Small Business Expo Inspires

By Chris Tomlinson
Houston Chronicle.

WWR Article Summary (Tl;dr) The Small Business Expo in Houston drew plenty of women in small business looking for solid advice on everything from marketing to insurance to funding a business. One popular element of the expo included a panel of four business owners who had appeared on the television show Shark Tank.


Some of the bravest people in Houston recently gathered at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

They came looking for a little advice, a dose of inspiration and some reassurance that their dreams are not too big. If you didn’t know them, you would mistakenly call them average.

They share a disdain for salaries and hourly wages, and they embrace the uncertainty and chaos of starting a business of their own. Those on the sidelines will mistake their brave pursuits for foolhardy, but they are the people who drive America’s economy, hire the most workers and pay the most taxes. Their gumption deserves admiration.

One of them is Andrea Rodricks, who is at the end of the diving board about to take the leap.

“I have a paycheck right now, and it’s definitely easy. But it’s not fun, it’s not exciting,” she said while strolling the aisles of the Small Business Expo earlier this month. “You want to build something for yourself, for your future and do it on your own.”

Rodricks is planning to buy a jewelry wholesale business, purchasing stones from cutters and selling them to retailers for mounting. Rodricks has been saving for more than five years, and has spoken to banks and private backers. She may borrow from her 401(k).

The exhibitors at the Expo, whose booth fees make her free admission possible, are competing for Rodricks’ business.

“The vendors are helpful, from marketing to who is going to answer your phones to social media to insurance for your business,” she said. “I’m nervous, but very excited.”

David Medina owned a medical supply business for 14 years, but his circumstances have changed. He’s now a caregiver to his mother, who has dementia and cancer. He started a business last year that he can operate from his Houston home making labor law compliance posters, the kind most companies post in a break room or near a time clock.

“It’s very low cost, very low overhead, and it’s a good sale price with a big profit margin,” Medina explained.

He says he charges less than his competitors and promises to send free updates if the laws change within a year of a customer’s order. But business has been slow and conducting safe online transactions is getting complicated.

“I’m hoping to find someone who can help us build our business online, and give us better safety for our business so we can go after larger clients,” Medina said.

Major corporations know there is big money in small business. AT&T, HP and Bank of America had booths as well. But many vendors are also small businesses. Michael Koral, the chief operating officer of Toronto-based marketing firm Needls., was investigating if he should invest in a booth. He said in an hour he met 15 business people interested in how his company uses data science to identify buying signals in social media posts.

“There are a lot of small businesses here, and it’s perfect for our target market,” Koral said.

It would be easy to dismiss the dramatic lighting, high-pressure sales pitches and garish booths as over-the-top. But one popular draw, and a sign of the big dreams filling the room, was a panel of four business owners who had appeared on the television show Shark Tank.

“I love the stories, I love to hear how people got started,” said Shanda Davis, who recently started Davis Designs. Her products make traveling with small children easier, such as a travel potty seat, a portable shower basin and a portable freezer that includes a food preparation tray.

Davis says she has prototypes and patents, and she’s working on packaging and distribution. She dreams of making a deal on Shark Tank, but is ready to stand on her own after hearing so many success stories.

“The stories keep entrepreneurs encouraged and them keep them on the right track,” she said.

Meeting people who have succeeded is also important to Phillip McClellan, owner of Javalope, a coffee shop and wholesaler of beans hand-roasted over an open flame in Humble. The former football coach remembers falling in love with coffee as a child after smelling the aroma coming from the Maxwell House roasting plant in downtown Houston. He opened his emporium in September.

“Of course, everyone is worried when you start your own business. Am I going to be successful? Is everyone going to say it was a great idea, or that I was crazy?” McClellan said. “When you come to these things, you see that you are not the only one.”

Success rates, though, are grim. About half of new businesses fail within three years. Since 2008, for the first time in American history, businesses have shut down faster than new ones have opened, according to the Gallup polling firm. That’s not because more are failing, it’s because fewer are starting. The United States ranks 12th in the world for start-ups per capita, behind Hungary, Denmark and even Italy.

Folks like Rodrick, Medina, Davis and McClellan are taking risks most of us couldn’t imagine, but they are the grist that creates great companies and communities. Imagine for a moment what America would be like without them.

And then thank them for their courage.

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