By Bethany Ao
In celebration of National Small Business Week, Comcast Business and CNBC’s The Profit hosted a panel and networking event for Chicago’s business community Tuesday evening at Studio Xfinity in the Loop.
National Small Business Week acknowledges the crucial contributions small businesses and entrepreneurs make to America’s economy each year. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, more than half of Americans either own or work for a small business, and they create two out of every three new jobs each year.
At the event, business owners could also apply for a shot at working with investor Marcus Lemonis on The Profit. They filled out a written application and entered a casting booth, where they recorded a business pitch to Lemonis.
The panel was hosted by Kate Rogers, a small business reporter for CNBC, and included Julianna Reed (winner of “The Partner” Season 1), Giovanni Senafe (co-owner and founder of Bentley’s Pet Stuff and contestant on The Profit Season 3), Tom Kuczmarski (senior partner and president of Kuczmarski Innovation) and Matthias Merges (owner of Folkart Restaurant Management).
Panel members discussed everything from the current state of entrepreneurship in Chicago to challenges small business owners may face in their first few years.
Both Merges and Kuczmarski highlighted Chicago as a national hotspot for entrepreneurs. Kuczmarski cited Chicago’s diverse workforce as a reason why small businesses and startups have taken off recently, as well as the connections between academic institutions, corporations, city officials and venture capitalists.
“Right now is a great time for small businesses in Chicago because we’ve built infrastructure in the last three to four years in this city,” Merges said. “There’s such a good energy on the street, even though Illinois’ economy is still in a bit of turmoil.”
Senafe talked about how many companies are getting too big for consumers to trust. Because of that, consumers have never been more willing to give small businesses a chance than today.
“Consumers really want transparency from companies,” he said. “The strength of small businesses is that their missions are always strong, even if the infrastructure is not. Everyone wants to believe in who they’re giving money to.”
Both Reed and Senafe said working with Lemonis was transformative for them in terms of how they approached business. Senafe spoke about how the investor pushed him out of his comfort zone during his time on The Profit, which led him to become more comfortable taking risks and making mistakes.
“Trying to talk yourself out of doing something because there’s a chance of failure was useless. He’ll just tell you that even if you fail, you’ll at least learn something,” Senafe said. “As small business owners, we can be so scared sometimes that we resist opportunities.”
Reed also spoke about the importance of holding yourself to the highest standard possible as a small business owner.
“The most important lesson I learned from Marcus was to be authentic. Marcus is exactly who he is on TV,” she said. “At the end of the day, you wanted to work on the level he’s working on or higher.”
Many audience members had questions after the panel discussion about how to develop good business relationships and pick the right partners. Merges said a key trait to beginning successful partnerships is humility. Business owners must be able to be self-critical so they can surround themselves with people who complement them.
Drew Herbert, owner of Herbert Designs, decided to come to the panel and networking event after chatting with a Comcast Business representative during a routine visit. Comcast Business provides support and resources for businesses of all sizes, including features like business internet and business TV.
“This panel was very insightful for me as a small business owner in Chicago,” Herbert said. “The panelists gave excellent, real advice for people with small businesses.”