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Lessons from the U.S. Chamber's Premier Event

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America's Small Business Summit

It’s been a few weeks now, and I have to admit that I’ve got the post-America’s Small Business Summit blues.

I walk around the office stopping at co-workers’ desks expecting them to tell me about their amazing products and offering me free, branded swag—perhaps a pair of orange Converse, which CareerBuilder handed out, or a Small Business Saturday tote bag, courtesy of the nice American Express people.

I keep hanging out in conference rooms waiting for my chosen breakout session to begin. Wait. … Where is everyone? Maybe they’re at one of the other breakout sessions? Probably at the one on accessing alternative capital. Perhaps I should go find out.

And … just where is the afternoon ice-cream station?

From June 11 to 13, more than 800 small business owners and chamber and association executives came together in Washington, D.C., to network, learn, and bring the collective voice of business to Congress. And eat ice cream.

Small businesses are embracing technology. This year’s summit broke all previous social media engagement records. There were more than 1,900 tweets from 770 contributors (using the summit hashtags #ASBS and #IAmSmallBiz), as well as broad engagement on Facebook and Instagram.

 

The kids are all right. Student entrepreneurs from across the country competed for the Young Entrepreneurs Academy’s sixth annual Saunders Scholars Competition. This year’s YEA winners were high school juniors Riley Benner and Luke Zaremski, who created Phoenix Haberdashery, a line of reversible neckties. The Rochester, New York, duo was awarded college scholarship money, a business reward package, and an opportunity to audition for ABC’s hit show Shark Tank

 

Failure is absolutely an option. It was a theme we heard more than once. “The startups that win are the ones that get good at failing, learn from mistakes, and keep trying,” said Evan Burfield from Washington, D.C., incubator 1776. “Innovation isn’t about the success; it’s about the 99% of the failures it took to get to that success,” said Ben Huh of the monstrously popular humor website Cheezburger

 

The nicest guys finish first. Hamid Chaundry, a Dairy Queen franchise owner from Reading, Pennsylvania, won the annual Community Excellence Award. His company, HIBS of Kenhorst, Inc., selected through online public voting, received significant support for its outstanding commitment to community leadership and public service. The company regularly contributes to local schools and parent teacher organizations, law enforcement and first responders, and individuals and families in need. Chaundry said that his company’s mission is to “do the right thing and make a difference in a community that demands and rewards excellence.”


Let your market guide you. Before Chesapeake Bay Candle became a worldwide phenomenon, company co-founder Mei Xu struggled to figure out what home décor product she and her husband and business partner wanted to sell. In 1994, they set up a booth at the Charlotte Gift Fair in North Carolina with five to six products, including silk trees, car seat covers, and candles. “Maybe it was because it was September and people were looking for holiday gifts, but the candles sold better than the others. From that point on, we were focused.”

 

Brand loyalty is a two-way street. Political pundit and newsletter publisher Charlie Cook of The Cook Political Report explained his choices in beverages. “Coors Light was the first beer company that subscribed. Of course, I’m going to buy their beer!”

 

Everyone’s looking for talent. That’s according to the latest Enterprising States study from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation (USCCF). The study was released at the summit, where Govs. Pat McCrory (NC) and Gary Herbert (UT) discussed the skills gap and what states are doing to address it. “This country’s skills gap is one of the most consequential public policy challenges we face right now,” said USCCF President and former Gov. John McKernan Jr (ME). “It holds back our economy when employers can’t find workers with the skills they need to run their businesses. Altogether, it threatens our growth and competiveness.”

 

If you get fired (or face another devastating set back), buy a Corvette. Summit headliner Gen. Colin L. Powell, USA (Ret.) had the capacity audience laughing with his tales of working as a stock boy at a toy store from aged 10 to17. But it was his car-as-a-salve philosophy that drew the most laughs. Powell told the audience that buying a Corvette helped transition him into retirement when he was “let go” as secretary of state in 2005. Nevertheless, cautioned the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, watch out for the police.   

 

Practice having fun. Fun is contagious, but so is negativity, said Susan O’Malley, former president of the NBA’s Washington Wizards and the league’s first female president. O’Malley recalled a season when the Washington Capitals lost several games in a row. After one disappointing game, the players boarded the team bus to be taken to their cars. The bus, however, didn’t stop as expected. At the coach’s direction, it kept going until it arrived at a bowling alley. The players bowled for hours, wearing team shirts and drinking beer. Two nights later, the team started winning. When asked by reporters about the reason for the turnaround, the coach simply said, “We were practicing having fun. Somehow they had lost the joy, and I wanted to help get it back.”

 

Small businesses DREAM BIG! Community development services company Sanderson Stewart of Billings, Montana, won this year’s DREAM BIG Small Business of the Year Award, sponsored by Sam’s Club®. Following its core purpose, “To Plan and Design Enduring Communities,” the company has evolved from a traditional civil engineering and land surveying company into the go-to firm for land development services in the region. “Wow! The No. 1 small business in America! It’s such a tremendous honor for our exceptionally talented and dedicated team, who are truly the best of the best. So it’s very, very satisfying to see them get recognized on the national stage,” said President and CEO Michael Sanderson.

 

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