Small-Business Summit: Disengaging for Success Among Hot Topics

At this year's summit, speakers focus on both going in high gear and knowing when to take a break.
Executive Producer, The Applegate Group Inc., The Applegate Group Inc.
June 27, 2012

Unplugging from your electronic tethers and taking time to think before acting were among the strategies for success shared by experts at the 7th Annual New York Times Small Business Summit which took place Monday in New York City. Organizers said the sold-out event, co-sponsored by American Express OPEN, attracted close to 800 people.

“We need to force ourselves to disconnect,” said Scott Belsky, co-founder and CEO of Behance, a company devoted to "organizing and empowering the creative world." “We need to create windows of non-stimulation.”

Scott Case, CEO of the Startup America Partnership, weighed in on the same theme. He encouraged attendees to spend an hour a day just thinking about their businesses. “It’s called a white space exercise,” he said. Case, the founding CTO of Priceline.com, heads up the organization which relies on corporate sponsors and community organizations to foster entrepreneurship across America.

“Startups will disrupt your market whether you like it or not,” warned Case. He urged anyone falling behind in their social media efforts to "go find someone in their 20’s to manage all your social media platforms.” He said every business needs a strong social media strategy but it has to be targeted to serve and engage their specific customers.

The summit’s popular format blended informal Q&A sessions moderated by Carol Roth, best-selling author and speaker, with interactive workshops featuring experts in finance, marketing, social media, productivity, branding and growth.

One-on-One

Many sessions were hands-on. Dawn Fotopulos, a Kings College finance professor and founder of BestSmallBizHelp.com, led round-table sessions that took the audience through a "financial boot camp." The session provided an opportunity for business owners to be counseled by experienced financial experts. Experts emphasized that having a strong management team in place is critical to raising money from outside investors.

Marketing and branding were very hot topics throughout the day. Austin Craig, spokesman for Orabrush, a maker of tongue cleaners, has produced and played a mad dentist in several extremely popular YouTube videos. “Putting a video on YouTube and expecting it to go viral is like expecting to win the lottery,” cautioned Craig, whose videos have attracted millions of viewers. “There are so many variables you need to account for.”

Craig suggested business owners test new marketing ideas with customers via Facebook before moving forward. “Sometimes, what you think is a good idea doesn’t resonate with your customers at all,” he said.

Knowing Your Customer

Neil Blumenthal, co-founder and co-CEO of Warby Parker, a maker of vintage-inspired, affordable eye glasses, said their product appeals to a distinctive, fashion-forward but budget-conscious customer. Most Warby Parker frames with prescription lenses cost under $100. So far, they’ve sold more than 200,000 frames. Customers choose frames online and order a few to try on at home, returning the ones they don’t want to buy. Warby Parker now has nine showrooms across the country, Blumenthal said.

“Make sure to identify your core customer,” he said. “You do not have to be everything to everyone.”

Another panelist, Hayley Barna, co-founder of Birchbox, created a company that sells samples of new cosmetics to women interested in being the first to try beauty products. She said her company is growing because it customers love the excitement and surprise of not knowing what’s in the box that arrives.

Throughout the day, attendees mixed and mingled in a café area featuring local business organizations and chambers of commerce.

“I came expecting to hear success stories and to find new resources,” said Nancy Collamer, a career coach and writer. “After hearing these stories, you can truly believe that it’s possible to make it, and that’s very empowering.”

Making the Most of the Show

Heather Whaling, president of Geben Communications, said she signed up to attend the summit to seek out alliances with other companies. “Creating synergistic relationships might help you reach out to a different community that might not have heard of you or your business before,” she said.

Jewelry designer Alex Woo said it is important to follow up with the people you meet at events like the summit. “If you don’t follow up, people will forget about you.”

Helen Seligman, director of sponsor relations for the New York Times, said the summit program was “built upon providing real information for real entrepreneurs.”

“If you are taking a full day out of your business, you need to learn a tremendous amount of information and leave with at least three things you can use right away,” said Seligman.

Additional reporting by Christine Porcaro.

Photo credit: American Express OPEN