I was shadowing Donnice Thode, who distributes materials for the construction industry, as she pitched Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and other big buyers on her company here at the SBA Expo. Donnice is from Houston, and everything about her shouts Texas, from the shoulderpads on her jacket, to her carefully curled and blown-out hair, to her gushy phrases ("We're just as tickled as could be," she told one buyer upon meeting him).
Belying that Southern warmth, though, Donnice is a tough saleswoman. Give her 15 minutes with a buyer, and she’ll walk away with a lead. Thode Masonry Supply & Tool is tiny, and it's barely established in the space she's selling these guys on, which is packaging material for products (like the cut-to-fit foam that HP ships its hardware in). No matter. When the DC office of a homebuilding firm told her she wasn’t the right fit geographically, she replied that she could do work outside of Texas, and asked for an in-state contact who she could call. When a foodservice cataloger indicated Thode didn't carry supplies he'd need, she pointed to Thode's janitorial supplies, packing materials, and private-label goods, got a copy of the catalog, and said she'd follow up with suggestions where Thode would fit. When HP said it already used her competitor for its foam packaging, Donnice remarked that she was certified as 8(a), as a HUBZone business, and as a woman-owned firm—and wouldn’t HP like to satisfy its supplier-diversity requirements by using her? "When you leave here, they're going to send you information—but you have to do your end to sell it," she said. "You just have to try it and see."
Donnice's approach isn't revolutionary, and her work here isn't glamorous or sophisticated. It's the grunt work of getting a business off the ground. Watching her work, and watching the hundreds of other small-business owners here pitch, network, sell, and study, I was impressed by how hard they work to build their businesses. They seem to believe that working for yourself, and being successful at it, is the ultimate in achievement.
Cue the violins. I'd better leave DC before I start writing haikus about entrepreneurs and cavorting among the cherry blossoms. Over and out.