Entrepreneurs Share How They've Grown Their Small Businesses
This article is published with permission from the author.
“Small Biz, Big Talk”: Business Planning
By Karen Kuzsel
Creating and evolving your small business into one that generates significant revenue, more than a million dollars a year, begins with step one: Business Planning.
The first of the new four-part digital program series “Small Biz, Big Talk”, created for Meeting Professionals International (MPI) Independent and Small Business Owners (ISBO), aired Thursday, February 17. The roundtable discussion featured two entrepreneurs and a business strategist who agreed that the first question to ponder when starting a business is “Why do I want to do this?”
Sheila Murphy was a young widow with three children under eight years old. She wanted to rejoin the work force without sacrificing her family time, “so I did what most women do under the circumstances: I started my own business,” she said. Together with two friends, also moms-who-wanted-to-return-to-work-part time, they built FlexProfessionals, a staffing agency, on the premise that a large pool of women with untapped talents want quality part-time work — a rare commodity. Twelve years later, the staff of 12 (who have only ever worked virtually) has more than 20,000 part-time job seekers and more than 700 clients from various industries in their network. Matching workers to businesses now generates more than five million dollars annually in revenue.
Chuck Salem served as an executive for Unique Venues for more than 20 years. When the opportunity arose, he and his partner bought the 35-year-old company whose massive database consists of non-traditional venues, such as colleges, entertainment venues, conference centers, retreats, and historical properties. The company fields hundreds of RFPs each day for properties throughout the US and Canada. The service is free to planners. The CEO says he has learned that businesses must always evolve. His investments in two software startup companies, Event Guru and Registration Guru, help him to recognize and react to changes and have helped steer the multimillion-dollar enterprise.
Chris Eckert, a Business Strategist for Optional Thinking, works closely with entrepreneurs, from sales and marketing to how to help an owner improve the bottom line. He says the first questions he poses to prospective clients are “‘Why do you want to do this and what do you want to accomplish? My job is to help them get there.”
The free MPI ISBO program was moderated by Phil Rappoport of Virlybird, a meeting planner support agency that he founded in 2021 after seven years of running a mobile event app product. Rappoport, President-Elect of the MPI Potomac chapter in Washington, DC, interviewed the panelists and took questions from the audience in a talk show-style format. “Small Biz, Big Talk “ was created by a committee of nearly a dozen active ISBO members who wanted to focus on the challenges that small and independent businesses owners face.
In the weeks leading up to the program, the committee had conducted poll questions on MPI’s ISBO LinkedIn page and again on the webinar to establish direction for the discussion. Questions such as “Can you define your customer?” and “What do you find is your most effective form of marketing?” were posed. The panelists provided insights learned from the poll results and their own experiences.
Clockwise from upper left: Chris Eckert, Phil Rappoport, Chuck Salem, Sheila Murphy.
YOU HAVE TO START SOMEWHERE
Eckert spoke about the fundamental questions he poses to new clients: Who are your potential clients? What’s your budget? Is the business idea feasible? How much money do you need to generate?
He tries to follow his client’s progress for nine months, checking in after three to see what processes need tweaking. “Try to be the guru for your industry but don’t limit yourself to one industry if your business can tap into other markets that may be underserved,” he said.
Murphy and her executive team established their purpose: identify the need for the services you offer and what makes your services standout.
For Murphy, the struggle she and her two business partners personally faced finding flexible, part-time work that made them feel valuable became the recognition they were not alone. “We’re a good connector for meeting planners who may be going out on their own, and companies who may not be able to support an in-house department,” she said. The trio works on strategy during online quarterly meetings. They each have a strength. Murphy’s is on the candidate side, collecting the data about jobseekers. “We track and fine tune our metrics to see the progression our growth,” she said, “But it is essential to see what your competition is doing. Not to copy it, but to reaffirm or tweak what you do.”
Salem believes that understanding your employees as individuals is a key strength. He said the pandemic caused a shift in the company’s strategy. They split their 16 staffers into two teams: The Conversion Upgrade and Retention (CUR) team and the Accounting, Fulfillment and Technology (AFT) team. “We come together as a leadership team to strategize, with each member taking ownership. Our clients get a minimum of four touch points just to check in and see how they’re doing. We are very relationship oriented.”
An audience member asked, “When do you automate? How do you keep focus on the company’s chief products?”
In response, Murphy talked about time sucks. Focus on that first, she stated. When her company began, they didn’t want investors. The three partners each put in a minimal amount of money and used an Excel spreadsheet to create their database. After gradually using bigger systems, they eventually upgraded to Bullhorn, Inc. (a customer relationship management company), which she described as the bells and whistles of CRMs for staffing companies. She cautioned that once you automate, those systems may not talk to each other. “It’s a great growing pain to have, but you want to make things run efficiently for your team,” she said. “My advice? Test everything before you go big or buy big.”
Salem concurred. “Automate what you can, but if you are people-oriented, at what point can that automation interfere with your personal connection to clients? Integration can be costly.” He said his company tried automation and realized within 24 hours it was not working for them, returning immediately to person-to-person touches. “At Unique Venues, we realized if we are able to build CRMs for others, we can become more self-reliant and build our own systems that integrate smoothly with our data.”
KNOW YOUR SWEET SPOTS AND WHO YOUR TARGET CLIENTS ARE
Everyone starting a business will take on clients because they need to generate immediate cash flow, but Murphy said it’s important to lose the “low-hanging fruit” (those early clients with small budgets). “I can tell you the size of business we best serve and the level of income they need to generate to work with us,” she said. “You have to know which clients will grow and sustain your business. In the same way, you must be able to tell a client that we might not be the best resource for you at this time. Recommend them to another business that may be more suitable for them until they have grown.”
“Don’t dilute what you do,” said Salem. “We might have large scale universities with big budgets who want to work with us, but that’s not what we do. Oure niche is that we are the only site that solely represents unique venues.” While most people in the meetings and events industries may know to search uniquevenues.com for venues, they may not be aware that Unique Venues is also the marketing arm for those venues. “We develop social media strategy, manage ad campaigns, and build websites. The venues are the ones who pay us. All of our services for meeting planners are free.”
Early clients are ones on whom you cut your teeth. Learn from them and the experience, advised Eckert. “One of the intangibles of business is trust and the people-to-people relationship,” he said. “You may realize a particular customer is one you’ll never please, so drop them and spend time finding new clients who are a better fit.”
MARKET YOUR CONFIDENCE IN YOUR EXPERTISE
Even if you are a young company, but have years of personal experience, only express your expertise to clients. What have you done? What are you able to do for them? Highlight your assets and successes on your website and social media.
“We have proof points for all the venues we represent,” said Salem, who described his 16-member team as a “small company doing big things.” Stress that you’re an industry expert. Establish a blog or write for others, he advised.
“At the end of the day, you have to sell,” said Murphy, “but don’t forget your existing customers. Maintain relationships. Get referrals.”
Eckert concurred. “Go to your current clients and ask them for a video testimonial. Talk to people. Think of it as ALL: Always Listen and Learn.”
The committee members who produced this program were: Susan Piel, Meeting and Event Consultant, Spiel Planning & MPI Community Advisory Board; Carolynn Santos, CEO, Co-founder InDivEquity; Phil Rappoport, Virlybird, Program Moderator and President-Elect MPI Potomac chapter; Chris Eckert, Business Strategist, Optional Thinking; Corey Armideo, Technical Producer, PBR Productions, MPI Philadelphia chapter; Ciara Feely, Sales Leadership Strategist; Leanne Calderwood, Personal Branding and LinkedIn Trainer, MPI member at large British Columbia; Tara Thomas, Chief Marketeer & co-founder at The Meeting Pool; Karen Kuzsel, Industry Journalist/Blogger and Psychic Entertainer.
Did you miss the live program? View a segment here.
REGISTER NOW FOR THESE UPCOMING CAN’T MISS PROGRAMS!
MPI ISBO CommuniTEA, a socially engaging interactive chat. March 17, 2022 @ 12pm ET, 9am PT. The topic is "Social Media - Time Suck or Valuable Business Tool?"
“Small Biz, Big Talk”: Sales Planning. May 19, 2022: 9am PT; 12pm ER.
Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries. She is an active member of International Live Events Association, Meeting Professionals International, and the Society of Professional Journalists. She is now serving on the 20121-2022 MPI Independent and Small Business Owners Advisory Board. Karen writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, she has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. Karen@KarenKuzsel.com; www.karenkuzsel.com; www.ThePsychicLady.com; @karenkuzsel; @thepsychiclady.