No BS Business Advice at Townsquared's Portland Launch
To celebrate Townsquared’s official launch in Portland, our local community manager, Stephen Green, moderated a panel of three of Portland’s favorite small business success stories. Each founder had valuable business advice to offer the crowd, and what better way to celebrate our official Portland launch than a real town square for local businesses?
Our company was founded to help more small businesses succeed—one out of two fails in its first five years—by giving local business owners a place to talk with each other, share resources, create partnerships, strengthen their communities and more. In the last year, our membership has grown 115 percent. We’re connecting local businesses in nearly 500 neighborhoods in San Francisco, Oakland, New York, Seattle—and now Portland!
Our panelists, Kim Malek, of Salt and Straw Ice Cream, Ben Jacobsen, of Jacobsen Salt Co., and Nong Poonsukwattana of Nong’s Khao Man Gai, are emblematic of the Portland small business community and why we couldn’t wait to launch there. Businesses across the city’s neighborhoods are founded on a love of community and passion for the best quality, locally-sourced products.
Jacobsen Salt Co.’s beautiful tasting room in the Buckman neighborhood was packed Thursday, October 19, with local business owners and staff eager to hear these foodpreneurs talk about starting and growing their businesses.
Each of the panelists has been extraordinarily successful: Salt and Straw has expanded to three PDX Scoop Shops and one Wiz Bang (soft serve dessert bar), plus four locations out in Los Angeles; Jacobsen Salt Co. has gone from local to national brand, and is now sold through Williams-Sonoma; Nong’s Khao Man Gai has blossomed from a food cart to three Portland locations and a bottled sauce now stocked in local groceries (and—huzzah!—online).
What got these business founders going, however, was not a love of business per se, but of product and of place.
Portland is the sort of place that does that to people, though. As Kim mentioned during the panel, Portland has a great sense of community. It attracts people who value that, and inspires them to create things that nurture it. “We wanted to be a community-gathering place,” said Kim.
For Ben, of course, the region is the product, as his salts are harvested from the Oregon coast—something that originally started with a few buckets in the back of his car.
Portland is a place that’s made it possible to pursue Nong’s single-minded dream to create the best Khao Man Gai, a popular Thai dish, in the world. When she started, naysayers insisted she needed to offer customers more than one dish, but Nong’s focus has proven incredibly successful. As one audience member told her, he takes Portland visitors first to one of her chicken and rice shops, before anywhere else.
For each of these small business owners, their focus is the experience of their customers and the quality of their product. When asked about challenges, the group thought of operational and financial issues—not production, customer service, or employees.
Kim, Ben, and Nong had great business advice for their audience on a variety of topics, but much of the hour was devoted to growing a business in an ethical, community-minded way. One audience member asked, “Is small better?” Another wondered how to grow while “protecting” the atmosphere that made it possible for people to pursue their crazy small business dreams. (There was much laughter and applause when one of the panelists admitted that you have to be crazy to start a small business.)
Kim, whose business has grown from Portland down the West Coast, noted that they’ve been “honored to bring Portland’s community ethos to Los Angeles.” She was particularly impressed at how meaningful connections between producers and customers were for folks in Los Angeles, who don’t often have the opportunity to meet the people who make the things they buy.
For Nong, taking the risks necessary to grow her business was “scary,” even though she wanted to do it—a sentiment with which most business owners can empathize.
Before the more detailed questions about business growth, Stephen began the panel with a couple of questions to which every business owner could relate. Asked what’s the worst business advice you’ve ever gotten, Nong had a quick answer. “The worst advice? To quit.” It’s something many (most?) successful business owners heard at one stage or another, including the other panelists.
What business advice would they give their just-starting-out-selves, if they could go back? “It’s gonna be okay!” exclaimed Nong, amid much laughter and applause.
Ultimately, as Ben said, “The quality of your product has to stand on its own, but you also have to be your best own supporter,” because you can’t wait for somebody else to come along and do it. The audience seemed to concur, and we couldn’t have said it better ourselves.
Our community manager and the evening’s moderator, Stephen Green, is ideally suited to lead conversations about Portland small businesses, as his career has, from the start, focused on precisely that demographic. So much so, in fact, that he won Portland Business Journal’s 2015 Small Business Advocate of the Year. We’re proud and excited to have him on board.
We’re looking forward to growing the Portland network into a powerful voice and productive resource for Portland’s unique local business community. We were honored to get to know the amazing folks who joined us October 19.
photos by Kersten Green Photography & Sam Bauman