Small business panel speakers, from left to right: I Lan Hang, Keana Spencer and Ebony Ssali

Successfully starting a business would be difficult, if not impossible, without drawing from the wisdom of business owners who have done the same thing. For the past four years, the Small Business Academy has provided a structured setting for networking and sharing information so that aspiring entrepreneurs, and those who are just starting a business, can learn from their peers who have gone before them.

Organized by Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch and offered as part of MARKETPLACE, the Governor’s Conference on Minority Business Development, the Small Business Academy has proved to be popular with attendees since it was first offered in 2014. Once again, the Small Business Academy was completely full this year, with 200 registrants.

As a former small business owner herself, Lt. Governor Kleefisch said she could relate to the sentiments of her audience—from confidence and excitement to trepidation and uncertainty. “Many of our ideas are born out of necessity,” she said, relating how she had started her own business after failing to get the schedule flexibility she desired and consequently leaving her job as a television news anchor. She urged aspiring entrepreneurs to believe in their visions for their businesses: “You have to have confidence in your idea.”

If those in the room pursue their dreams and goals, Kleefisch said, Wisconsin can become known as the place to start and grow a small business.

After Kleefisch’s introduction, the program continued with a session on accessing bank loans and other resources for starting and growing a business.

Because of the availability of resources, “I don’t think there has been a better time than now to be a woman-owned, veteran-owned, a business owner of color,” said Joaquin Altoro, vice president of commercial banking with Town Bank, the event’s Keystone Sponsor.

Kate Hill, founder and president of Heartland Information Research Inc., urged listeners not to skip the step of putting together a business plan. “A business plan is not for your banker,” she said. “When you spend the time and energy developing a business plan, that’s for you.”

Sarah Grooms, group vice president and regional head of treasury management sales with Town Bank, said aspiring entrepreneurs should get their personal finances in order and take action to improve their credit score and reduce debt and expenses prior to starting a business.

Even when a business owner has good credit, banks seldom lend to businesses that are just starting out, Altoro noted; he said they look for businesses to have about a two-year history, with a proven track record and demonstrated commitment to the business.

Hill noted that banks are highly regulated, with little flexibility as to which applications they approve. “Lenders are not being mean when they decline your application,” she said—rather, it’s the job of the borrower to ensure that his or her business meets the criteria and demonstrate that to the bank.

Ranell Washington, assistant vice president of business banking with Town Bank, urged listeners to continue a relationship with the bank even if the answer is no. “A good banker won’t just turn you away” if you don’t qualify for the loans the bank offers just yet, he said. “A good banker will direct you to other resources” such as other funding sources or even other types of resources the bank itself might offer, such as credit card processing or mobile deposit tools.

A second panel featured small business owners sharing their experiences and advice from starting their companies.

Keana Spencer of Spencer Accounting Group in Brookfield told listeners they shouldn’t be embarrassed to run their businesses out of their homes in the beginning to keep costs low. She also reminded listeners not to forget the importance of making connections: “Your network is your net worth.”

Ebony Ssali, owner of Ssali Media Group in Milwaukee, noted the importance of passion in entrepreneurship: “You have to be passionate about what it is that you do.” If a business owner isn’t enthusiastic about the product they’re selling, she said, people will sense that and be hesitant to buy.

Ssali urged listeners to learn from the experiences of those who have gone before them. “There really are no new businesses,” she said—almost any conceivable type of business has been tried before, and entrepreneurs can avoid repeating the mistakes others have already learned from.

All three panelists emphasized the importance lifelong learning for business owners. “Every book I read is more knowledge for my client,” Ssali said.

“One of my biggest mistakes was not asking for help, believing that I knew everything,” said I Lan Hang, owner of the Pin High Golf Center in Mequon.

Hang also cautioned the audience not to give up when they get “no” for an answer. “You’re going to hear ‘no’ all the time – so often that you think you’re not doing the right thing,” he said—but if you dig into what your customer needs and keep asking questions to deepen your understanding, “it will become an automatic yes.”

The Small Business Academy concluded with expert-led roundtable discussion on topics including finding a location for your business; licensing and permitting; preparing a pitch for funding; social media marketing and website development; testing a new business idea; getting your first customer; hiring your first employee; branching out or building to diversify your business; negotiating a lease; the secrets of getting your first business loan; certification as a small, minority-owned, veteran-owned and/or woman-owned business; optimizing digital advertisements; breaking into new markets; and developing and training a growing staff.

A reception area was also set up, with representatives of funding sources and other small business resources on hand to share information and answer questions with Small Business Academy attendees.

The main MARKETPLACE conference continues today and tomorrow with workshops, an evening reception, an awards breakfast and luncheon, scheduled buyer meetings and an expo hall.