There's something about being in D.C. that makes people speak their minds. They're talking about small business--and the economy. You might want to take notes.
President Obama named last week National Small Business Week, and a conference hosted by the Small Business Administration aimed to boost small-business pride--and hopefully sales. The week may be over, but the issues discussed are far from fleeting. Here are six takeaways from the National Small Business Week Conference, where entrepreneurs, experts, and government officials spoke their minds on hiring, growth strategies, and sources of business inspiration.
1. Stay true to your company's mission, and its original goals.
Kevin Plank, the CEO of Under Armour, knows what it takes to get a business from renegade to mainstream: focus. He launched Under Armour in 1996, starting with a moisture-wicking compression shirt meant to improve performance. Since then, the former University of Maryland football player has grown his business, expanding to sell more kinds of athletic apparel, as well as shoes and accessories.
On a white board in his office this simple message helps Plank not loose sight of his initial goal: "Don’t forget to sell shorts and shoes," it reads. They have a lot of fun at Under Armour, Plank says, but the end goal is something you must not loose sight of. The sportswear firm is projecting 2012 net revenues to exceed $1.78 billion.
Origin story: When Plank started his business he had $17,000 in his bank account and credit cards in his hand. "[I was] smart enough to be naïve enough to not know what I couldn't accomplish," he says. By 2003 Under Armour was number two on the Inc. 5000.
2. Inspiration often comes from unexpected places.
Victoria Tifft was named the Small Business Person of the Year. That's thanks in no small part to the fact that she contracted malaria while volunteering with the Peace Corps. Tifft's experience inspired her to start a now-booming medical research firm, ClinicalRM, in Hinckley, Ohio.
"I thought that I could do something to help prevent this disease and other diseases," Tifft says. "Only in America do we have the chance." Tifft had some tough contenders for the award, including these 10 standouts.
Frozen find: Looking over the 52 nominees, we spotted a familiar face...er, business. It's called 600 lb. Gorillas, adn it's a frozen dessert creator and distributor, which made our Inc. 5000 list last year.
3. Don't try to be everywhere.
Experts in charge of social media efforts from Google, Twitter, Yelp, and even the White House, chimed in on how small business owners can best utilize social media at a forum during Small Business Week. The feedback: find where your customers are specifically online, engage them directly, stay diplomatic, and stay focused on objectives.
"Not all social media tools are right for every business," says Jeff Aguero, who is the head of local marketing for Google. "Find out how your customers want to engage with you." It's best to do a few things well than five things poorly. Want more advice? Then take these tips from the White House.
Past blast: Franklin D. Roosevelt's Fireside Chats were a hit in 1933. But it's 2012. To close the decades-wide gap the White House set up the President's first Google Plus "Hangout" in January.
4. Get wise before you go global.
Although "Take Your Business Global" panelists noted the difficulties of exporting, they stressed its importance. "If you make a product and you’re not selling overseas, you're leaving money on the table," says Al Youngwerth, president/founder of Rekluse Motor Sports, which was named the 2012 National Exporter of the Year. Youngwerth spoke about improving his exporting business by weeding out poor distributors, calming down misunderstandings, and moving to UPS to alleviate international shipping problems. "Look outside of yourself for other resources that can help you in your endeavor," he says. Rekluse had about 25% international business in 2011, and projects it will do as much or slightly more for 2012.
Wish list: "You need three Cs: capital, counseling, and connections," says Dario Gomez, associate administrator for the Office of International Trade. Turns out that's just what the SBA aims to offer small businesses.
CAITLIN BERENS writes about business innovation and entrepreneurs. Before Inc., she worked at Billboard, SELF, and Better Homes and Gardens. She attended Drake University, and lives in Brooklyn, New York. @CaitlinBerens