Hiring a large company is easy. It’s comfortable. There’s name recognition and you feel relaxed in the feeling that they know what they are doing. But you’re just a tiny part in a huge machine, and just because they’re big doesn’t mean they’re going to deliver on what you need.
That’s why, then, it’s important to lean on small businesses. Not just because supporting our community is vital to its success but because they bring a fresh, personalized outlook.
Imagine working for yourself. You’re your own boss, but health care and HR decisions fall on your shoulders. You call all of the shots, but you also call all of the shots—the buck stops with you. You can work in your pajamas, sipping coffee at your kitchen table, but you need to network like crazy to get your name out there.
Luckily, there are pros across the state who have taken the leap and followed their dreams (some with a solid plan, some where it just seemed to happen). One thing’s for sure, they know what they’re doing.
Born from Tragedy
After 9/11, many people in the meetings and events industry were laid off because meetings were getting cancelled throughout the year. Dana Ellis was one of those people. So, in 2002, instead of heading out on the job hunt, she hired herself and started Ellis International LLC—a meeting, planning and production company that works mostly with corporate and association meetings with a few galas and fundraisers thrown in for good measure.
“It sounds crazy,” she says. “But it actually worked.”
When Ellis committed to the idea of starting out on her own, the biggest challenge was getting her name out there. While she’d been in the game for more than a decade, her old job had her planning events out of town—no one locally knew who she was. If she wanted to succeed, she knew she needed to make herself known.
The first big thing was throwing a fundraiser pro bono for a nonprofit.
“That was a lot of networking and meeting new people,” she says. “I got to work with new people and got out in front of people that didn’t know me.”
Now, with a Minneapolis-based company of four and a number of contractors (all of whom work in a virtual office and serve a core group of clients), Ellis doesn’t need to advertise or market as much as she did in the past. But, she still continues to network, serving as a Twin Cities branch president for SPIN and attending MPI events. Through these associations, planners get to know one another and, if a larger event that needs extra resources comes up, planners can collaborate to pull off a stunning event.
“Sometimes you need more bodies, and that is where we try to work together to take a role,” says Ellis. “Larger corporations sometimes don’t feel that you, as a small business, can necessarily meet their needs, but the truth is we can and we do the same thing as larger organizations.” ellisinternational.com
In It Together
Amy-Marie Lemanski, CMP, has been in the meetings and events industry since 1998. About three-and-a-half years ago, she decided to open her business, AML Events, which focuses primarily on corporate events, after finding herself in need of a new career path.
“I was in that lovely state of career transition,” she says. “I decided to take control of my own future, so I started on my own and I love it.”
Like many of the small businesses spotlighted here, Lemanski leans on other independent meeting planners for collaboration and support, including Sara Stark Mikolich and Dana Ellis. These sort of relationships help the small business owners work together on bigger projects that they might not be able to alone.
“We actually bounce a lot of ideas off of each other,” she says. “I wouldn’t even say we’re competitors because we have very different clients.”
This attitude is refreshing in a world where bigger companies might not get along, where they might compete against each other. It’s easy to see how these partnerships can help each and every small business be successful together, leaning on each other for different skill sets.
For Lemanski, food and beverage is something she could do in her sleep, but outside resources and other people help her with areas in which she has less expertise—like marketing. “We all have our own sweet spots,” she says. “We all very much complement each other.”
Small businesses, Lemanski says, are a huge boon for clients because they have one person focusing solely on them, whereas in a larger company there may be a rotating cast of characters, and their only priority isn’t you.
“Companies get a more personal service because they’re working with me and not a team of people,” she says. “They have an opportunity to build a relationship and have a better understanding of the various work. It’s a little bit more personalized and customized.” amlevents.com
Just Keep Swimming
At the age of 28, most people are just getting a handle on their careers, understanding what they want to do and who they want to be. In 2001, at the age of 28, Sara Stark Mikolich started her own company, an event venue and event consulting/planning company. She had to eventually close the venue as it opened right after 9/11 when the economic environment took a toll. But, the event consulting part moved forward and eventually became Stark Group.
“When I tell this story, I use the example that this was my MBA,” she says. “Even though it was one of the most hard and challenging experiences I have gone through, I learned so much and it helped me get where I am today.”
Like many, Mikolich collaborates with other small business owners for help, especially AML Events and Ellis International, as previously mentioned, and has cultivated relationships with vendors and service providers, which has proved invaluable. She’s also a member of SPIN and MPI, and part of a group of event planning companies that meet to discuss issues and share ideas. Technology has also been a resource, with mobile apps, A/V sets and more making her job easier and creating more engag - ing events.
Mikolich credits her success to the work ethic of her parents—especially her mom who was a successful real estate agent. For Mikolich, planning is second nature, something that helps her company thrive.
“I have always been entrepreneurial and resourceful,” she says. “My friends would say I was and am the planner of the group.”
Even though it was a challenge— and continues to be with the amount of projects she juggles—Mikolich sees a number of benefits in owning her own business.
“Working for myself has many upsides,” she says. “I love the fact that I can create my own schedule and the balance it allows for my family.” starkgroupinc.com
Wine All the Time
Anything that has to do with wine, Leslee Miller—certified sommelier and owner of Amusée in Minneapolis—is on top of. Wine consulting? Check? Catering? Check. In-home and corporate wine events? Check. Teaching classes? Check. International wine adventures? Check (and please sign us up). You get the picture. Miller knows her stuff.
“It’s so gratifying for me to watch people just enjoy wine,” she says. “People might be intimidated by wine. I’m all about giving them more knowledge so they feel more empowered to drink.” On Feb. 1 of this year, her company turned 13, and in that time she’s tried myriad things. At its start, Amusée was a seller consultant firm, but as time went on, she realized dipping her toes in a variety of wine-related activities was key to expanding her company. “As a small business owner, you have to try it all on, otherwise you’ll never know what you’re good at,” she says. “You might not think you’re good at something then try it and find you are good at that and want to make it a part of your company.”
Miller found a number of things she was good at, and her company stands out as one of its only kind not just in Minnesota but across the country. “My business is so unique that even if there is another busi - ness like mine, it would be so different from my own,” she says. “There’s really nothing else out there.”
Miller is constantly traveling to pick up different ideas and hone in on trends. She follows wine experts and reads their columns in the media. She also surrounds herself with mentors, especially strong business women who have started their own companies. She finds that success is all about leaning on others for help.
“Trying to manage all yourself can be pretty impossible,” she says. “You try to do all of it and eventually have to give up parts of it to be successful.”
At the end of the day all of the sweat and the tears and hours worked are worth it to do something you love. Future small business owners just need to find what they love and persevere.
“Being a small business owner is challenging every day, but it’s beautiful,” she says. “It’s insanely rewarding and you feel so proud when your business does well. I wish everybody was an entrepreneur.” amuseewine.com
A Hell of an Adventure
In his old job, Ryan Hanson, CSEP, of BeEvents planned 120 meetings a year across the country. He was busy, but after four years many of the events were repeats and the job started to feel routine. “Creative boredom” was setting in; the position didn’t give him room to grow, so he dropped what he was doing and collaborated with several industry pros to work on a private corporate event held during the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis in 2008.
After that, his phone rang nonstop. That was nine years ago. Now, he owns the Minneapolis-based design studio BeEvents and a rental company called BeThings, which launched in 2015.
“In hindsight, it must be what I was meant to do,” he says. “It wasn’t a plan but a happy accident. It claimed me more than I claimed it, and now I’m just trying to claim it.”
In that nine years, the biggest challenge Hanson has faced is finding the right talent and resources for the job. Getting access to great people is critical. One of the ways he has done that is through ILEA and other mentoring opportunities. He also cultivated a small team of five full-time members and parttime staff that help grow his business and give him some room to breathe.
As he puts it, Hanson likes to wear 10 hats at once to give the client the best possible service. But, over the years, he’s learned that he needs to occasionally take a step back. “When you’re always thinking of your clients, you don’t take care of yourself,” he says. “You have to make yourself a priority and know when to ask for help.”
Hanson loved his corporate job, but owning a small business has opened up opportunities to work on a wider variety of projects and experience the creative diversity he was lacking in a large company. And there’s been no regrets. “As a small business, you’re in charge of your destiny,” Hanson says. “It’s been one hell of an adventure.” beeventsdesign.com
A Leap of Faith
Rosemarie Ndupuechi always knew she was a risktaker. So, in 2014—after 20-plus years of working in the corporate world—Ndupuechi quit her job and started meeting with a career coach, something she highly recommends. At the same time, she committed her time to volunteering, eventually lending a hand to an event for the St. Paul Foundation. The woman she worked with was so impressed by her skills that she paid her to do another event and eventually encouraged her to start her own company.
And just like that, Occasions by Rosemarie was born. “It was a risk because I left a very good job,” she says. “Two years in, and I have no regrets.” Now, her business is a certified woman-owned business enterprise (WBE) and minority-owned business enterprise (MBE), and Ndupuechi is one of 300-plus small businesses approved as Super Bowl LII vendor selected by Business Connect.
For Ndupuechi, networking was huge. In the first year, she went to every industry-related networking event she could, including attending MPI events. “Don’t underestimate the value of networking,” she says. “It’s helpful to network with corporate event planners and learn and listen and observe. It was very, very helpful to do that.”
Based in Eagan, Ndupuechi works solo planning corporate events for profit and nonprofit conferences, meetings, galas and more. And even with networking, finding clients is something she’s always working toward as an entrepreneur. She constantly strives to meet clients’ needs, keeping in mind that the event is theirs, not hers.
“I’ve gotten clients and kept them and grown them, but it is hard work to find clients,” she says. “But you can’t take everything. Not every client is a fit for you. You need to be thoughtful and strategic about the types of events you’ll do.”
Keeping those clients means staying organized. Ndupuechi lists off a number of tools she uses to keep her head on straight, including an accountant—which she said is crucial—and a planning tool called Planning Pod. She is also active in a Facebook group for plan - ning events.
“I keep my clients on track,” she says. “Event planning can go off in many directions. I get them to focus and think about the end goal—the event day.” occasionsbyrosemarie.com
A Fortuitous Floral Finale
Starting her own design studio was never on Jennifer Guion’s career path. But, in 1996, she was laid off and everything changed. As part of her severance package, she was offered the opportunity to take education courses. She chose floral design and never looked back. “The course changed my world,” says the owner of Luna Vinca. “I really, really liked it.”
From there, she went on to work for a small florist to see how running a floral-focused company worked. She was hooked. “I had so many ideas,” she says. “I realized I really wanted to create my own business.” After that, she pored over business books, handwrote a business plan and headed out to banks to secure a loan. From there, Luna Vinca was born, first as a shop in Uptown then to a three-pronged design studio in Minneapolis. (The company does corporate events and weddings, everyday floral needs and flower delivery.)
Guion’s 20-year trip may sound like a fairy tale, but it was no easy ride— especially with the turbulent econo - my during the past two decades. She encourages those starting out in a small business or looking to open one to keep at it and understand that you won’t see results or large profits all at once—it takes time.
“If you have an idea and want to start your own labor of love, you have to be willing to be patient to start having the benefits come,” she says. “Be ready to work a lot and be really patient and let it grow.”
Guion used contractors as a resource to help her in the areas where she wasn’t already skilled. She hired a graphic artist to design ads and a website, and continues to contract help with courier service and an SEO specialist. And, while she first went at it alone, she now leans on a tight-knit crew of five.
ght-knit crew of five. Guion started out in the corporate laboratory world, never thinking she’d end up here. All it took was one floral design course to reveal her true path. “I don’t know what else I would possibly do if I didn’t do this,” she says. “It’s paid off; it’s been fantastic.” lunavinca.com