A Small Business Competition Starts in Secaucus

It’s good to know that small business owners are keeping it real. In recent months, we’ve seen Wall Street chieftains taking the heat for excessive bonuses, private jets, and lavish office redecorations – all while the economy continued to tumble.

So on Thursday, when I attended a launch event for the Make Mine A Million Race, a competition for women business owners, it’s probably appropriate that the event was held in Secaucus, N.J – not a place anyone wants to linger – inside a less-than-glamorous Sam’s Club. The time? 7 a.m.

But despite the location and early hour, about 100 entrepreneurs had gathered for a few hours to network, get advice and swap ideas about how to grow their businesses, especially as customers scale back. “What you have here is the answer to every business question you have,” said Nell Merlino, the event’s organizer, pointing to attendees as she gave opening remarks in the food court. “We are going to get through this together.”

Merlino, by the way, thinks small business owners (especially the female entrepreneurs her non-profit, Count-Me-In, has long advised) aren’t just going to survive these tough times but rather save the economy outright. So far, she’s gotten 1,500 female business owners around the country to sign up for the Make Mine A Million Race, which challenges participants to hit one of three revenue goals – $250,000, $500,000 or $1 million – by yearend. Ramping up, she reasons, will create countless job and pump much-need dollars back into local communities.

But first that growth needs to happen, which is why Thursday’s event featured a few workshops presented by experts. This being a Sam’s Club, not a banquet hall, the sessions (complete with podiums and chairs) were set up in rather incongruous settings.

In the bakery section, near a table stacked with $6.88 Bundt cakes, expert Bill Dueease talked about the benefit of working with professional coaches to develop strategies and set priorities. Meanwhile, over by the super-value packs of rawhide chews, marketing guru Nancy Michaels advised business owners on how to win new customers. (One tip? Ask your best customer to write a “testimonial on steroids” and send it to new prospects, she says.) And over in the furniture setting (where this blogger comfortably sat on a La-Z-Boy ottoman), accounting expert Elizabeth Ladu spoke on the topic of “Getting Friendly With Your Financials.”

Ladu’s session seemed particularly timely, as many entrepreneurs are figuring out how to adjust in these uncertain economic times. She advised owners to get a handle on their profit and loss statement, balance sheet and cash-flow statement. “Really interpret your numbers so you can do some planning,” said Ladu, standing – rather appropriately, given the sobering topic – in front of a pallet of cases of Corona. One attendee voiced her concerns about losing her business line of credit. Ladu suggested that the business owner talk to her banker about converting it into a term loan. Or try to get another line of credit from a different bank. “Smaller banks are lending,” she said. “Go to the local community bank – someone who is going to really benefit from your business, and who wasn’t caught up in subprime lending.”

Speaking of banks, that reminded me of that image we’ve seen lately, of the industry’s top CEOs testifying before Congress – and defending themselves against accusations of greed. When it comes to rebuilding the economy, I suspect the new power players (or at least, a small cross-section of them) took the bus to Secaucus on Thursday.

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