What was the well-dressed, tech savvy Shark from ABC’s primetime hit, “Shark Tank” doing in the Midwestern city whose population hovers just above 10,000? He was kicking-off the Small Business Revolution Main Street, the brainchild of Deluxe Corporation and led by marketing maven, Amanda Brinkman, chief brand and communications officer for the company.
For such a small city, often called a town, Wabash has a couple of firsts to brag about. Historians say that in 1880, it was the first city in the world to flip the switch for electric street lights. More recently, the community lit up again when it was named the winner of the first Small Business Revolution Main Street Campaign after surpassing runner-up Silverton, Oregon in votes. As the victor, Wabash received $500,000 to revitalize local business, and some of the city’s small business owners got the rare opportunity to be mentored by Herjavec and Brinkman on business operations, and sales and marketing strategy.
When Deluxe Corporation celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2015, they used the occasion to spotlight small business owners and entrepreneurs throughout America by featuring them in a new initiative, the Small Business Revolution documentary led by Brinkman who also invited Herjavec to participate. He was moved by their mission, so he agreed.
“We went across the country and told the stories of one hundred small businesses and created a documentary capturing the experience. One of the things we noticed when we were on that journey last year is that small businesses really are struggling in small towns, and we wanted to do something about that,” said Brinkman.
The documentary series evolved into the 2016 Small Business Revolution Main Street Campaign where people across the country were asked to nominate their favorite small towns to receive a half-a-million dollars to revitalize their business district. Through a nomination and voting process, Wabash landed in first place.
Deluxe created an eight-episode online docuseries that debuted in September showcasing six different businesses in Wabash that received guidance from Herjavec, Brinkman, and the marketing team back at Deluxe’s Minneapolis headquarters.
The Main Event
Arriving in Wabash, Brinkman and Herjavec met individually with business owners to hear their goals, challenges, and fears for their companies and their families. Herjavec soon realized that he was a shark swimming in a new territory.
“‘Shark Tank’ is investment on steroids and you've got to add value right away. But when you go to Wabash, you notice how genuine and salt-of-the-earth and nice people are. Like anywhere, they want to do good. No town owns the rights to the American Dream. It's alive and well even in a small community,” he said.
Immediately evident to Brinkman was the passion business owners had for their community. “They all really felt a responsibility for doing well in order to make sure that Wabash did well, and you just noticed their warmth and willingness to change,” she said, also noting that she was struck by the strong sense of commitment owners have to their employees’ families.
Herjavec agreed and added, “What we tried to instill in them is a certain discipline and passion for the business itself. The business is a living breathing thing, and you've got to feed it and you've got to take care of it.”
Brinkman and Herjavec counseled Wabash business owners within their individual areas of expertise, but Herjavec feels his nice-guy image may have taken a hit.
“The only problem was that Amanda is so nice, that I ended up having to deliver the bad news. So somehow, I ended up being the Kevin O'Leary of the series, which is incredible because I have hair,” Herjavec chided, calling out his “Shark Tank” colleague known for delivering blunt blows to people seeking a hefty investment from the Sharks. Oddly enough this has become part of O’Leary’s charm on the show.
“The two things that we tried to help all the businesses with were to get their marketing in great shape and help them think through their business from a numbers perspective to make sure they had a healthy grasp on how they were making money and how they need to look at their business moving forward,” said Brinkman. For instance, in episode 2 of the online docuseries, when Herjavec saw that inconsistent accounting practices affected the profits earned by Harry and Judy Kilmer, owners of Harry’s Old Kettle Pub & Grill, he told them, “Today, you’re working to exist, you’ve got to start working to live.”
“On the marketing side, we saw a lot of the businesses didn't have websites, or weren't using email marketing to bring back past clients – basic marketing best practices that we were happy to help them with.”
The Small Business Revolution Main Street not only delivered a $500,000 facelift and priceless mentoring to Wabash, it’s been a public relations dream. The city, its businesses, and its residents were thrust into the national virtual spotlight giving travelers a reason to consider the locale as a destination. Christine Flohr, executive director of tourism for Visit Wabash County, acknowledged that the impact of the revitalization also helped spawn new ideas on how local government can more fully support commerce.
“The Small Business Revolution created a paradigm shift in thinking on how Wabash generates economic stability by supporting the small business sector and entrepreneurial spirit. Through conversations with thought-leaders like Amanda and Robert we readily recognized a significant gap in support-services to our small businesses. The Small Business Revolution program has done so much more than just change the aesthetics of our downtown, it’s changing communities and lives. It has given us hope that Wabash is on the right path for economic success and it reminded us of what can be accomplished when an entire community collaborates together for the greater of all.”
Like every great adventure, you hope there is more to come and Deluxe is not disappointing. Hopeful towns can vie for the top spot in the 2017 Small Business Revolution Main Street Campaign by entering their nomination at smallbusinessrevolution.org.
According to Brinkman, Deluxe will consider what challenges the town and its small businesses face, how the town might utilize this kind of revitalization, and if can they benefit from not just the cash infusion but also the expertise of Herjavec and Brinkman along with the Deluxe team.
“We all have the opportunity to use what we do for a living to help make other people’s lives better, and this is certainly a culmination of that in in the best form,” said Brinkman summing up the motivation behind the Small Business Revolution initiative.
To view the eight-episode Small Business Revolution docuseries and learn more about how to enter your city or town in next year’s campaign, visit: smallbusinessrevolution.org
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