Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, January 10, 2020

LVL Up helping turn ideas into businesses

Standefer-Smith’s goal: Offer vital tools for growth, success

During flu season four years ago, a stranger knocked on Amanda Dillard’s door late at night. The woman and her children had been diagnosed with the flu, and she was seeking one of the natural remedies she’d heard Dillard made for her family.

Dillard could not say no to sick children and gave the woman a jar of her elderberry syrup. From there, word about Dillard’s syrup spread rapidly, and more and more people began showing up at her door.

Dillard had started as a wife and mother researching how to raise a naturally healthy family, but now she stood at the cusp of an opportunity to turn her homemade concoction into a business.

There was just one catch: Dillard was a nature lover and maker, not a businesswoman. So, she turned to attorney Whitney Standefer-Smith, the sole practitioner of Local Venture Legal, PLCC, for help with starting a company.

Standefer-Smith launched LVL at the beginning of 2019 to provide legal counsel and assistance to startups and small businesses in Chattanooga. Before that, she’d been the director of a Legal Aid of East Tennessee program called We Mean Business, which offered free transactional legal services to businesses owned by women, minorities and veterans with low income.

“I want local businesses to have every tool they need to grow and be sustainable,” Standefer-Smith says. “Chattanooga has a wonderful entrepreneurial ecosystem, and the most successful startups are the ones that have taken advantage of the most resources.”

Through LVL, Standefer-Smith strives to make a positive impact on the local economy. From her office in the INCubator on Chattanooga’s North Shore, she has provided nearly 60 local businesses and nonprofits with the full range of transactional business law services, including structuring, compliance, contracts, leases, taxation, employment and more.

“Whitney explained all the steps I needed to take to become a legitimate business in simple terms. She even provided a checklist and links,” Dillard points out.

Dillard is now the founder and owner of That Elderberry Lady, which makes elderberry syrup, infused honeys and herbal tea blends using organic and locally sourced ingredients.

With 15 stores in Chattanooga and more throughout the country carrying her products, Dillard has turned her idea for a homemade syrup for her family into a successful venture – and she credits Standefer-Smith with helping her to thrive.

“I can’t put into words how much Whitney has helped me,” Dillard acknowledges.

With one year of assisting local businesses and nonprofits under her belt, Standefer-Smith is advancing her firm’s mission with the creation of a new business law program called LVL Up.

LVL Up grants small local businesses with “demonstrated need” access to the firm’s legal services at a reduced rate or no cost. The idea is to disrupt the legal market by creating a dedicated space for businesses to grow.

“LVL Up takes me back to my We Mean Business roots,” Standefer-Smith says. “The majority of the clients I worked with at a reduced rate needed a more tailored assistance package based on their circumstances.”

To qualify for LVL Up, business owners must submit a program application along with their most recent tax return to LVL.

They also must commit to free business counseling with the Tennessee Small Business Development Center and have their counselor submit a recommendation on their behalf to the program.

“I want to give local entrepreneurs their best possible roadmap toward long-term sustainability and success,” Standefer-Smith adds.

The criteria for demonstrating need will depend on each businesses’ unique circumstances. “The financial situations of any two businesses are never the same and can’t be compared,” Standefer-Smith continues. “By requiring the application, a tax return and a recommendation from a business counselor, I can obtain a comprehensive snapshot of that business’ situation and make a tailored offer based on that information.

“I imagine it’s a lot like being a financial aid officer at a college.”

LVL Up provides the same practice areas offered to LVL’s regular clients. Standefer-Smith says the amount of the discount depends on the needs of the applicant. In most situations, she says the lowest LVL Up clients can expect to pay is $50 per hour, which is $200 less than Standefer-Smith’s normal rate.

(LVL Up is prepared to offer pro bono services in certain circumstances.)

Although the Small Business Administration defines a small business as having less than 500 employees, or less than $5 million in net annual revenue, most of the businesses with which Standefer-Smith is working are sole proprietorships. However, they are typically businesses that will require employees in the near future in order to grow, she says.

This makes the business counseling with the Business Development Center a critical component of the services LVL Up provides.

The TSBDC is a network of certified professional business counselors located in Chattanooga. The organization provides entrepreneurs with services designed to enable them to compete locally and globally.

Lynn Chesnutt, managing director of the Business Development Center, says the one-on-one counseling the network provides covers the entire life cycle of a business at no cost. However, the network’s support goes even further into the mechanics of how to operate a company.

“We facilitate over 130 seminars covering funding, bookkeeping, marketing, government contracting and other topics,” he says. “And we have volunteers from the legal, accounting, marketing and other professions that donate their time.”

Standefer-Smith has firsthand knowledge of the benefits of TSBDC’s counseling, as she received it while launching LVL.

“As with any business owner, I’m responsible for not just the services I provide but also the underlying business: its structure, infrastructure, branding, marketing, budget, bookkeeping, accounting and anything else you can imagine,” she notes.

“The biggest challenge I faced was balancing my mission with the need to make a profit. It took me a long time to embrace the fact that I won’t do anyone any good if I don’t spare a care for my own sustainability.”

Standefer-Smith says the TSBDC excelled at not only telling her what she needed to hear about her business but also at helping her create solutions.

Eager to pass on what she’d received, Standefer-Smith created LVL Up, which will not only provide a formal mechanism by which she can pursue her mission without compromising her regular business, but also allow her clients to receive the same benefits she received from the Business Development Center.

“Knowing the potential ripple effect my clients’ success will have in the community is part of the inspiration to ensure they’re built on a solid foundation and are given access to all the right resources,” she says.

Although Standefer-Smith has developed a practice of assisting small businesses with their legal needs, she originally intended to become an environmental lawyer. But while at Vermont Law School, she realized part of her passion for conservation stemmed from her belief that it’s a pivotal economic issue.

“I love the Aristotle quote, ‘Nature does nothing uselessly,’” she points out. “Nature works in harmony to provide us with the ecosystem services we need to live. While our technology is constantly improving so it can imitate some of those services, using that technology is expensive. But within conservation, there’s a natural affinity for growing local businesses rather than attracting and retaining large corporations.

“Supporting local business also has other benefits to the local economy, such as diversity of jobs, more equitable spread of opportunity, higher retention of local dollars and greater local loyalty.”

After returning to Chattanooga, Standefer-Smith found little demand for a specialization in conservation. However, she did see a great need for help for local business owners.

With this in mind, Standefer-Smith began working with Merrill Lynch as a Series 7 and Series 66 licensed financial adviser, specializing in working with business owners to balance their personal and business finances.

When Sheri Fox, executive director of Legal Aid of East Tennessee, asked Standefer-Smith to build the We Mean Business program, she jumped at the opportunity, even though leaving the comfort of Merrill Lynch for a project with only two years of guaranteed funding was a risk.

At the end of those two years, Standefer-Smith took another leap to see what she could accomplish without Legal Services Corporation constraints or grant funding strings. “I also wanted to better incorporate my united philosophy of local conservation and local economy,” she says.

Now Standefer-Smith is positioned to help get businesses like Gable Eaton’s TeqTouch off the ground.

Inspired through personal experience to create UTouch, a wearable stylus that keeps users of public touch screens safe, Eaton says Standefer-Smith helped him to scale the biggest mountain he faced: striking an operating agreement with his partner.

“My current agreement is vastly different from what I had before Whitney looked at it, all to my benefit as the founder of my company and the owner of my intellectual property,” Eaton says. “She made sure I had protections in place that would keep me in the seat of the decision-making process for my company and its direction.

“Her crafting of my agreement gave me great relief.”

Eaton can look forward to continuing legal support from LVL, as Standefer-Smith provides her clients with support each step along their journey to success. In the near future, for example, she’ll be helping Dillard fashion wholesale agreements for the stores that will be selling her products.

“Not only will that help to make sure she’s on the same page with all the shops with which she does business, it will also set her up with the right business habits and mechanisms when an opportunity with a larger store comes along,” Standefer-Smith points out.

Eventually, Standefer-Smith will also be able to provide advanced tax counsel and a certain amount of tax preparation to LVL’s clients, as she’s been accepted to Villanova University’s graduate tax program and will begin pursuing her LL.M. in taxation this month.

“This will be especially relevant both as businesses scale and grow, as well as when creating succession plans,” she says.

As Standefer-Smith expands her services, she says she’ll remain committed to providing the entrepreneurial community with affordable legal services during the startup and early stage of their business.

“In my heart of hearts, I would love to see LVL Up become a model for other firms to use to provide local businesses with assistance. When I think about how much I was able to do in one year with almost no manpower or resources, I can only imagine what larger firms could accomplish for the local economy.”