Ester Venouziou, founder & president of LocalShops1 shares her tips on networking and thoughts about being an entrepreneur. LocalShops1 is Tampa Bay’s leading advocate for locally owned businesses. You may connect further with Ester via www.localshops1.com.
Q: What was the main reason you decided to be an entrepreneur vs. working for others?
A: Actually, I never set out to be an entrepreneur; growing up, my parents had their own business and they were constantly working, and I never wanted to be like that. In college I studied journalism and psychology, and for the next 15 or so years I worked in newspapers, as a copy editor/page designer. I started LocalShops1 in 2008, while I was working at the Tampa Bay Times (back then St. Pete Times), as a grassroots movement to help support small businesses. It all took a life of its own and I found myself loving it, so when I got laid off from the Times in October 2011 I decided this was a sign to pursue my own business full-time. Now I can’t imagine going back to the corporate world.
Q: What issues/obstacles have you faced being an entrepreneur vs. an employee?
A: As an employee, I had designated tasks and things to worry about: making sure things were accurate and nicely presented. I didn’t have to worry about how the paper got funded, how it got promoted, how it got distributed, and so on. Now that I have my own business, I have to consider every aspect. It’s not enough, for example, to make sure that the LocalShops1 membership guides are accurate and pretty. I need to figure out how we finance them, how we promote them, how we distribute them.
Q: What inspires, motivates and encourages you in your journey as an entrepreneur?
A: I’m constantly inspired by our business members. I love seeing relationships and collaborations form within LocalShops1, following their success stories and seeing them help each other overcome obstacles. It’s by far the best part of my job. I’m also often motivated and encouraged by people I don’t even know. We frequently get emails from other people, not only locally but from around the country, saying they love what we’re doing and asking how they can start their own Buy Local movements.
Q: What have you learned is most important about networking?
A: For me, networking events are about making initial connections, and the real networking takes place one-on-one or in small groups, where you can really get to know more about the other person.
Q: What support, tools or other learning has helped you to network effectively?
A: At first even the thought of networking terrified me. I’m not the extrovert type, and I’m not one who likes to ‘work the crowds’. But once I realized that networking is really just getting to know more about other people and other businesses, it stopped being so scary.
Q: What has been your best experience networking?
A: A quick introduction with the marketing director of American Stage Theatre Co. during a mixer at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Pete led to a meeting over coffee, where we brainstormed ways to work together. Just a few weeks ago we sponsored Buy Local Night at American Stage in the Park. And in November they are hosting a VIP party for sponsors and vendors of Shopapalooza, our annual local local alternative to Black Friday.
Q: What has been your worst experience networking?
A: I was at a huge networking event in downtown Tampa a couple of years ago, talking with a woman I had just met. Apparently she spotted someone she found more interesting, and she stopped talking, mid-sentence, to make a dash for him. She tripped and ended up spilling her glass of wine all over me.
Q: What tips do you suggest to others as they network?
A: 1) Remember you are there to make connections, not to sell.
2) Ask questions. Most people love talking about themselves and their businesses.
3) Do NOT force someone to take your business card. It will end up in the trash guaranteed.
4)Drop the elevator pitch and just be real.
Q: How does networking help you in your business?
A: Networking is all about strengthening existing business relationships and forming new ones, and over time it helps you build a team of unofficial ambassadors. Our business has grown primarily through referrals, and many of those have come through my networking friends.