Working ON Your Business

Work ON your business, not in it. As SDMWVLGBTBE (Small, Disadvantaged, Disabled, Minority, Women, Veteran, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgendered Business Enterprises) entrepreneurs, we frequently hear that phrase.  Sometimes, many of us aren’t even sure what it means because the phrase can encompass many activities … training or education, networking, volunteerism, public speaking, memberships, conferences or mentoring just to list a few.  For us, the definition is anything that takes us outside our daily work while enabling fresh perspective(s).  And, over the last twelve months we’ve taken advantage of each of the suggestions we’re about to make.

Training/Education can come in many forms.  The Small Business Administration (SBA) offers some of the best free programs. Many regions have a variety of entrepreneur support centers, we work with Chatham University’s Center for Women’s Entrepreneurship. If you belong to one of the 3rd party certifying organizations, such as WBENC or NMSDC, then you have access to many on-line/webinar training opportunities. We also get invited to business growth related webinars by various diversity organizations at the state, county and municipal levels — you can generally find such opportunities through your state or county DBE program. Formal education, through your local educational institutions or on-line programs, is always beneficial. One of the best investments we’ve made is in college level business law and financial management classes for our staff.

Mentoring comes in many forms.  Back at the SBA, there’s the Emerging Leaders program which helps you gain a 10,000 foot view of your business in relationship with your staff, your customers, your community and world at large. Through PowerLink and its partnerships, you can get your very own Advisory Board — a team of outside experts focused on helping you drive the growth of your business. In Western Pennsylvania, the Mansmann Foundation is piloting programs to assist small and diverse businesses begin or grow in distressed communities. In the old days, we might have said check your Yellow Pages, but today you can find all sorts of meaningful programs just a search button away. Mentoring goes both ways, too!  We mentor, or host, students from local high schools and educational institutions. Teaching someone always gives us a chance to think about how and why we do things, offering us a chance to embrace change.

Networking is working on your business, or so we said a while ago.  Networking gives you the opportunity to expand your business’s profile in specific communities.  We have a small networking group we refer to as “ladies who lunch”, which while social in nature is how our group has cemented personal relationships that lead to referrals between each other.  Formal networking events, for us the Pittsburgh Social Exchange or the Pittsburgh Technology Council is often a great way to meet other business people and establish long term relationships. Another good resource is your local or regional Chamber of Commerce.

Volunteerism was not something we considered as working on our business until this year’s WBENC national conference.  Our focus had been on giving back to organizations, in our case WBENC’s regional partner WBEC PA, DE, sNJ, Chatham University, and PowerLink, etc.  Becky Davis, Chief Bosspreneur reminded us that “Service is an amazing way for you to make a difference in your community, impact lives and change your business while changing the world.”  We didn’t think about how that volunteerism was likely to have a positive impact on our business.  If you don’t have a cause close to your heart, why not check out the Kiwanis, local women and children’s shelters, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Boy or Girl Scouts … or anything that moves you to help your community.

Conferences/Trade Shows often offer the best of all worlds, combining educational and networking (and even volunteerism) components while many include marketplaces or trade shows.  If industry specific, there’s exposure to new products, services, trends and resources … hot topics, what’s in, what’s on the way out … and, perhaps determining what might be the best next steps for your company.  This might be a good opportunity to learn about competition in your customer space so you can evaluate your business’s comparative strengths and weaknesses — or find a potential partner for bidding on large contracts.  Most trade shows have an educational component that could help you learn techniques or tools to provide better support to your customers.  And,  you can visit booths to gather information on industry suppliers.  On the other hand, if you are the potential customer, the trade show is an environment where you can immediately research many supplier’s products, prices, and services, all in a single place.

Memberships can often go handed in with the opportunity to network. When we moved our business back to into the community we joined the Wilkinsburg Chamber Commerce, you can find such organizations at local, state, and even national levels. Beyond the traditional options of your local chamber or industry specific professional and trade associations more personal memberships – say to your college alumni association – can also garner opportunities to connect for you and your business.

Public speaking on behalf of charitable or professional organizations ties back nicely to volunteerism, conferences and networking.  If you have expertise to share, speaking about it is a good way for others to learn about you and your business.  And if public speaking makes you nervous, you can always become a member of Toastmasters and learn to engage an audience comfortably.

There’s lots of ways to work on your business, you just have to stick your toe in and test the waters to find out what works for you.