Raven Guitars, Icy Straits Lumber win first Path to Prosperity contest

An acoustic guitar maker and a small saw mill are the winners of the inaugural Path to Prosperity contest.

The business plan competition for Southeast Alaska entrepreneurs was sponsored by Haa Aanì, the community development arm of Sealaska Corp., as well as the Nature Conservancy.

The winning entrepreneurs will receive up to $40,000 in seed money for consulting services to develop their businesses ideas.

Two of the 12 finalists for the Path to Prosperity contest were guitar makers.

“Got the news that I made the top 12 and I saw the list of people and I saw Tongass Guitars, and I remember thinking that was my second choice of the name,” recalled Kevin Skeek of Hoonah, co-owner of Raven Guitars. “And I was like, who is this guy!? How did this leak out!? Who do I have to!?”

Skeek eventually joined forces with Steve Helgeson, the other guitar maker in the contest. They chose Raven Guitars as the name for their business. Helgeson, who’s from Wrangell, says they bonded at a small business boot camp the finalists attended in October.

“It was obvious that we shared a passion for guitar building, and had a common vision about guitar construction, and design, and aesthetic,” Helgeson said. “We also shared a passion for natural resource sustainability, and social sustainability and community sustainability. So really, we just had so much in common that it was a no brainer.”

The company aims to use Southeast Alaska timber – mostly Sitka spruce, yellow and red cedar – to manufacture high quality acoustic guitars. They have a few prototypes, which Helgeson says sound quite nice.

“It’s a very bright and strident sound,” said Helgeson. “In my mind it’s similar to a mahogany guitar.”

(Video courtesy Haa Aanì)

The other Path to Prosperity winner also uses Southeast forest products. Wes Tyler and his wife Sue own Icy Straits Lumber and Milling in Hoonah. For years, they’ve been trying to expand their business into cabin construction and home building supplies. For the contest, Wes Tyler says the company rebranded that portion of its business as Alaska Legacy Homes and Products.

“Through that we’re going be able to open up our markets, develop log cabins or stick frame cabins with log features and things like that,” he said. “We’ll also be able to have packages of the different kinds of things that go into homes, like a siding package, or a paneling package, or trim package.”

Like the guys from Raven Guitars, Tyler says he prefers to work with wood from the Tongass National Forest.

“You can make anything you want to out of it and it’s the best around,” Tyler said.

Path to Prosperity sponsors Haa Aanì and the Nature Conservancy received 59 proposals for the 2013 contest. The twelve finalists were set up with consulting services, including the small business boot camp and help writing a business plan. The winners were selected based on the quality of their plan.

Haa Aanì President and CEO Russell Dick says the contest has three main goals.

“Jobs, conservation, sustainability,” Dick said. “That’s what it’s about – being able to create a platform for employment and lifestyle in rural communities, because rural communities drive the culture of our state in my mind and we want to be able to support that.”

So what’s next for the winners?

Helgeson says Raven Guitars will use the financial award for more training, as well as marketing, branding, and imaging. They hope to open a manufacturing shop in Wrangell within the year.

“We anticipate that in our first year we’re going to try to complete 44 guitars,” he said.

Within five years he hopes to have about 10 full time employees and be manufacturing 500 to 1,000 guitars per year.

Tyler says the plan for using Alaska Legacy Homes’ award is similar. He says they’re thankful for the consulting services offered through the contest.

“We’ve had experience where the rubber meets the road a whole bunch,” said Tyler. “But where it really counts in trying to figure out things in a business fashion, why that was extremely valuable.”

The Path to Prosperity is a four year project. The Nature Conservancy and Haa Aanì will accept proposals for this year’s contest starting in March. The 2013 winners were announced at the Juneau Economic Development Council’s third annual Innovation Summit.

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