Education & Workforce Development and Real Estate & Retail and Small Business

New support group aids entrepreneurs: Growing network quick to attract diverse membership

February 27, 2006

But it's not because Roots doesn't know how to write HTML code.

Rather, he's got so much business coming in the doors he doesn't have any free time for turning wrenches on his own site-www.squishdesigns.com.

That's a good problem to have for an entrepreneur who's still dotting the "i"s on his LLC application.

He credits the influx of business to a new networking group for entrepreneurs that is attracting a sizeable contingent of women and minority business owners.

The group-which doesn't even have a name yet-started meeting in December after a group of small-business owners finished classes at the Indianapolis-based Neighborhood Self-Employment Initiative, which helps people get their enterprises off the ground.

"We wanted to keep in touch with people from class and get continued feedback on our businesses," said Tressa Mazhandu, owner of Indianapolis' All Nations Bed and Breakfast.

Four people attended the group's first meeting. Nine came to the most recent gathering. And membership is still growing, thanks to an open-door policy that welcomes all local small-business owners.

So far the group has attracted a diverse mix of future business leaders. Eight of the nine at the most recent meeting were women and minorities. They run everything from flower companies to real estate firms.

Topics of conversation at the powwows range from the importance of thank-you notes to how to become a licensed vendor for major companies like Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Co.

Members of the group also fill out and exchange notecards at each meeting listing their goals for the next week-hook up a credit-card machine, sign up for a continuing education class, etc.-and report back at future meetings about whether they accomplished the task.

That sort of accountability is what makes networking groups a proven strategy for small-business owners, said Larry Cox, director of the Midwest Entrepreneurial Education Center at Ball State University.

Pat Burks, owner of Inittowin Real Estate Rehabilitation Service, a company that helps low-income people buy their own homes, came up short on her most recent weekly goal: finishing the executive summary of her business plan. But she got a round of applause when she told the group about accomplishing her three-month goal of buying three houses.

The group has been a huge help for Burks, who hopes to put a career in geographical information systems on ice to run her business full-time. She'll need help to do it.

And she's found lots of that in the group, thanks to people like Ron Barrett, whose company R.E.M. Master Builders put up 75 homes in Fall Creek Place, and Patti Lacey, who runs Nature Inspired, a landscape design company.

"We are so diversified we can help each other," Burks said.

More important, small-business experts say, small-business owners are more likely to listen to their peers than an academic in a tweed jacket.

"Who better to give you advice than somebody who's been there?" asked Debbie Trocha, executive director of the Indiana Small Business Development Center.

Trocha's organization is about to add another networking group to the mix. It has contracted with the Michigan-based Edward Lowe Foundation to bring a networking program called PeerSpectives to Indianapolis.

That program is aimed at companies with between six and 10 employees and more than $1 million in annual sales.

"We're looking at companies on a growth trajectory," Trocha said. "At that stage of the game they're past the, 'Oh God, are we going to make payroll this week?' stage."

PeerSpectives costs $1,500 per participant and uses a facilitator to help business owners work through common problems.

As for Roots and his colleagues, they'll stick with the basics for now. The importance of details like writing thank-you notes can't be overstated, said Barrett, who once impressed a client so much with such a note that it resulted in a home sale.

It sounds like a great group, said Gail Gesell, director of the U.S. Small Business Administration's Indiana district office.

She applauded the attendees for taking the time to get together.

"That's one of the challenges for a smallbusiness owner, to find enough time," she said.

She also encouraged attendees to keep networking even after the soft drinks are finished and the dinner tab is paid.

"It should be all the time," she said. "You should take every opportunity [to network]."
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