Thursday, March 15, 2007

Free advice for entrepreneurs

posted by Andy Leff
They say there's no such thing as a free lunch. But there IS such a thing as a free entrepreneur networking event.

Two days ago, Seun, Kate, and I joined the Entrepreneurs Forum of Greater Philadelphia (EFGP) at their monthly networking-slash-education event. March's topic: “How Philadelphia 100 CEOs Leverage Technology for Company Growth.

The networking part of the evening turned out to be much more valuable than the panel discussion. I got the chance to speak one-on-one with a number of attendees, many of whom own and operate small businesses or consulting shops.

I found out they're all facing the same challenge in their business development right now. They all want to figure out how to leverage the Internet to set up shop, boost sales, or grow their business. That's why they came to this event -- to get advice from expert panelists on effective use of tech.

However, the panelists presented technology solutions in a big enterprise context. They talked about integration of complex systems in order to work payroll, sales, and management issues, rather than steps small businesses can take to gain online traction for their goods and services.

Still, some of their advice was useful. Panelist Chris Burkhard, founder and president of CBI Group, had the most to offer in terms of speaking to a small business audience. First, he discussed the importance of bootstrapping to ensure a business doesn't grow faster than its infrastructure can support.

Burkhard also stressed getting employees involved in software solutions at work. As he put it, this makes them 'road warriors using the software,' and puts them squarely 'in the trenches'. And my ears perked up when he noted the importance of blogs, wikis, and other online collaborative tools as a way to increase productivity.

Panelist Gerard Ferro, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of SUNRx, focused more on large-scale enterprise solutions such as or different software methods to increase the productivity of call centers and customer support units. (Definitely good advice for any business owner considering scaling their business, but perhaps a bit beyond this particular audience's needs.)

And he affirmed Burkhard's point that everyone at the organization needs to be involved in IT implementation to avoid confusion and hiccups. Drew Morrisroe, founder of CTN Solutions, Inc., seconded (thirded?) this, adding that the CEO must have a thorough understanding of IT issues at all times.

Morrisroe also pointed out that IT is a major investment. As such, it requires a decent budget, though he warned the audience to expect cost overruns. Morrisroe then raised an excellent point about the importance of keeping software updated, and knowing how those updates affect hardware and budgets. One tip: Design the organization's technology plan along the same lines as the business plan.

The real star of the evening was the guy who got up and gave his elevator pitch about his product 'Alligeter,' a device for pulling objects out of a garbage disposal. This final portion of the event -- when people could pitch their ideas to the whole audience -- was definitely worthwhile, and showed that the audience was focused on getting their small businesses noticed.

My advice for EFPG, should they cover this topic again: Provide information about free collaborative online services, and discuss in greater detail the new Web tools available to businesses. This will be of far greater and more immediate value to your small business audience.

And if you need any help, just give me and Seun a call. We're happy to contribute ;-)

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