Of all the entrepreneurial advice given a group of about 75 college students, small business owners and others in the Mammel Hall auditorium, perhaps the best came from keynote speaker Gerry Phelan. The owner of Midwest Woodworkers, who overcame a rough start at the onset of the recent recession and the loss of a key employee to renewed success in the marketplace, offered this: "Try stuff, see if it works. You'll spend way too much time analyzing stuff. Just get out there and try it."
Phelan wasn't the only speaker who urged enthusiasm and action during the Young Entrepreneur Summit at the University of Nebraska at Omaha March 16. He just may have put it best.
"If you knew you couldn't fail, what would you do? Do that."
The summit also brought together a panel of up-and-coming small business owners moderated by Jeff Slobotski, co-founder of the techy, trendy Silicon Prairie News, offering anecdotes about launching a small business as a young adult or new mom, and financial pressures of growing a new company.
According to the Young Entrepreneurs Council, more than half of 16-39 year olds do not feel they have sufficient resources to start a business; 24 percent reported not having enough government or financial support. With youth unemployment twice the national average in many communities, particularly underserved neighborhoods and among veterans, SBA saw a need to promote and better support the efforts of young people looking to create jobs for themselves and others along with improving access to SBA resources and programs.
Omaha was an ideal location for the first such event in Region VII, with its strong core of entrepreneurial energy and success in start-up financing.
Pat Brown-Dixon, Region VII Administrator, agreed nurturing young small business owners is important for the state's future economic development.
"You guys are a source of innovation and long-term job growth," Brown-Dixon said.
Part of that core of small business support in the area is Sangeeta Badal, chief researcher for Gallup's entrepreneurship and job creation initiative. During her keynote address, Badal sought to explain small business growth as a function of delegation, perpetual learning and building relationships.
Badal said to the young audience: "Always ask yourself: 'How can you develop and cultivate an entrepreneurial attitude?'"
Phelan, a participant in Gallup's Entrepreneurship Acceleration System, had an answer for them.
"I bought the business right in the teeth of the recession," he explained. "I wrote in my financial projections that we'd have modest, 1.5 percent growth." Instead, suffering an unusually heavy winter with snows that clogged his small parking lot, and an important employee suffering a heart attack, his business was hit with a 15 percent decline in revenue that first year.
But Phelan persevered at his 146th and Center location, and learned plenty in the process.
"The first thing, you get to make a lot of decisions, a lot. They come at you like no other. It just never stops," he said, before adding, "so you have to be decisive, but you also have to know which decisions you have to study first."
Be prepared to work, too.
"You better be invested in (your business)," Phelan added, "because you're going to have to work all the hours. I'm in at 5:30 in the morning until 6 at night, and I take my laptop home. You aren't going to build (a business) by laying it all off on your people."
That was something with which each member of the event's discussion panel agreed.
Brian Smith, who heads the sales department for the Omaha agency Rebel Interactive, and who also runs Black Sheep Farms with his wife, Kelly, said getting a small business up and going is an "obsession."
"It's not a part time thing," Smith said. "You go to bed and wake up thinking about work."
For Slobotski, he enjoyed such success building his now-successful blog as a hobby on the side that he quit his day job in Dec. 2010.
"At my core, I knew I needed to give it a shot," Slobotski said. "When I came to hiring a couple of folks, that's when I cut ties with my day job. I think you know at your core when to go. If you fail, you can always go somewhere else, build something new."
And getting the support from family is crucial. "If it's your passion, and your family does not support it, I'm saying if you don't get that support from them after about 18 months, you're going to end up getting out of it."
Beka Doolittle, owner of The Pink Store, and self-described "mom-trepreneur," counted on support from her older boys and her husband in starting her online company. She juggles calls to her vendors between taking care of a toddler at home.
"When it's nap time, that's when I make my calls. Sometimes there's a temper tantrum in the background, and I just have to say, 'let me call you back,'" she laughed.
Blake Lawrence, co-founder of Hurrdat Social Media told the gathering: "When I go talk to young entrepreneurs, I tell them, 'if you have something you want to do, go for it. Do it now.' When you start adding a mortgage, family, it gets much harder. Three of my businesses partners went eight months without being paid."
Doolittle knew the same would happen with her small business.
"I knew we wouldn't rely on my business for a while, since I would rather take money from my business and put it back into it to grow it. I still clean houses three or four mornings a week for us to live on."
Smith added: "Putting money back into the business is critical to growth."
Another challenge many young entrepreneurs face is getting credibility in the rough and tumble business world.
"I had to trick people into giving me a chance to work with their brand," Lawrence admitted. "It's really all about getting validation. At the beginning, it was difficult to get people to understand the problem they had. It was hard as a young guy to walk into a room and command respect. But social media is young and hip, so I chose to enter an industry where it's more credible to be young. If someone tells you there's an exact return on investment in social media, they're nuts. You don't have to understand what I do, just understand our results."
To a person, each of the discussion panel members pointed to the foundation of resources available to small business owners as key to their entrepreneurial success.
Doolittle ticked off the Metro Omaha Women in Business Center, the popular Omaha Empowerment Breakfast, services from SCORE and the Nebraska Business Development Center, the Small Business Association of the Midlands, and the Procurement Technical Assistance Center for opening the doors to government contracting.
"I don't know where the Pink Store fits in the federal government, but I know it does somewhere," Doolittle added.
Lawrence, whose company participates in InternNE, a state program which offers $1.5 million for companies to offer paid internships, is like Phelan a part of Gallup's Entrepreneurship Acceleration System. His company also secured an SBA-financed line of credit last year.
Smith added that his firm has called on a network of people "for advice and support, then we leveraged that support to make connections where none existed."
Slobotski said that local support and networking was crucial to taking his site from a side hobby to a full-time business. “People want to support you and your business, but they can’t help you unless you show up and let them know you exist. I mean, if you need help, the answer is 100 percent no if you don’t show up and ask.”