t understand a word he was saying, but he knew how it would function and where all the wires would go,” she said. “He’s always had this imagination, an incredible creative mind.”
When he got a few years older, Pierannunzi put on his entrepreneur’s hat for the first time, hawking digital photo shoots to his neighbors. He also began writing code.
“It was really, really basic HTML when I was about 9, but I didn’t start going hardcore into Objective-C and iPhone stuff until I was probably about 16,” he said.
Pierannunzi got an internship with Seven Gun Games, a mobile start-up in Ocala focusing on gaming apps. Then he came up with his plan for Appuccino.
“It’s only a month old, but I’ve learned more in this month than I have in all my years of home-school and going to public high school (at Forest),” he said. “It’s been a really educational experience.”
Suzanne Pierannunzi said she is excited for her son, but a bit nervous as well.
“He’s 17 and he’s immersing himself into this adult world,” she said. “And, you know, adults aren’t always nice, but kids aren’t always nice either. You worry no matter where they are.”
Also keeping a keen eye on things is Nathan Pierannunzi, 10, who said big brother Gabe is already teaching him editing and other skills.
“I think it’s really cool that he’s doing all that,” Nathan said. “I’m like, ‘Man, I want to learn that.’ ”
Lilly said nurturing people like Pierannunzi fits in with one of the CEP’s goals: keeping young talent in Marion County.
“I think the community saw this as an opportunity to help a young person create a start-up in Ocala and pursue a future here,” he said.