Guest Blogger Mat Faulkner Reflects on Inspiring and Supporting a Community of Entrepreneurship

How does a community create a culture that inspires entrepreneurship and is supportive of one of the most challenging and risky pursuits in one’s lifetime?

You are likely aware that Searcy rallied to win a national vote to be featured in eight episodes of the hit online show Small Business Revolution  co-starring Ty Pennington and Amanda Brinkman. The show’s premise is to help revitalize a town’s Main Street by conducting make-overs for six local small businesses. Deluxe Corporation utilizes the television show platform to market their small business services, which is an example of content marketing at its finest. 

The show championed small business owners and the common challenges that most entrepreneurs deal with. Amanda Brinkman, the brainchild behind Small Business Revolution and Deluxe’s chief brand and communications officer, emphasizes how most entrepreneurs start a business because they are skilled at what they “do”  but may not be a specialist at wearing all the hats — such as marketing, human resources, legal document drafting, and accounting — needed to run a small business successfully. 

The creative magic for Think Idea Studio happens in the historic Robbins-Sanford building in downtown Searcy. The stylish renovation also provided conference space and an event venue on the ground floor.

Entrepreneurs tend to survive in a steady state of nervous energy: pursuing new sales, retaining employees, juggling costs of benefits versus profitability, upholding quality, maintaining the facility, creating social content, carving out family time, eyeing the competition and keeping up with technology.

So, it is safe to say the first step in creating a conducive entrepreneurial environment is affirmation and encouragement. Entrepreneurs are heroes. They are the backbone of this country and vital to the sustainability and uniqueness of our communities. Owning a business is hard and it can consume most of your mental, physical and emotional energy. It is risky and many business owners leverage personal assets as collateral to get their baby off the ground. The fact that they are doing it (or thinking about doing it) exemplifies a courageous spirit, ingenuity and adaptability. 

Encouragement is powerful. Community leaders need to publicly champion entrepreneurs, setting a tone of appreciation and validation. This should be a consistent message that resonates across all community organizations and reinforces that the community is behind those who decide to take the leap. It also cultivates an atmosphere of shared experiences, allowing entrepreneurs to know they are not alone and there are many who empathize with what they deal with on a daily basis.

Amanda Brinkman congratulates Faulkner after the announcement that Searcy had been selected for the show, and that six local businesses would receive consulting and a makeover.

Along with consistent affirmation and encouragement, entrepreneurs need networks and programs for peer-to-peer information sharing and cross-promotion. Even businesses within the same vertical market can participate in being supportive of each other while still protecting their trade secrets. We were first-hand witnesses to this during the Revolution experience. Restaurants within walking distance were promoting each other and sharing foot traffic. Brinkman coins it as “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

When the community is generally successful, the residual benefits can affect everyone. In a typical competitive environment, businesses keep everything close to the vest and work hard to rise above their competing neighbors. So it may feel unnatural to support a competitor, but we witnessed several business owners lean into cooperation over competition and it didn’t negatively affect their bottom line. On the contrary, it built goodwill, camaraderie and even produced unique co-op opportunities through cross-promotion and shared ‘shop local’ efforts.

The Small Business Revolution competition galvanized local resources around a common objective. Faulkner entered the town in the competition and was key to promoting the opportunity to local businesses.

Beyond competitors transitioning to supportive cheerleaders is the initiation of information-sharing groups. Commonly, this comes by the way of Chamber economic development programs. However, communities who are heading in the right direction will also see more grassroots efforts where business owners begin taking it upon themselves to be proactive. For example, an all-women entrepreneurship group recently formed and began meeting monthly at various locations. It is an open forum for women entrepreneurs, facilitated by volunteers and is centered around information-sharing. These organic, less formal groups represent a healthy entrepreneurial community where citizens are taking the time, effort and initiative to better themselves and others.

Searcy is getting a lot of things right and is generating a culture that inspires and supports entrepreneurs. The winning formula is a community that champions its entrepreneurs through encouragement and affirmation, generates opportunities to share both information as well as customers, and consistently communicates all the resources available to them through university and community partners. The Small Business Revolution poured fuel to a fire that was [and still is] burning bright. Entrepreneurs are champions who give communities uniqueness and character. We are fortunate to have had the opportunity to tell a few of their stories on a television show, but there are still so many stories yet to tell. 

*For links to the Small Business Revolution episodes and behind-the-scenes photos, visit www.gosearcy.com

Mat Faulkner is founder of Think Idea Studio, president of the board for the Searcy Regional Economic Development Corporation, former chair of the Searcy Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Small Business Committee, director of the Think ART Project, co-director for Searcy Beats & Eats festivals, past president for Jacob’s Place Homeless Mission, member of Searcy’s Beautification Committee and Holiday of Lights Committee, member of Harding University’s chapter of Sigma Nu Tau National Entrepreneurship Honor Society, and 2017 member of Arkansas Business’ 40 Under 40. 

Mat and his wife Shelley have 3 boys: Easton, 14; Lawson, 12; and Jace, 9. The couple renovated the old Robbins-Sanford Mercantile in downtown Searcy, which now serves as an event center and loft studio offices. Faulkner is a Fall 2002 graduate of Harding University with a degree in Communication Management. Recently, Faulkner served as the point person for the Searcy community winning the Small Business Revolution hit online TV show, where six local small businesses received $500,000 in makeovers as well as community improvements.

Have a small business story to tell? The Waldron Center would like to hear from you! Email psummers@harding.edu.

Jo Ellis is Making.Do in Searcy

2018.10.3-22

Photo:  Ashel Parsons

In a colorful loft makerspace above the new Arch Street artist’s corridor in downtown Searcy, Jo Ellis is building a community. She’s connecting people who want to create and people who need to create with opportunities to explore new skills together. Equal parts Christian philosopher, entrepreneur and advocate for the arts, Ellis has a deep conviction about the therapeutic value of the creative process. She views creativity as one way humanity bears the image of God. Her belief, shaped during three years as a missionary in Ireland, underpins the business model for her nonprofit, Make.Do.

IMG_0672She sighed, her powerfully expressive face momentarily calm. “I’m careful how I talk about calling —  but I know that I am a co-creator with God in this work,” she confides, relating Make.Do’s origins in a group of “difficult” girls who were her charges while she was doing mission work. They were the girls no one wanted. They challenged her and pushed the limits in every way.

To keep them occupied, they made pillow covers out of strips of fabric. Ellis recalled, “They went through the entire creative process: They were overwhelmed with the fabric choices, they discussed possibilities, narrowed them down and learned to use the sewing machines. They made mistakes; they had to use a seam ripper to tear out and start over. They were frustrated. They had to deal with imperfection.”

IMG_0678At the end of the day, they posted pictures of their finished projects on Facebook. She beamed at the memory. “We spent the entire evening watching people ‘like’ their projects and comment on them. In a single day, they went from being the girls that ‘no one ever wants’ to being creators of something others valued — and that value was reflected back onto them. It was the first time I understood the deep impact creativity has on our hearts.”

Not only does Ellis want to be able to offer classes for free to places like Jacob’s Place or Hope Cottage, but she wants to be able to offer an affordable place for community to gather. For now, Make.Do’s class fees are “pay what you can.” Most people pay the suggested fee, a few people pay more, and some people pay less.

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Clients may learn quilting, sewing, watercolor, hand lettering, embroidery, felting, knitting, cookie decorating, iris paper folding, macrame and more. Classes may last three to six weeks, but Ellis believes the social mission of Make.Do is best realized in six-week classes, which bring people who might not otherwise interact together over a longer period.  

To some degree, all entrepreneurs are risk takers and, although Ellis has a missional purpose for Make.Do, she seems bold in the familiar entrepreneurial way. The numbers have to add up, even for a nonprofit. “It didn’t feel brave. Committing to one idea and having to stick with the same thing day in and day out might have been a challenge, but Make.Do allows me to constantly look forward to the next, new class.”

To market new offerings, she publishes a newsletter and relies heavily on social media. Since Facebook users can share content in a way Instagram users can’t, Facebook is Make.Do’s primary expansion tool. But 30-something Ellis is an uninhibited natural on Instagram live, where viewers have a window into her life as they visit her eclectic apartment while she emotes about her babies (her houseplants) or bond with her on the merits of her new side-shave hairstyle.

She’s on a related mission to lure each of us away from projecting an image of polished perfection. “When the front that others see is one of perfectly-edited photos and captions, we can forget how to relate to someone in the moment. Face to face, I can’t edit what I say to you as I do when we text. When we’re constantly smoothing out the roughness to perfect our communication, and when that is what we are always seeing from other people, we become grossly more aware of our own insecurities.”

2018.10.3-24

Photo: Ashel Parsons

Ellis shares a promotional photo of her taken in her studio. She’s awkwardly, enthusiastically telling a story. Her face is contorted. It’s the kind of photograph most of us would delete rather than post. But she loves it. “The more vulnerable we are, the more we post things that aren’t perfect, the more we give others permission not to be perfect as well.”

She sees the creative process as a metaphor. “When we take random scraps of something and give it a purpose, over and over, it makes it easier for us to draw a parallel in our own lives. We can zoom out and see that random pointless events are being woven into something more purposeful and beautiful. And that point is amplified when it occurs in community.”  

Comfortable authenticity is a goal worth pursuing, and it’s especially useful to anyone whose self-image has been weakened or fractured by life events. Ellis is currently working on fundraisers and is pursuing grant opportunities to provide scholarships to classes for those who might benefit. If you’d like to become involved, contact her through her Facebook page.

Know an entrepreneur whose story needs to be told? Email Patti Summers in the Waldron Center. psummers@harding.edu.