There are no competitive incentive packages or giant tax breaks. When you open your new store or office, a ribbon may be cut and punch served, as a couple of nasty people whisper to one another you won’t make it six months.
No one has a summer Mardi Gras parade downtown in your honor and most likely the entire Alabama delegation will not be flown in via private jet to make speech after speech at your grand opening. (Wait, that may not be such a bad thing. I kid, I kid.)
In this day and age, when states are fighting to land multi-million-and-billion-dollar enterprises, small businesses and their impact some times get overlooked. This is not to say the big guys are bad. Not at all. I was just as uber-excited about landing the steel plant formerly known as TK (now AM/NS) and Airbus as everyone else in this city/state/region.
I literally had chill bumps for 30 minutes at the Airbus announcement at the Convention Center, as “Don’t Stop Believing” and “I Believe I Can Fly” blasted through the loudspeakers and images of what amazing things this was going to do for our city danced through my head.
We need big business without question. But it is our small businesses that not only Keep Mobile Funky, but alive and kicking.
This week the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce has been celebrating Small Business Week, “a new initiative to recognize and celebrate entrepreneurship and small business.” They have had a resource fair and workshops all week to assist small businesses in finding tools they need to take them to the next level. They get it. Ninety-four percent of all businesses that belong to the Chamber are considered small, with 100 employees of fewer. Forty-five percent of those have just 1-5 employees.
In honor of this week, the Chamber kindly asked me to tell Lagniappe’s story in this space. I thought certainly after 12 years people are sick of hearing this story, but since I am a narcissistic columnist, I was happy to oblige them anyway.
The year was 2002. Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” was the Number One song in the nation. I had been trying to find myself since graduating with a Communications Degree from South Alabama in 2000. I looked for myself in Europe, Gulf Shores and Austin, Texas, but could not find said self, so I moved back to Mobile, where I thought myself may be.
I was unsuccessfully applying for PR and advertising jobs. In between bartending shifts and waiting for calls for interviews that never came, I began sketching out with a ball point pen on typing paper the newspaper that would ultimately become Lagniappe. I even taped the sides of it together. Fancy! The “Loaded Question” was the first sketch, and I was calling it “The Mobile Mirror” at the time (I thought little mirrors would be cute promotional products. How precious!)
Other than taping pieces of typing paper together and thinking it would be cool to start a newspaper, I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I took this “Mirror” masterpiece to Rob, who I had met through mutual friends. He had worked in newspapers and was the adviser for South’s paper The Vanguard at the time. He knew a bit more about the biz than I did, though as we would discover, we both still had a lot to learn. We began talking about it, and he added his own ideas to the “mock up,” and it quickly became clear we needed to be partners on this ambitious project.
He wasn’t as impressed by the “Mirror” name or promotional products and suggested “Lagniappe,” a creole word which meant “ a little something extra for free,” which is exactly what we were going to be offering. Perfect! Though we often question that choice now. “Let’s name our paper something strange no one can spell, pronounce or knows the meaning of. Brilliant!”
The first few years (maybe even longer), we would get countless calls to the office, asking how to say it, and we still do on occasion. I estimate I have spelled and/or pronounced Lagniappe for someone approximately 3,004,652 times over the last 12 years, give or take a hundred thousand.
But back to 2002, we were full of creativity but not much business sense. Our very first purchase was a stereo from Circuit City, which was important (and still kicking today in all its dual cassette glory).
But after the all-important office sound system was purchased, then what? How do we actually start a business? We apparently need something called a business plan. What’s this about Articles of Incorporation? And licenses? And funding? And insurance? And payroll? And taxes?
Like most people, we knew the product we wanted to produce inside and out, but navigating the “business” side of things was a bit more foreign. Luckily, we had great friends and advisers, and we were able to utilize the Women’s Business Center, who helped provide a road map to getting through this start-up period. And even if you are not women, like me and Rob, there is a network of more than a dozen resource partners in Mobile who can help all aspiring entrepreneurs navigate this process.
And I wish I could say this “business” side of things ends once you get up and running. But it doesn’t. In fact, as you grow, it gets more and more complicated and time consuming. But if you don’t give this side the attention it deserves you will prove those nasty people at your ribbon cutting right, and you will be putting the closed sign on your front door for the last time before you even really get started. So it’s important to keep these resources handy throughout the life of your business. If you start to find success, you are going to eventually need more capital to grow and there will be even more plans needed. And so on and so forth.
We are far from perfect business people, but we knew what we didn’t know, and we knew it was important for us to find the people who could guide us in the right direction. And the resources like the Chamber can provide is an excellent place to start.
Most people said we wouldn’t be around six months either. And when we look back at some of the first papers, we are sometimes amazed we did. But we are able to stick it out and steadily grow. We have quintupled our circulation, gone from biweekly to weekly and from two full time employees to 10. (Gosh, maybe we deserve a new sound system for the office – a fancy iPod or something.)
It’s not easy. It’s a constant struggle, but one I feel is well worth it for a variety of reasons. As a whole, small businesses employ way more folks than those big guys do (Not that anyone’s counting. Oh wait, yeah, someone apparently is). But beyond just the stats and economics of it all, our small businesses provide our city so much more …its soul.
Happy Small Business Week!
For information on how you can access the aforementioned resources, visit mobilechamber.com/small-business.