If I knew then… Something like that phrase has been repeating in my thoughts since I got a job with the Economic Development Council for Island County. Last evening was a lot of that. For a few hours, EDC and RAIN hosted an event where, “…we will recognize our great community and honor recent graduates from the educational programs of the Small Business Innovation Fund (SBIF) in Island county.” I wonder how much better my business(es) would be if I knew about organizations and events like it when I was starting.
There’s the Economy and there’s the economy. The Economy, capitalized, is something that Fed chairs, the national banks, and politicians talk about on the news. That Economy is built from economies that are more regional; e.g. Island County’s. Those economies, lower case letters, are built from businesses. Businesses are built by people. Last night’s event was a collection of entrepreneurs, those individuals who support them, and the non-profits who help with training, resources, and making connections to programs that might lead to grants or loans. It was a collection of people who could keep me occupied for hours with stories of their ideas, plans, successes, and lessons.
For a couple of decades I’ve helped creative people who have ideas turn them into businesses, books, projects, or advocacies. Rarely did the topic of supportive organizations enter the discussion. Whenever loans or grants came up it was too easy to be discouraged by criteria, requirements, or simply scheduling. It was easy to be discouraged.
For my business, I was discouraged. Of my various inventions, business ventures like coworks, long-term art projects about nature, no programs became apparent at the same time and under the right conditions for me to successfully apply.
Friday evening, I applauded the entrepreneurs who found the right source, took the right classes, and made successful applications that can lead to a successful business.
I’ve always known about such folks, and they’ve always intrigued me.
What I didn’t realize until recently is that there is a network of economic development organizations, chambers of commerce, main street associations, angel investors, and fellow entrepreneurs who make much more happen by sharing opportunities. An entrepreneur may find the right program at the right time, but a network of such folks makes it easier to find the right opportunity because they are not working alone.
Entrepreneurs talking to entrepreneurs is powerful. In the world of writing, the most powerful tool a writer has is a fellow writer (WritingOnWhidbeyIsland.com); but add in the National Endowment for the Arts, Humanities Washington, and residency programs like those held by the National Parks and money may be involved. Exposure on social media is a necessity, but that exposure is amplified with the credentials and support that comes from being recognized by established organizations.
Uh. Establishment. Didn’t we run away from that in the Sixties and Seventies? Just like Economy versus economy, there’s Establishment and establishment. The Establishment was perceived as draconian and far from diverse. Being established is proof of sustainability. Dealing with established people and organizations means there’s proof of trust, and proof of trust makes financiers more willing to finance – whatever.
If I knew then what I know now…
I still wouldn’t wear a suit. But then, keep in mind that I live in an era after we distanced ourselves from The Establishment; and I live in the US, which has been more innovative and entrepreneurial than Europe; and I live in the upper northwest corner of the lower 48 States (sorry Alaska, but aren’t you glad to not be part of the ‘lower’?), which is people who distanced themselves from the conventions of the East Coast; and I live on an island where the locals see Seattle as ‘Merika.
With what I know now, I’d do simple, inexpensive things like attend the Chamber of Commerce meetings, sit in on city planning discussions, read the news, listen to the news that won’t make the news, learn from neighboring businesses by visiting them (and buying something as appropriate), and joining organizations that advocate for the local economy (Join Us) and each other. The other benefit is finding out how each differs. Is their focus one business, concentrating on one city, or working for the benefit of a larger region?
Yes, networking is powerful. It isn’t a panacea, but nothing is. (Let me check my lottery tickets.)
I’m 64 years old. I know there are success stories from people who started businesses at my age and older. I have a job with the Economic Development Council for Island County; but, my mind is not going to turn off and will continue coming up with new ideas and collaborations.
I moved to Whidbey Island in 2005. I was frugally retired. I was more interested in being on the giving end, and thought my stocks would recover to the point where I could be an angel investor and philanthropist. This blog chronicled how that almost happened, then really didn’t. I am an optimist. It may yet happen again.
If I knew then what I know now, I would’ve attended more of those organizations’ meeting, and sought out more to find the ones that best matched my interests. I had the time. For a while I had the money.
I also recognize that, while that’s a fine plan, many of the people I’ve worked with were in a similar situation as mine when I became frugal by necessity rather than by choice. As finances degraded, it became necessary to spend more time trying to make more money, sadly in jobs that were never quite enough. We can’t do it all, but we do what we can.
In the early years of the internet, it was more necessary to network; but it was also harder. Meeting for coffee sounds trivial until you’re in a situation where a coffeeshop is expensive. Meeting may only take 10-15 minutes, but carving out the time to prep, commute, follow-up, and then recover the lost work hours can cost hours. Now, online makes that all cheaper, granted at the cost of personal contact.
I could close this by making more general, philosophical, and academic allusions. That’s writing. But instead, I’ll use this opportunity to plug my new employer. (EDC) Why Join Us? There are enough reasons that I won’t list them all, that’s what the web site is there for. The opportunities are changing frequently enough that there’s a blog and a newsletter worth reading. The most powerful resources though are probably the people. Ask your business questions and hopefully that eventually leads to a better economy for the community whether that’s a few folk, the county, the region, the country, the planet.
Hmm. I ended up writing about the planet and all I was planning on was writing about a meeting in a bar. I guess it’s all connected.