Connect the entrepreneurial dots

1111dreamstime18560572

Annual E-Connect provides entrepreneurs with valuable advice from those who have been there and done that

Story by Robin Bruecker

One of the great things about being an entrepreneur is, yeah, you’re the boss. One of the tough things about being an entrepreneur is, oh no!, you’re the boss.

That means, along with all the great things about working for yourself, you’re also the one who deals with the less-fun parts like business plans, financing and employee issues.

That’s where a program like Entrepreneur’s Connection, or E-Connect for short, can offer guidance. Since 2008, the Fond du Lac County and Oshkosh area economic development corporations have offered this networking and educational vehicle to local entrepreneurs and to those who would like to join the ranks with their own fledgling venture. Since E-Connect was created, its goals have remained the same.

“E-Connect provides an opportunity for entrepreneurs to connect with each other and with professionals who can help those entrepreneurs with their businesses,” said Jacqui Corsi, marketing specialist for the Fond du Lac County Economic Development Corp. “Whether an entrepreneur is trying to get their business idea off the ground or is focusing on their current business endeavor, E-Connect is great for any entrepreneur to meet others facing similar challenges and hear about successes.”

The annual event’s location alternates between Fond du Lac and Oshkosh, with this year’s venue scheduled for Nov. 15 at the University of Wisconsin-Fond du Lac. E-Connect is timed with Global Entrepreneurship Week, also formed in 2008, which gives international recognition to those who enhance the economy and quality of life by creating companies and jobs. Today almost 24,000 businesses in 115 countries take part in the global event.

Since its inauguration, the local event has drawn about 200 attendees. Last year that number was a bit lower, but Corsi said it’s expected to be up this time.

“There has been an uptick in the number of clients we are serving this year at FCEDC compared to last year,” she explained. “It may be too soon to label this as a trend, but the recession has likely prompted many people to consider starting their own business. There are so many talented people who have great ideas and have much to offer society; entrepreneurship may be the right road to take. Many businesses have also streamlined the way they do business during the recession. They may now be ready to explore new avenues or find market opportunities. E-Connect would be a great way for them to prepare for those new challenges.”

An Entrepreneurial Experience

Corsi compared the fourth annual E-Connect to a reality show.

“For the keynote event, we have assembled a panel of experts who are in the trenches,” she noted. “Each has written a business plan and all of them have placed in the Northeast Wisconsin Business Plan Competition. They will be able to share what worked and what didn’t work. They all happen to be women – something we did not plan.”

One of the panelists for this keynote event is Rhonda Horvath of Brandon, founder of RagSpun Studio LLC. She creates dimensional textured cotton appliqué shapes that can be sewed or glued on quilts, wall hangings, clothing, pillows and more. Since she came up with her first appliqué in 2003, Horvath has received welcome guidance and contacts from a friend in the quilt-pattern business, and also approached the FCEDC several years ago for help with a business plan for expansion.

When she realized she needed to write the plan herself on the outline the FCEDC provided, she set it aside and continued along on “trial and error” until she wanted to get RagSpun out of her basement. “We had purchased a building and now I needed to make sure what I was going to do would work,” noted Horvath.

Back she went to the FCEDC. Again she received guidance for her business plan, but again she needed to be the one to do the research and writing. This time she did.

“And it was so worth it. (An associate at FCEDC) would answer my questions by leading me to where to find the answers such as organizations, Internet sites, etc. At first I hated this idea, but then I grew to love trying to find the answers. I learned so much about my business and what I needed to do to succeed.”

Horvath said she also continues to get answers from the staff who run the Northeast Wisconsin Business Plan Competition. “When I contact them, they are like a huge Internet site full of information, but with a personality!”

She attended last year’s E-Connect, enjoying the group sessions so much she wished they were longer. “I loved the speech by Mr. (Dick) Bergstrom. He helped me to realize that the process of success takes time. I related well with him because he talked about working hard but smart. I have really focused on what will make my business succeed just like he did. He talked about trying certain things in his business, and then they wouldn’t work but that was OK, just move on to what does work.”

Now that she’s one of the business owners sharing their experiences this year, Horvath plans to convey that “we are each blessed with a special skill whether we want to admit it or not. When you follow that skill into a business, you will succeed if you are a hard worker. I love what I do each day and not many people can say that. But I also work very hard at it. I have to be very scheduled and so organized.”

Another E-Connect panelist is Sandy Martin of the organic-apparel company green 3 in Oshkosh. Her company, which has been in business for six years and currently has 17 employees, used the money awarded in the inaugural year of the regional business plan competition toward the cost of attending a wholesale trade show. At the outset of her business, Martin also took the opportunity to enroll in the E-Seed entrepreneurial preparation program through the Venture Center at Fox Valley Technical College.

“In addition to the financial assistance, the E-Seed classes benefited us by exposing us to high-quality outside services that any fledgling business would need,” said Martin. “We met the people who would ultimately become our attorney, our software consultant, and our tax advisor. The biggest advantage of being involved with (the business plan competition) and E-Seed was the guidance and critical eye that helped develop a solid business plan. We are convinced that success as a business is unlikely without a sound business plan, and this program helped us lay the foundation for success.”

From its start as a wholesaler of American-made organic cotton T-shirts distributed through specialty stores, green 3 today is a wholesaler, direct-to-consumer marketer, and the operator of its first brick-and-mortar store in Oshkosh, Martin noted. They’ve added sustainable fibers like recycled and reclaimed cotton, sell to more than 600 specialty stores, and conduct half their business with catalog retailers such as Sundance, Uncommon Goods, Acacia and Fair Indigo.

Other E-Connect panelists for the event include Jessica Serwe, a chiropractor and owner of Ideal Chiropractic in Fond du Lac, and Chanda Anderson, who re-opened Caramel Crisp in Oshkosh. Heather Robbins Linstrom, owner of Linstrom’s Catering in Fond du Lac and Seasons Food and Spirits in Peebles, will lead the panel discussion.

Entrepreneurism 101 in a nutshell

IN ADDITION TO THE panel, attending entrepreneurs – wannabe or established – can sign up for two of the 30-minute breakout sessions. Presenters include Rich Diemer of Wisconsin Business Development Finance Corp. in Oshkosh and Owen Rock of FCEDC, who will talk about small business financing in the region; Joyce Fischer, owner of Timeless Bridal in Waupun, who will discuss relationship building; John Doemel, owner of Glass Nickel Pizza Co., who will cover guerrilla marketing; and Brian Macak, owner of Jimmy John’s in Ripon and Fond du Lac, will discuss the challenges facing new entrepreneurs.

In talking about financing for small businesses, Diemer, vice president and economic development officer for WBD, will address local, state and federal programs as well as the ways entrepreneurs can get ready to approach a lender about financing. Some of the costs can be easy to determine, such as rent, utilities, equipment, and so on, Diemer said, while others are harder to pin down and affect the amount of working capital the business will need – the cost and amount of inventory, schedule of payment for your product or service, and, if you have employees, what their wages and benefits will be.

“New owners tend to underestimate the real cost of starting a business, and as a result, do not access sufficient funds to make the business successful,” noted Diemer. “Without sufficient working capital, the business will be limited in how it can respond to both increased demand and slow periods. Sales will be lost and performance hurt. The entrepreneur will very likely find him or herself in the unenviable task of once again looking for additional financing rather than concentrating on business operations.”

Things have been different for lenders and borrowers since the economy stumbled in 2008. Since the U.S. Small Business Administration stimulus ended last December, Diemer has noticed small business lending has slowed.

“There has been some improvement in lending to small business start-ups, but much of it is predicated on the strength of the borrower, experience in the industry, strength of that industry and the amount of equity they can bring to the table,” he explained. “The strength of their business plan and their support of network (franchise, professional, incubator, etc.) can also be factors.”

Diemer and Rock will discuss these and other start up business financing issues even further during their breakout session.

Do what you love – with a little help

EVELYN McLEAN-COWAN, OWNER of McLean-Cowan Graphic Design in Fond du Lac, has attended E-Connect since its inception. After she graduated from Minneapolis College of Art and Design and gained work experience in Madison and Minneapolis-St. Paul, her business was born in Minneapolis in 1990, with some mentoring from a previous employer. A year later she brought it to Fond du Lac.

“At the E-Connect events I have learned about different business practices and have had the opportunity to network with other business owners,” said McLean-Cowan. “This year will be my fourth E-Connect. I highly recommend it to other entrepreneurs.”

An idea or young venture can develop into something beyond the initial plans and become even more rewarding. “What started out as something we wanted to do has become something that we are now passionate to do,” said Martin. “The idea that we would do this until we decided what we would do next has become something that potentially now could be a part of our family and this community for years to come.”

Robin Bruecker has more than 15 years of experience in feature writing and marketing communications. Contact her at robindb41@sprint.blackberry.net.