Find your niche, entrepreneurs told at conference

Specialty stores in downtown Grand Junction have the right idea when it comes to providing a niche that big-box stores can’t, according to one presenter Friday at the 2009 Entrepreneurship Marketplace at Two Rivers Convention Center.

Future and current business owners attended 45-minute sessions throughout the day, learning how to market and develop their products and finance their business operations so they can improve theirs odds of success during rough economic times.

One way to set a small business apart from Wal-Mart or Target is to avoid competing against them and embrace the opportunities big-box stores offer, said presenter Christine Hamilton-Pennell of Growing Local Economies. Those big stores will free up some parking spaces downtown and help people spend less on necessities so that they have more money to spend more on specialized items in downtown Grand Junction.

“You have to sell something Wal-Mart doesn’t have,” she said. “People want to have a unique experience.”

Hamilton-Pennell used the example of a small West Virginia town that turned a women’s clothing store into a restaurant and converted a record store into an ice cream parlor, so that those stores would stop competing with department stores and iTunes and focus instead on offering a unique experience for shoppers and diners.

When a store moves in and sells lots of basic items at low prices, Hamilton-Pennell said, small business owners should consider selling less for more if they offer something that takes talent and expertise, such as offering unique furniture and gifts, specialized bicycles, coffee and treat shops, and any items seen as environmentally friendly.

Once small-business owners find products people will buy, keeping connected to customers, marketing on Web sites and operating fiscally responsible businesss will help keep them going, Hamilton-Pennell said.

Later in the day, a financial panel focused on that last detail: money. The banking world has changed dramatically, said Dean DiMario, a representative with the Mesa County Business Loan Fund. But that does not mean people cannot get loans.

“There are alternative sources out there. Don’t get discouraged,” DiMario said.

Alternatives to the traditional bank loan include: funding for an existing business or a startup through the Mesa County Business Loan Fund; getting full loans or loans in addition to what a bank offers through the higher-risk lender Colorado Enterprise Fund; or getting a 90 percent guarantee on a loan without fees by essentially co-signing on a loan with the Small Business Administration.

Greg Lopez of the Small Business Administration warned that the time to take advantage of a 90 percent guarantee will be short-lived and that not every business in fiscal trouble should seek the SBA’s help.

“Now is the time to do it, but you need to do it for the right reasons, not just to have debt on top of debt,” Lopez said.

Waiting until the last second to avoid massive debt isn’t a good idea either, he said.

“Call us when you’re doing good. Call us when you’re doing bad. I’ve had times when a person is in crisis mode, and I have to tell them I could’ve done more if they’d called six months earlier,” Lopez said.

Unfortunately, the Small Business Administration’s ability to guarantee more money has coincided with fewer loans to clients. From Oct. 1, 2008, to Sept. 30, 2009, the SBA’s Colorado District office approved 1,138 loans compared to 2,256 loans the year before, according to the Denver Post.


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