Nurturing fledgling businesses: Launch program aids startups

photo Jacobo Salazar Jr., owner of Kickstand Bicycles, works on replacing a tire and repairing the brakes on a customer's bike in St. Elmo, Tenn. Salazar salvages and refurbishes as much as possible in order to keep prices down for his customers.

LEARN MOREWhat: Launch business classesWhen: 10-week courses start the week of March 10Where: Northside Neighborhood House, Glass House Collective, Bethlehem Community CenterCost: $100Contact: 423-523-9307Source: Launch

Jacobo Salazar Jr.'s birthday gift just keeps on giving.

The recent Chattanooga transplant was given tuition for a 10-week course offered by Chattanooga nonprofit Launch last fall to learn how to start a business, and he's still reaping the benefits four months later.

"Kickstand Bicycles has made over $300," he said. "And every now and then I'll take a little pinch out of that, we'll go out to eat or I'll buy a bike accessory for me."

Salazar used the course to transform his fledgling business, Kickstand Bicycles, from a hobby into a money-making venture. The St. Elmo resident repairs, sells, refurbishes and trades bicycles from the garage in his home. He's aiming to reach a demographic often ignored by high-end bike shops.

"There's no one really rich in St. Elmo," he said. "So a lot of the bikes I work with are what we call 'toy store bikes.' They're poorly put together and not worth much. If you were to take them to a high-end shop, they'd tell you you should buy a new bike. But not everyone has $1,200 for a bike. So I'm doing repairs on these $90, $100 bikes and trying to charge a reasonable rate."

Salazar is one of 108 people who've completed Launch's entrepreneur class over the years -- and a new course starts the week of March 10 and is open to anyone, Launch program director Gina Soltau said.

"We cover everything from the legal aspects of starting business, the financial, how to go out and get your customer, marketing and branding," she said. "Just about everything."

Unlike past courses, this year the class will culminate in a community pitch in June, Soltau added, with a prize package worth $20,000 in cash and business services. It's the kind of prize that could help grow a business from $300 in revenue to $30,000.

Launch focuses on underserved parts of the city and emphasizes the power of entrepreneurship to pull people out of poverty.

"I want them to have a little piece of mind that the are able to change their life circumstances if they want to," Soltau said. "We empower them with skills, with a support group and community to help them do that."

Salazar said he'd encourage anyone even remotely interested in business to take the course, although he added that it's not easy.

"If you're not wholehearted about it, you'll be gone by the second week," he said. "We started off with 17 or 20 and by the third week we dwindled to 12, then 9, then 8. But if you want to succeed, then go for it. Because it really is a streamlined business class for poor people. I mean, I'm broke. I have a little bit of savings, but c'mon. If you have a dream, then take Launch."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or