Small businesses ‘make connections’ at open house

Mark Ferguson
Mark Ferguson of the Small Business Administration discusses SBA loans on Friday, Sept. 9, at the Quad Cities Open House for Small Businesses and Entrepreneurs at Moline’s Black Hawk College. CREDIT DAVE THOMPSON

A woman selling furniture was looking for a chance to network. Another woman selling peanut cluster candy was looking for help promoting her food. Others were looking for loans, advice on how to improve their businesses and ways to make connections with customers.

Those were some of the scenes and people who attended the first Quad Cities Open House for Small Businesses and Entrepreneurs on Friday, Sept. 9.

Small Businesses
Small and startup business owners listen to presentations Friday, Sept. 9, during the first Quad Cities Open House for Small Businesses and Entrepreneurs at Black Hawk College in Moline. CREDIT DAVE THOMPSON

That event, held at Black Hawk College in Moline, brought together a variety of small business owners who were looking to do better business.

One of the top goals of the open house was to help the small business owners “make connections with others,” said Black Hawk College President Tim Wynes.

“As a community college, anything we can do to help businesses is good,” Mr. Wynes told the QCBJ just before the open house began.

The college president told the crowd that the idea for the open house actually began almost four years ago when he met with Bob Ontiveros, the now late Quad Cities businessman and philanthropist. Mr. Ontiveros put “the seed money down” to develop programs at the college to help local entrepreneurs, Mr. Wynes recalled.

The open house plan took a major step forward about a year ago when Black Hawk College officials met with a group in Tampa Bay, Florida, who had organized a business open house in their community. “We were told the first thing you will do is fail, but you will get better. … But, you have got to start,” Mr. Wynes said of the conversation in Florida.

Many attending the inaugural open house were looking for advice to get them started – or restarted – with their business adventures. For some of them, that start was all about  networking with other people in the business community.

Concepcion Medina
Concepcion Medina, owner of Just Beachy Home, was one of the business owners attending the Quad Cities Open House for Small Businesses and Entrepreneurs. CREDIT DAVE THOMPSON

“I want to network with other people,” said Concepcion Medina of Rock Island and owner of Just Beachy Home. “It’s really going to be cool to grow.”

Just Beachy Home is a business that fixes up and sells vintage furniture. It is currently doing business out of the Freight House Farmers Market.

Another business owner attending the open house was Renee Connor with her Sweets Treats business featuring handmade peanut cluster candy. “I’m here to get more experience in promoting my business,” she said.

In addition to small businesses like Sweets Treats and Just Beachy Home, the event attracted a variety of large and small businesses and advocacy and business groups that including Bridge Investments, Ascentra Credit Union, Rock Island Arsenal, Figge Art Museum, Dress for Success, CommunityCPA.com, Isa Balloon Design and More, and Tina Rinda Salon & Spa.

In some cases, the business owners had questions on ways to start a business, make it grow or change it, or how to bring in more customers.

These questions and more were tackled by a four-person panel from local chambers of commerce and business advocacy groups. One of the business tips shared at Friday’s event was: listen to the needs of the customers and be prepared to make changes to your business based on your customers.

For instance, Janessa Calderon, executive director of the Greater Quad Cities Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, gave the example of a problem facing Jennie’s Boxcar, a restaurant in East Moline. The business owners were looking for ways to attract more customers. They asked their customers what they wanted from Jennie’s and found out many people wanted more entertainment. So, live music and bands were brought in to play in the restaurant.

“In this case, a stand-alone restaurant wasn’t cutting it any more. You have to bring in entertainment,” said Ms. Calderon.

Some other business tips given included:

  • Tom Trone, a mentor at SCORE of the Quad Cities, said “Start with small steps and adapt” to changes. But his top piece of advice was to know your market and get the answer to this question: “Is there a market for what you want to do?”
  • Mark Ferguson, an Illinois SBA director, gave an overview of loan programs available through the SBA.
  • Mark Holloway, vice president of talent and inclusion for the Quad Cities Chamber, offered this advice: Develop a team to help with your business project; start small and dig deep; and have a positive attitude. “If you are passionate, you can succeed,” he added.

Mr. Holloway said that the event was not just about helping small businesses. It was also about getting those businesses in good shape to ultimately help the country.

“We need your passion. We need your new ideas. We need your food to keep the country vibrant,” he added.

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