What is the essence of entrepreneurship?

Impressions from the Small Business Festival, Austin

Italian mammas are famous for their amazing sugo (pasta sauce). After breakfast they assemble the sauce and they let it simmer throughout the day until it is ready for dinner. Not only does the smell enrich every moment of that day, but to taste the essence of all these hours of simmering is a flavor sensation. In this post I will cook my own sugo by trying to distill the essence of entrepreneurship from the 40 speakers I heard last week at the Small Business Festival in Austin.


Small Business Festival Austin

panel discussion at Small Business Festival, Austin

Small Business Festival panel discussion

Last week Austin celebrated the National Small Business Week with a conference called the Small Business Festival. With almost 100 speakers the event offered a huge selection of learning opportunities for local business owners. I spent a good chunk of my week there and learned a lot from the experts, heard about trends, and listened to entrepreneurial stories. I am sure I will go back to the many notes I took many times over the next year. After soaking it all in, I tried to find out if there was something like a red line, an overall theme that ties it all together. In doing so, I realized that there actually are two topics which were part of almost every single talk I heard. And even though they are neither revolutionary nor new they are never the less extremely relevant for entrepreneurs: work the grind and relationships matter.


Work the grind.

Building a small business is hard work. Interestingly, this topic was never mentioned explicitly —  it wasn’t a bullet point or a leading argument in any session. But it somehow found its way into almost every discussion. I guess for most people it is a given that owning a business implies hard work. But sometimes, when we look at the glorious successes of those who made it and are stunned by the lightning speed of their growth and marvelous ideas that came at the right time and place, we forget that behind these gleaming results there is always tedious and hard work that precedes it.

As elegant as some of those success stories might sound, they also always include stories of painful failures. Several of the speakers, like Jae Kim (CEO and founder of Chi’Lantro), explain that they became who they are by learning through those failures. Furthermore, they don’t regret making the mistakes they made because the mistakes  shaped their business and ultimately their success. And several of those who now run a successful business had to close down their prior companies because they were not successful. Therefore, it is for a reason that several speakers talk about their “struggle” and feeling like a “warrior” to describe the intensity of the process of building a business. One of the speakers phrased it this way: “Being an entrepreneur is hard work – otherwise everyone would do it.”


Relationships matter.

Often when we want to improve our business we focus on new technology and the possibilities that go along with it and tend to overlook the importance of relationships. “We need to relate to people,” said Lisa Walker in her very engaging talk about Emotional Intelligence. This topic was addressed explicitly in most of the talks I heard. The fundamental impact of authentic, real relationships was illuminated from many different angles.


wearing VR glasses

Paul O’Brien

When media expert Paul O’Brien walked on stage wearing VR glasses that covered most of his face, he demonstrated visually how we need real face-to-face interactions — reactions that start with eye contact.


The editor and founder of Small Hustle Magazine, Ramon Ray, described that the secret of successful social media marketing is not in selling but in building a tribe a. He asks us to be givers, not takers, and to provide value to grow loyal fans — fans that are the foundation of your business.


Jae Kim, who now is the head of 200 employees at his company, describes it as a pivotal moment in his career when he realized the difference a smile can make. When he started to greet employees and coworkers with a smile he saw an increase in confidence and trust with his employees. A smile transforms relationships, which can then transform a company’s way of doing business.


Carey Jung shared a story about the ups and downs of growing his company, IT Freedom, over the last 20 years. Investing in strong relationships has been, for him, a core value from the very beginning. Because of those strong relationships and the trust and loyalty that was built, his company was able to navigate through an existential crisis. Empowering his employees became so important to Carey that he started to build a company of owners. Every year employees own a bigger part of the business. The ultimate goal is for the company to be owned entirely by their employees.


Preston James, CEO of DivInc, says that the key to growth for small businesses is in your network and your team. He encourages entrepreneurs to leave the path of isolation to seek and give help and advice.


And in the final talk of the Small Business Festival, Brian Smith, CEO and Founder of Uggs, shared what ultimately saved him when he thought he had to shut down his company the relationships he had built and the loyalty he had gained over the years from his customers. That was the advantage that helped him survive against a new competitor that imposed a huge threat.


Besides listening to these inspiring speakers, what makes a conference like the Small Business Festival so valuable is that it is an occasion to connect. Meeting other entrepreneurs, sharing struggles and successes, and learning about their challenges helps create relationships that will help our businesses thrive.


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