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Entrepreneur Michael Serbinis speaks at the Globe and Mail Small Business Summit in Toronto on May 9, 2017. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR)
Entrepreneur Michael Serbinis speaks at the Globe and Mail Small Business Summit in Toronto on May 9, 2017. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR)

Small Business Summit

Six key takeaways from the Globe and Mail Small Business Summit Add to ...

Many of the country’s leading entrepreneurs gathered May 9 for The Globe and Mail Small Business Summit in Toronto. Panels and talks focused on business issues, from building workplace culture to using social media to stay ahead of the pack. Read on for six key takeaways.

1. Mistakes can drive innovation. Steve Beauchesne, of Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company, learned that early on. “We spent two years developing our first batch of beer and we were confident we had it right,” he says. But a third of the batch froze, creating a super-concentrated “8 per cent juggernaut” of a beer. “My aunt had three pints and she was wasted,” he says.

The good news: it tasted great. So rather than throwing it out, Mr. Beauchesne made handbills for potential customers admitting, “We goofed on the beer, but it tastes great,” and urging them to try it. “We were honest about it,” he says. “But we refused to accept that it was inherently flawed just because it wasn’t what we expected.”

The upshot: the beer won an award, and a culture of both transparency and innovation was born.

2. Hang in there. When Allen Lau launched Wattpad in 2006, iPhones weren’t yet on the scene. But Mr. Lau believed there was room in the marketplace for a reading app that allowed people to share stories online. “We aimed to have a million people sign up by the end of the first year,” he says. He was off by about five zeros.

Still, Mr. Lau was certain there was a place for his product. He kept it going for three years by consulting on the side and keeping expenses to a bare minimum. At least with a tech company, he says, the initial capital requirements are usually low. The extra time gave Wattpad a chance to build the user base it needed to monetize.

Now, the app has 45-million monthly users and more than 150 million original story uploads, and Wattpad Brand Solutions uses stories to build engagement with consumers. A recent example: a story in which the protagonist dies while texting and driving, written for AT&T. “If you possibly can,” says Mr. Lau. “Offer yourself a longer runway.”

3. Empower your staff. Design diva Sarah Richardson recommends surrounding yourself with people you want to spend time with and then giving them room to take on responsibility, grow and achieve success in their own right. “There’s no hierarchy with me,” she says. “I don’t have an assistant. I think of my team as partners.” Mohamad Fakih, founder of Paramount Fine Foods, agrees. “Your biggest asset is your team,” he says. The proof: “I own a restaurant chain and I can’t even cook.”

4. Reports of the cold call’s death have been greatly exaggerated. When it comes to B2B selling, “picking up the phone is still one of the most effective ways to reach your customers,” says Ben Firman, co-founder and managing director of sales skills training firm 80-20 Growth Corporation. The key, he says, is to sell potential clients on the problem you can solve for them, rather than focusing on your product’s gee-whiz features.

To do that, you need to know something about their company. A fact-finding call to a salesperson at the target firm can help you gather info to carefully craft a pitch. Mr. Firman’s rule of thumb: the first and last 10 per cent of the pitch should be customized, and the middle 80 per cent can be standardized.

5. There’s no such thing as “social media marketing.” That, from social media strategist Dani Gagnon, CEO of Dani G. Inc. “Social media was created as a social tool, not a marketing tool,” she says. If you’re actually going to reach an audience, you have to write for your target market, not as a way to further your business.

That means making content interactive, clever and truly social; and framing it to reflect the things the Internet is talking about (to ensure it is more widely shared). A recent example: Ms. Gagnon persuaded an insurance company to reference TV show The Walking Dead on its Facebook Page by launching a poll titled, “Which character is most likely to need life insurance this season?”

6. Don’t be the fly on the elephant. As CEO of League Inc., serial entrepreneur Michael Serbinis raised $25-million (U.S.) from investors for a digital platform that connects employers and consumers with health and wellness service providers. He didn’t do it by touting his ability to simply “get a piece” of the 100 year-old workplace benefits industry, but by promising to transform it.

“The experience sucks, and I want to fix that,” he told them, pointing out that League’s approach is fundamentally different in that it unlocks restrictive caps and allows employees to use health care dollars on services they need most. “It’s not enough to be the “fly on the elephant,” Mr. Serbinis says. Truly transformative companies aim to “be the elephant.”

View a photo gallery of The 2017 Globe and Mail Small Business Summit at https://www.globesummits.ca/photo-gallery

Read Mayor John Tory's comments about how Toronto needs to modernize its practices to help small business here.

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