When Bill Zengel bought his daughter a basic video camera for her eighth birthday, he had no idea that he was starting a business that would grow to become what he now calls "The Disney of Education."
But what started as a extra-curricular activity that Zengel pursued on weekends off from his job as a writer and producer at an advertising agency is now a highly successful business that brings digital arts programs to community colleges, summer camps, career fairs and anywhere where groups of engaged and interested kids gather. It also provided seasonal employment to 50-60 people last summer and is expected to have work for up to 100 this summer - thanks to help from a UCEDC SBA microloan of $17,500 leveraging $50,000 in total project costs.
As business has taken off, Zengel has learned the importance of two small words: cash flow. Black Rocket's high season is summer time when camps and day programs are looking for engaging and educational options for their youngsters. Consequently, more funding is needed in summer time for salaries. Technology is at the heart of what the firm does, so it's also important that they have cutting edge equipment - another ongoing expense.
After taking an entrepreneur training class, Zengel and his partner Richard Ginn, a former high school teacher, knew that they needed a loan to improve their cash flow and take advantage of opportunities. Armed with a list of more than dozen lenders, they hit a dozen or so banks first. "They really weren't interested in a young business," recalls Zengel.
Ellen McHenry, UCEDC's Director of Finance Programs, was one of their last calls. "We were just stunned," Zengel says. "We were so delighted at her professionalism and her interest in us." That's not to say it was easy. "I went in for what I thought would be a relaxed two-minute meeting, and she started peppering me with questions."Far from putting him off, the experience was "invigorating." Zengel says he could "see her care, concern and her professionalism and I admired that. Was she being hard on us? Yes, but it was for our own good." This initial meeting led to several intensive technical assistance sessions with UCEDC to work on financial statement support in their business plan.
Growing the business and the next generation of innovators
Black Rocket has a small full-time staff, and they are developing a growing group of pre-qualified trainers in New Jersey and other contiguous states with plans to move into Georgia, Texas and Florida. The firm contracts with these prequalified trainer/educators as they need them. Many of their part-time employees are college students or teachers and quite a few "go on to high paying lucrative jobs in cutting edge industries," like video game software development, says Zengel.
Zengel believes Black Rocket is one of the largest - if not the largest - digital arts provider in the state and sees growth throughout the region and the rest of the country. He hopes UCEDC will be there with him as well: "We see Ellen as an invaluable resource and we plan on staying in as close touch as she'll allow." (Listen to what Ellen McHenry has to say about UCEDC's relationship with Black Rocket in this short video.)
Find out more about Black Rocket at www.blackrocket.tv