“What gift can you bring to the market?”

By: Alicia Teel Posted: 03/11/2019

Small business leaders share their advice for success in a growing city


On March 7, more than 50 Seattle Metro Chamber members gathered for the latest session in our Elevate NW Series to discuss how small businesses can successfully grow in a rapidly changing city.   

This series is a free quarterly program designed specifically for small and mid-size businesses, who make up 80 percent of the Chamber's membership. It is a companion to our second annual Elevate NW Conference on April 30, where we'll dive into topics such as getting started with financing options, putting your company on track for growth, and developing a company culture that enhances employee engagement. 

Thank you to our Elevate NW series sponsor, Advanced Professionals Insurance and Benefit Solutions, and to our session promotional partners: Intentionalist, Seattle Southside Chamber of Commerce, and Ventures.

Small Businesses in a Big City 

The session began with an interactive exercise where participants voted on questions such as the best way to market their business on a budget, dealing with competition, top challenges they face, and how the growth in our region benefits small businesses. Participants shared their experiences - for example, how they have built social capital through community partnerships as well as how they nurture existing customer relationships.

Then, our moderator Domonique Meeks, small business advocate with the City of Seattle's Office of Economic Development, transitioned to a panel discussion featuring Kristi Brown, founder and chef of That Brown Girl Cooks!, Vivian Hua, executive director of Northwest Film Forum, and Anna Johnson, vice president of operations and chief of staff for DRY Soda Co. Panelists shared their experiences as leaders of three small employers that have grown along with Seattle, and several major themes emerged. 

1. Lead With Purpose 

Panelists emphasized that having a clearly established purpose is particularly important as a small employer because it helps direct limited resources. Johnson spoke about how DRY Soda identified a niche in the market - carbonated, non-alcoholic beverages that pair well with food - and shared how staying focused on meeting that need has helped drive the company's success even as it competes with larger businesses.

Similarly, Brown shared that when she started her first company, she observed, "Everybody’s got to eat. We offer that opportunity with more flavorful food than you normally get to eat, especially in corporate settings.” This commitment to food, flavor, and expanding representation in Seattle's catering market has propelled her to success, including a new restaurant opening soon in the Liberty Bank Building on 24th and Union. She advised the audience to think, "What gift can you bring to the market?"

Brown pointed out that in addition to a sense of purpose for the company, she advises small employers to think through how the business or organization aligns with what you, the business operator, want out of life. For example, after decades of taking food to people through her catering business, she was ready for the customer to come to her. This led her to the decision to open her new restaurant in the Central District, which she called "an alignment with who we are, the people we want to affect, and what we want to do."

2. Play to Your Strengths 
When an audience member asked panelists about the characteristic that has allowed them to stay in business, Hua responded without hesitation, "Adaptability." She noted that Northwest Film Forum's model and services have changed and its audience has expanded, and those changes have carried the organization to nearly 25 years in the community. Hua noted that as Northwest Film Forum thinks about what is next, one issue at the forefront is space. She said, "We don't own our building, and that's a reality." She added, "Space is critical. It's what we need for survival," a concern that other arts organizations in Seattle share. 

Johnson pointed to DRY Soda's sense of purpose - noting that the company at one point went down to just two employees, including the founder, and rebuilt from there based on this core purpose. She observed, "The world is going to change around you," and that having a north star helps identify what is important. Johnson also noted that when it comes to employee retention, DRY Soda does not have the resources to pay its employees the salaries that large companies would, so they focus on what their most successful employees value: having a clear sense of purpose and seeing their contributions come to life. 

3. Build Inclusive Communities 

Our panelists also spoke candidly about their experiences as leaders who look different from other leaders in their respective industries. Hua shared that she has worked to overcome an ingrained, unconscious sense of self-worth that initially led her to gloss over herself as a candidate for Northwest Film Forum's open executive director position. Now, as one of the few women of color leading a film organization, she has had the opportunity to meet other young women of color interested in film and helped them see themselves represented - a gratifying experience. Hua noted that as a leader, she also thinks about how to continue bringing along the original demographic at the core of the Film Forum's audience, "male film nerds." Increasing diversity in cinema has helped expand the range of stories and maintain broad appeal for audiences old and new, she said.   

Brown noted as she often found herself in business meetings "stepping into a room, always all men, and always white men." What helped was knowing that she was ready for the next step, and having checked and rechecked the numbers to bolster her confidence. Brown also spoke about the opportunity still ahead for established voices to "put the work behind the word." She pointed out, "it's not about getting POCs to the table. It's everyone being at the table." For genuine, meaningful representation, she elaborated, people from diverse backgrounds must have the opportunity for meaningful, sustained engagement and input.  

4. Learn From Failure 

The panel also tackled the topic of failure. Johnson noted that she and her colleagues first ask, "Are we giving this idea enough time?" when a new venture doesn't perform as expected. She acknowledged that particularly as a small business with limited resources, it can be difficult to balance being responsive with the very real costs of changing direction over and over - and that situations like these are when having a higher purpose is useful in navigating the answer.

Johnson also shared the "pre-mortem" strategy that DRY Soda uses. Before a big venture, leaders from various departments come together to think through why something would be a colossal failure - for example, what if all of a sudden, people did not like carbonation? Working through different aspects of why an effort falls flat helps DRY Soda “see around the corner” and gives the company another tool to identify the right time for a new venture.