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Toasting Entrepreneurship--and Comparing Notes

October 21, 1998|VICKI TORRES

About 6,600 small-business owners attended The Times' Small Business Strategies Conference last weekend, and by the end of the event it had suddenly become the "first annual" Small Business Strategies Conference.

That's because everyone--small-business owners, The Times, exhibitors and speakers--recognized that a unity had been created, at least for two days. Small businesses, giant corporations and government agencies, often at odds with one another, were sharing information, swapping business cards and creating a unique and often inspiring event.

Bring together that many small-business owners, those inveterate optimists, and the air gets heady. It feels like anything is possible.

Some conference snapshots:

* Keynote speaker Jan Davidson, who told us before the conference that she had grown weary of telling her story, nonetheless dutifully related how she went from a Torrance teacher to owner of a software company worth $1 billion.

She had the audience on its feet applauding after she eagerly demonstrated her newest product, an educational toy for infants that uses computer chips embedded in toy blocks to play Mozart tunes. Watching the creator of a business empire fiddling excitedly with toy blocks was to see pure entrepreneurship embodied.

* "People are starving for this information," exclaimed Pedro Pulgar, business editor of La Opinion and moderator of a Saturday-morning session on resources for minority business owners. His meeting room was packed and business owners swarmed his panelists once the session ended.

The scene was repeated throughout the conference. The panel on building a Web site was standing room only. Panels on specialized topics such as exporting or marketing to ethnic groups were swarmed by eager business owners.

Panelist Sharon Merino, owner of a Pasadena company that helps small firms get certified for corporate and government contracts, said business owners kept asking her questions hours after her session ended at noon.

"I looked up at the clock and realized, 'Oh, my gosh, it's 5:30,' " Merino said.

* Advice from the big guys seemed to flow along similar lines: Relax and don't take yourself so seriously. Paul Orfalea, founder of Kinko's, admitted to poor reading and writing skills.

He went into business because he couldn't imagine anyone hiring him, he said, and for that reason he credited his employees with creating his business success.

His suggestion for motivating employees: Let them know how important their work is to society. Kinko's, for example, doesn't just make copies, it helps people find jobs by photocopying their resumes, Orfalea said. It helps find crime victims by reproducing their photos on police fliers.

The advice from Earl Graves, publisher of Black Enterprise magazine, was to allow time for family and exercise, while marketing strategist Jack Trout agreed with former Apple Computer and Pepsi executive John Sculley that "simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." His suggestion was to be brutally selective about what you read and take time to think about the future of your business.

* "Most of us will have businesses that remain small," keynote speaker Peter Meehan, co-founder of Newman's Own Organics, told the crowd. With Nell Newman, he created an organic-food company that gives away its profit to charity every year under an arrangement with Newman's father, Paul.

Meehan brought a low-key, realistic approach to entrepreneurship, cautioning small-business owners against becoming small-business martyrs who sacrifice everything for success.

He cited his own example as the owner of a pool company. The more the company grew, the unhappier he became. With the food company, he earns less money and has suffered through five years of stress but reports enjoying it more.

* Some folks got passionate.

Liam McGee, president of BankAmerica in Southern California, found himself challenged by one small-business owner after he spoke about the Southern California economy.

"You say to develop a relationship with your bank, but how can you do that when there's only an ATM machine in the neighborhood and no branch bank?" demanded the woman.

Another woman in the session on independent contractors was equally indignant over information presented by Robin Harmon of the state Employment Development Department. The woman waved her right arm--which was missing a hand--and said, "I have to get someone to write letters for me, and now you're telling me they're employees and I have to pay taxes?"

But overall, the conference was probably as different for each business owner as small businesses are different from one another.

With more than 40 panels and workshops, six keynote speakers, 100 exhibitor booths plus networking and free counseling sessions, it was an event that could be crafted to suit each participant.

The conference was an attempt to bring the fragmented small-business community together to celebrate entrepreneurship, have large corporations like The Times listen to its concerns and have everyone learn valuable lessons about business. And that's just what happened.

Look for the second annual Times Small Business Strategies Conference a year from now.


Times staff writer Vicki Torres can be reached at (213) 237-6553 or by e-mail at

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