Ester Venouziou is as an accidental business owner.
The viral popularity of her "buy local" Facebook page led Venouziou to turn Local Shops1 into a business.
Today LocalShops1 is the leading membership-driven small business advocacy collective in the Tampa Bay region.
"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.
Small businesses get help with promotion, and shoppers get a nifty discount card as well as invitations to special events.
One of her most involved members is Billie Jo Grassinger-Bell (firstname.lastname@example.org). In 2012, Grassinger-Bell launched a LocalShops1 chapter covering Palm Harbor, Seminole, Pinellas Park, Tarpon Springs, Dunedin, Safety Harbor and Clearwater.
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. Check in with the South Tampa Chamber of Commerce.
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." Contact your local chapter of SCORE, which matches retirees with new small business owners.
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. Reach out to the South Tampa Chamber. Here is the contact information: South Tampa Chamber of Commerce, 2113 S. Dale Mabry Hwy. Phone: (813) 637-0156.
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.
Here are key resources that can benefit small business owners in Tarpon Springs.