A Small Business Community’s Success Story

I’m still high from the energy and positive feedback we’ve had from the Third Annual Small Business Summit 2008. Support and enthusiasm about making it happen was apparent from last year’s Summit, but we didn’t know we’d have a sell-out and fill the house. Last year we had 360 attendees and this year it was 450.

As a small business community in one of the nation’s major business centers, it’s clear that we are a vocal and expanding community. The Summit concept and community now has a life of its own. People tell us they look forward to attending each year and many ask what else we’re doing. Here’s a quick glimpse at how it happens and why I believe it’s a success.

It all started in the Spring of 2005. I had read articles and posts by Ramon Ray, http://smallbiztechnology.com, for several months and finally decided to attend an event where he was speaking. I was impressed by his presentation and the fact that he focused on small business technology. It’s a critical element of any small business, but not really my strong suit. I wanted to know more about his work, so we decided to meet for coffee.

During the conversation we learned that both of us had visions of someday doing a large event that would bring together small business people interested in business and technology. We decided to do some research and learned that there were a few companies willing to sponsor such an event. We both became excited about the possibilities and were encouraged to put together our first Small Business Summit in February, 2006. I think we finally started working on it in October, 2005.

As we started to plan for the very first Summit we realized we needed some professional help . We hired Maria DeVito and Roy Bavaro of Corporate Experience, an event planning firm with experience in similar types of events. One of their main functions was finding and helping us negotiate for an appropriate and affordable venue….no easy feat. They’ve worked with us all three years. They’re great!

And, of course, we always need a website with information about the event and a way to register, someone to create banner ads and a layout for the printed program, which then had to be printed. What we didn’t realize was how much all of this would cost. Our planners gave us some guidelines, but it turned out things were always much more expensive than we had budgeted.

Running an event of this size is not for the faint hearted. There’s often not only a cash flow issue, but an issue of whether or not we can attract enough money from sponsors to cover our committed expenses. We keep the attendance fee low so as many as possible small businesses can afford it. Attendance fees, unfortunately, only cover a tiny fraction of the costs.

Like any small business, we faced technical and timing challenges . There were some scary moments when we didn’t have the answers we needed, but with perseverance and teamwork, it all got done.

With no marketing or PR budget, we looked to our small business colleagues and organizations to help us promote, primarily through e-mail, newsletters, blogs and websites. Every year these have been our main methods for reaching our audience. The size of the list continues to grow exponentially, so each year we’ve been able to attract more attendees.

In 2008 we had the benefit of some great media exposure and that helped us reach an even larger audience. Attendees came from across the country and even Canada.

This year we reached capacity for the venue we have used for the past two years. We’ve decided to cap the number next year so we don’t lose the congenial ambience and high-energy agenda that has become part of our brand.

I think the Small Business Summit has been a success for a variety of reasons.

First, and most important, is the support of great sponsors and organizations who believe in what we are doing and have been willing to contribute to make it happen. Without them, we couldn’t do it.

Second is the partnership between me and Ramon . We are both passionate about the Summit. We each have our own reasons, but the result is the same. Ramon is the sales and marketing (out front) guy and I’m more the operations and budget (behind the scenes) part of the team. We value each other’s perspective, experience and opinion. We talk over all decisions and reach agreement (and have to twist the other one’s arm a bit sometimes) on everything.

We could never put on an event the size of the Summit without a good team . Each year we’ve managed to find people who are as passionate as we are about what we were doing. This year our team consisted of Andrew (Andy) Shulkind, http://andigomedia.com (web designer), Gail Cramer, http://sol21.com (Advertising and Print Design), Beth Silver, http://doubetconsulting.com (media specialist) and Laura Leites, http://workstationbs.com, our first ever Summit Coordinator, who helped us with everything.

Here are some other reasons I think it was a success:

  • Involvement of the regional small business community in promoting
  • Interesting exhibits by both large and small businesses
  • Speakers who were, for the most part, a member of the small business community
  • Lots of time for networking in a congenial environment
  • Attendees can meet and talk with the speakers
  • Great volunteers and barter arrangements that served both parties.

It truly is a Summit of small businesses, coming together to focus on business and technology. Some people have attended each of the three years. And some sponsors have been with us that long also. We are continuing to involve the Summit community in planning for the future.

Honestly, I’m always amazed at how well things come together on the day of the Summit. We know, however, that success is only as good as the last event. We have our work cut out for us to continue listening and serving this amazing small business community.

Thanks to all who helped make this year’s Summit a success.