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Business Observer Friday, Jul. 19, 2019 3 years ago

Pro-business group seeks to grow profile behind membership surge

Former middle school teacher now helps entrepreneurs grow companies.
by: John Haughey Contributor

Entrepreneurs by nature are individualists with independent streaks and go-it-alone ethics often buttressed by a belief that the only plan needed is a great idea and hard work, and the only connections necessary are with clients and customers. But that same nose-to-the-grindstone obsession can be a tunnel-vision blinder that frequently backfires because, ultimately, passion is not enough and no business — like no individual — is an island.

“A rising tide lifts all ships,” says Chrissanne Long, CEO of Maximize Digital Media in Lakeland. “If we’re going to be successful as small businesses, we have to take responsibility for how we’re going to raise the tide not only for ourselves but for our local economy.”

That’s been Long’s message since 2010, when she left a 10-year career as a Polk County School District middle school English teacher to create Lakeland Business Leaders along with Maximize Digital Media partner Craig Hosking.

What started as a grassroots platform “without sponsors, without anyone powering the movement” found traction: Less than a decade later, Lakeland Business Leaders has swelled to more than 3,000 members. Its success offers several how-to lessons for other business-focused leadership groups across the region.

“What we learned is business owners really crave connection,” Long says. “We share the same channels, so much common ground. How can we all relate? How can we connect with each other and grow our businesses together?”

‘Finding people with similar passions who you can embrace — and giving your best you to clients and your community — reflects my philosophies as a person and as a business person.’ Chrissanne Long, Maximize Digital Media, BRIDGE Local

Lakeland Business Leaders evolved into BRIDGE Local, powered by LBL, July 1. BRIDGE is an acronym for Building Renewing Inspiring Developing Generous Entrepreneurship.

“Our niche, who we serve, is the self-employed entrepreneur to the business with nine, 10 employees,” Long says. “There wasn’t anything focused on this segment of small business. A lot of organizations didn’t seem to be serving the needs of very small businesses. That is where we’re bridging the gap.”

The name change also reflects members’ geographic range. “A lot of Lakeland businesses don’t just serve a Lakeland customer; they serve a regional customer,” Long says. “We were pigeonholing ourselves. The new name is about expanding, bringing more business, but we’re still focused on the local entrepreneur.”

As with Lakeland Business Leaders, Long says BRIDGE Local will serve as a hub for networking, collaborating and learning — not from titans of industry or gurus of commerce but from one another. BRIDGE Local membership, according to the organization’s website, ranges in three tiers, from $150 a year for a basic package to $500 for the expert plus package.   

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” she says. “There are so many aspects of business — best practices, the legal side, someone who can guide me. We are a mastermind vault of information that we share.”

Within BRIDGE Local’s “mastermind vault of information” is Long herself, who contributes marketing advice in blogs on its website, such as Guiding Principles For Entrepreneurs: Think Like An Owner, as well as from blogs on Maximize Digital Media’s website, including a series, 10 Reasons Small Business Marketing Fails.

Long has found similarities in how some entrepreneurs view creating a business plan and investing in marketing as incidental rather than fundamental to sustainability and scalability. “It’s a common mistake with so many other things to think about,” she says. “They know what they want to do, know how they want to do it, but figure it out as they go along.”

Long, instead, encourages businesses to “have a good ‘why’ and build the business around the why.” Following that, she cites Simon Sinek’s popular book, "Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action," as “very influential” in how BRIDGE Local helps entrepreneurs establish that ‘why’ before focusing on the how and the what.

Long also says Seth Godin’s This is Marketing blogs, which are “not really about marketing but about how to be a good human being,” and Dale Partridge’s book, "People Over Profit," are good reads for entrepreneurs.

“You have to put people first over the bottom line, not just customers but employees, vendors, other businesses,” she says. “Finding people with similar passions who you can embrace — and giving your best you to clients and your community — reflects my philosophies as a person and as a business person.”

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