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‘Speed dating’ bringing small biz, large corporations together

In this world of instant everything there’s even “speed dating” for businesses. That’s not the official name, but the concept is very similar for this business matchmaking started by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) in cities across the country. It’s a twist on the traditional trade show, mimicking its romantic counterpart by giving small business owners 15 minutes with contracting executives before a bell rings and they change chairs to meet the next person.

Getting that all-important face time with large corporations and government agencies is what it’s all about for the country’s 25 million small businesses. Local small business development officials support the speed dating concept, finding merit in the SBA’s new program.

“Access is the problem for small businesses. They work hard to make large companies aware of them, and that’s one way to do it,” said Lucy Betcher, who directs the Vendor Academy for Advanced Entreprenuership at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM). “It’s all about access, and this speed dating concept can be very useful.”

She said USM’s Financing Fair coming up August 16 in Gautier is a little bit of an offshoot of that concept. Small business people will move from table to table to talk with lending organizations.

But a word of caution comes from Dr. Stan Lewis, a professor of management information systems in USM’s College of Business Administration, regarding speed dating for businesses. “It would give business owners access in that short time but it’s a hard sell, sort of like a career fair for students,” he said. “If the initial impression isn’t good with the large company, they’re out of luck.”

He says it’s up to the small business owners to take advantage of this face time by preparing well in advance and using the brief time efficiently. “You can sell your business in a short time if it’s good enough to catch someone’s attention,” he said. “It’s a way for a small business to get their name, business and product out in front of people who make decisions.”

A crucial 15 minutes

Lewis says large companies know what they’re looking for and screen small businesses to find it. That 15 minutes of speed dating can be crucial even if it doesn’t garner a contract that day. “The situation may change in six months, and that large corporation will remember and keep records of the small businesses that have what they need and made a good impression.”

Another USM professor, Dr. Jon Carr, who teaches entrepreneurship and organizational behavior, also believes preparedness is the key to maximizing speed dating for businesses. “With just a few minutes to impress these large companies, you must spend a lot of time getting ready,” he said.

He recommends that small businesses do their homework, stay true to their competencies and match those to the needs of large businesses.

Dr. Marcelo Eduardo, chairman of the school of business at Mississippi College, stresses the importance of entrepreneurship as a vital part of the U.S. economy and the support this type of program means. More than two million new businesses are started every year.

“Entrepreneurship embodies those traits that make for a versatile and growing economy: risk taking, innovation, creativity, self-reliance and rewards,” he said. “These traits of course also represent the reason people pursue entrepreneurial opportunities despite significant failure rates that are about 70% of new businesses.”

At USM’s Small Business Development Center in Long Beach, Interim Director Teresa Speir says the SBA’s ‘speed dating’ program is an interesting concept that may fit well with what their office is doing.

“We’re especially interested in those businesses that have been in business up to two years and need to grow,” she said. “We offer a series of seminars with specialized training issues to help them. One we started a year ago is ‘Doing Business with Large Corporations.’”

Ready for the next level?

Speir says getting in front of large corporations is really helpful for small businesses that need to move to the next level. It could be a home-based business that needs to move to a storefront. “We do a lot of workshops to help businesses like that,” she said, “and we have a number of programs working with local big businesses who want to do business with small local businesses.”

She used Coast casinos as an example of large corporations whose requirements must be communicated to local small businesses before they can work together.

USM’s Betcher, who’s worked at helping small businesses for 20 years, says the Vendors Academy is in the match business. That means putting small businesses with the large companies that need their products and services. The organization is currently serving the state’s 13 southernmost counties but wants to make it statewide.

“This program was conceptualized and USM thought it would fill a need. It goes along with the university’s interest in economic development,” she said. “We look at gaps and want to tailor it to the needs of this area.”

She says the program, which is not a federal program, will supplement other programs set up to assist small businesses. “We’re getting input from businesses here and want to keep as much business in Mississippi as we can,” she said. “We want this program to be uniquely geared to exactly what we need here.”

Betcher says the center will have small business seminars for a small fee. They have discussed the speed dating concept with the SBA and may be able to do something along those lines here. “It’s definitely a useful concept,” she added.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.


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