Ester Venouziou is an accidental business owner. She was passionate about supporting the "buy local" movement.
It took the viral popularity of her "Break the Chains" Facebook page to convince Venouziou to launch Local Shops1.
In five years, LocalShops1 has evolved into the leading membership-driven small business advocacy collective in the Tampa Bay region.
Her collective began in South Pinellas but now serves local businesses and their loyal "buy local" customers throughout Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties.
Her dedicated members have helped the business to grow. They include Cheryl Hinton (Cheryl@localshops1.com), who formed a Local Shops1 chapter that covers Lutz, the USF area, Temple Terrace, Carrollwood and Brandon.
"It all grew organically," Venouziou notes. "I just thought what I was doing was cool. For a long time, I never thought of this as a business."
That view has changed. Now Venouziou has her own small business story to share. With 300 small business members and 25,000 shopper members, Local Shops1 is growing, fueled by the "buy local" movement and Venouziou's marketing skills.
Ever the small business advocate, Venouziou is quick to share lessons learned in starting and running a successful startup. Here is her list:
1.) Develop a business plan. A business plan, or business blueprint, is priority one. At the same time, she said flexibility is key to growth. "Don’t get so stuck on business plan that you stop being innovative. Be flexible."
2.) Make an appointment with an accountant or attorney prior to launching your business. The expert advice is a small investment in a young company's future.
3.) Look for training opportunities. Venouziou attended the 10-week Entrepreneurship Academy offered by the Chamber of Commerce in St. Petersburg. A good starting place is the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. Check in with the North Tampa Chamber of Commerce, too.
4.) Consider sharing the burden. Merchants dedicate most of their waking hours to their business. For Venouziou, bringing on her brother as vice president made all the difference in this growth stage of her business. Mo Venouziou holds a PhD in mathematics from Syracuse University. "Mo is another 24/7 person like myself," Venouziou said.
5.) Seek out local suport. Venouziou turned to the Small Business Assistance Center in St. Petersburg, which offers free one-on-one counseling. "The counselor helped me to clarify what I was doing." Try the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE), which offers free counseling and workshops.
6.) Create quality marketing materials. Don't sacrifice quality for quantity. Hire a professional, if needed.
7.) Do online research. Venouziou discovered other incubator organizations like her own around the country. Now she is a member of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies. The industry group helps to support "buy local" alliances like her own.
8.) Make strategic partnerships. Look for other businesses that complement your own. The informal partnering can help a local merchant share expenses or grow revenues.
9.) Tap the energy of your most committed customers. Word of mouth means everything. Venouziou turned to her most committed members as she expanded, building key alliances in Hillsborough and Pasco counties, where new LocalShops1 satellite groups have sprung up.
10.) Follow customer demand. For Venouziou that has meant starting a print division and partnering with local chambers. She also has had the time to step back and see that she needs to hone and target her message to underscore the reasons why customers should join the "buy local" movement.
How to Join LocalShops1.com
There are different level memberships for businesses, nonprofits, artists, and shoppers. Shoppers get a membership discount card.
The North Tampa Chamber of Commerce offers the following useful links for small businesses:
The Hillsborough County Small Business Information Center (SBIC).
Hillsborough County Minority and Small Business Enterprise - Call 813-914-4028, ext. 62014.
Hillsborough County Public Library Cooperative (HCPLC) - Call 813-273-3652.
Hispanic Business Initiative Fund (HBIF)* - Call 813-980-2765.
Internal Revenue Service (IRS) - The Small Business and Self-Employed Department - Call 800-829-1040.
Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) - Call 813-988-1435.
Small Business Development Center at USF (SBDC at USF) - Various workshops and individual counseling sessions are available at the satellite office located at the SBIC or the SBDC main office located at 1101 Channelside Drive, Suite 210. Call 813-905-5800.