Benjamin Russell’s Wildcat Entrepreneur Academy transforms high school students into business owners through an intensive program culminating in a “Shark Tank”-like proposal to a panel of investors, played by community leaders. 

While some students use the experience as a learning curve and apply skills to everyday life, academics and future work, others have risen to the challenge and turned their ideas into a full-blown working operation.

One such example is BRHS grad and rising University of Alabama junior Cameron Tolbert with his car detailing business, Tolbert’s Elite Mobile Detailing.

“When I first went through the (Wildcat) Entrepreneur Academy, I had an idea for tire shine on ties but that fell through the cracks,” Tolbert said. “I talked to Jacob Meacham and the (WEA) board and they allowed me to use the money (earned from my business proposal) to start my detailing business. And it has grown dramatically.”

Tolbert is in his fourth year operating the business, which he does mostly during the summer months because the rest of the year he is focused on academics at Alabama. With his return home to Alexander City early due to the coronavirus pandemic shutting down schools, Tolbert got an early start to his seasonal workload.

“I am kicking off my summer pretty good right now,” he said. “I thought because of COVID-19 it would be a slow start but business is going good and I’m expecting more growth this year.”

The next step in Tolbert’s business growth is to launch his fully mobile vehicle unit to travel to clients without the need of water or electricity and have an equipped detailing operation on the go.

“That’s my project for this summer,” Tolbert said. “I got a vehicle for that kind of infrastructure and I’m getting all my equipment in there and setting up a water tank, which is the hardest part; it’s a little tricky. But I am trying to provide as much convenience for the customers and deliver the best results.”

Tolbert’s two key takeaways from his experience and his strongest advice are to not be afraid to try something new and to always be prepared.

“I’ve done a lot of things in my business to try to increase customer flow and I’ll be the first to tell you some of those just didn’t work out,” he said. “But the bottom line is sometimes they do work out and sometimes they work out really well.”

One thing that didn’t quite take off as he wanted was a monthly membership but Tolbert said he plans to try it again and alter the way it’s marketed.

“Some of it fell on me and I may actually try again and see where it goes,” he said. “I was offering for a set price. You got your car washed twice a month, two basic washes, and it was a little cheaper than two individual times. My idea was to keep some type of steady business flowing in.”

After discussing his approach with other detailers who use the same model, Tolbert realized it was his strategy that needed to change in terms of advertising and explanation of the deal.

A marketing strategy that did kind of fall into his lap ended up being very beneficial for his business. Various neighborhoods, especially in the Lake Martin area, communicate with their neighbors via a point person or email blast. Being at the right place at the right time, Tolbert took advantage of one of those methods of communication and got many new customers out of it.

“It seems like a lot of people know about your business but there are always a lot of untouched people out there,” Tolbert said. “I’m going to reach out more (to neighborhoods) to see if they have similar systems to get information out there. The more people you know, the more you increase your chances of getting clientele.”

Planning ahead and being prepared for any situation has been the driving force not only in Tolbert’s business but also in his life in general.

“I’ve learned that preparation is everything,” he said. “No matter what you do, if you prepare well, most of the time you receive good results. This has spilled into my academics and my life — to always prepare and plan ahead because you never know what obstacle will be next.”

The coronavirus pandemic is the perfect example.

“Nobody expected this to happen but that’s something you always have to keep in the back of your head,” Tolbert said. “As a business owner, if something happens where I can’t continue to run my business, how will I continue to make money? Do I have a savings fund put up?”

This translates into his everyday work as well where he overly prepares and checks his equipment and stock before heading to a job.

“I get in the habit of going through all my products and equipment and make sure it works every evening,” Tolbert said. “If you wake up and go and realize you’re out of something or you forgot your rags in the dryer because you washed them the night before or your pressure washer isn’t working — can’t do anything without those. You’re costing yourself time and your client time. And neither of those is a good idea.”

On a weekly basis, Tolbert could likely detail an average of 10 to 15 cars, depending on the service they’re receiving. He will recruit help from one of two friends if he gets overwhelmed with a lot of appointments in one day.

As with any business, Tolbert has learned to make money, often owners have to spend money.

“It’s constant money in to make more money,” he said. “Two weeks ago I got a new vacuum cleaner and am looking at investing in a carpet extractor. (Monday) my pressure washer stopped, but thankfully when I bought it I got a warranty.”

Investment is not always just about equipment either.

“I’m looking at doing a class on ceramic coating products,” Tolbert said. “It’s not a tangible thing you can touch but it’s about the knowledge you get from being there and learning something from people who do what you do. It’s good to increase your knowledge and it’s a reinvestment back into the business.”

Amy Passaretti is a staff writer with the Alexander City Outlook.