In the Darwinian world of commerce it seems that small business and big business often exist in separate ecosystems. Small businesses bumping up against the shores of their pond; big business seeing the opportunity of the millions of Ma-and-Pa companies across this country, and struggling with how to speak authentically to them.
Carissa Reiniger saw an opportunity in this void, stepped in, and through a unique new idea managed to accomplish the neat trick of organizing six national brands into a coalition to help small businesses succeed and building more profitability into her own company. Not bad for an idea that came to her just eight months ago.
This “Small/Big Business Coalition” as the group loosely calls themselves, have partnered to present an entire program of content and events to help small businesses in Canada grow in 2009. “More small businesses start in downward economic cycles and if we can work as a group of big businesses and small businesses to come up with real solutions to increase success rates for small businesses in Canada we can make a huge impact,” Reiniger says.
How did it start?
The North American Tour to Inspire Entrepreneurs was launched by Silver Lining – Reiniger’s eight-person company – this past October, with the intention of connecting small businesses in 10 Canadian and 10 US cities to resources intended to help them grow.
To make the tour work, Reiniger needed partners who shared her vision of connecting with entrepreneurs, and several stepped up: Staples, Rogers, Intuit and Citi Cards.
Reiniger took advantage of a trend in which big companies are not only recognizing the significance of the small-business market, but enlisting nimble and creative entrepreneurs to help deliver a wide array of products and services. All told she was able to secure more than $100,000 in sponsorship to help deliver the tour.
Success is never a straight line
The idea for the tour came to Reiniger in June 2008 and in three months she put all the pieces in place to launch the events in October. The quick turnaround was made possible by having several key ingredients in place to execute the idea: Silver Lining is based in Toronto where the majority of head offices are within driving distance; Reiniger is involved in a number of charitable and non-profit organizations; Silver Lining had a history of working with and understanding the small business space; and she doesn’t lack for ambition.
Arriving at the idea involved going through the ups and downs of starting and running a small business.
In April 2005, Reiniger founded Silver Lining – a business-development firm focused on helping small companies plan and execute growth strategies. The key offering was the Silver Lining Action Plan (SLAP), a one-year strategy created by Silver Lining in which an account rep assists the client in reaching measurable goals. In two short years she expanded her company to 21 employees in four cities: first Toronto, then Edmonton, Las Vegas and Vancouver.
The rapid expansion, however, took its toll and by 2007 Reiniger was feeling the pressure of juggling operations in four different cities. “Growing that quickly comes with highs you wouldn’t believe, and struggles you can’t predict,” she says. “I was continually trying to keep up with the company as opposed to being able to strategically plan for where we should go. It came time to do a long overdue evaluation and some tough realities had to be faced.
“Vancouver was our worst-performing market, so we decided to close it down,” says Reiniger, now 26. “Shutting Vancouver was a business decision and it wasn’t fun.
“After Vancouver I did an inventory of my role and realized that I didn’t love what I was doing any more,” she says. “Plus, we were spending a lot of time doing activities that weren’t making us a lot of money. And a lot of where we were making money was happening accidentally.
“For instance, I was getting paid $5,000 for a speaking engagement.
“Our original strategy was to only create a Silver Lining Action Plan for our clients if were also directly involved in the execution., But as time progressed, we found we were doing more and more training and education of entrepreneurs on how to execute a one-year growth plans using our model. This is something we stumbled onto.”
Reiniger crunched the numbers and found that her speaking engagements were five times more profitable than the one-on-one work that was the cornerstone of Silver Lining 1.0. This was the seed that would eventually take root as the significant re-organization of Silver Lining and eventually the North American Tour to Inspire Entrepreneurs.
In early 2008, Reiniger had just finished a book – Inspiring Entrepreneurs – and was exploring ideas to maximize the content of the book.
“My original idea was to speak in a couple of cities,” Reiniger says. “But then I thought, why not a cross-Canada tour? Then the idea just evolved from there to include workshops and to expand to the US as well.”
But first she needed partners who shared her enthusiasm for small business.
Volunteering connects Silver Lining to Staples
One of the first calls Reiniger made was to Staples, with whom she had a pre-existing relationship through her volunteer position with Women Entrepreneurs of Canada (WEC). As president of WEC, she knew that Staples had a keen interest in building closer ties with the small-business community.
As Lori Ross, the vice-president of Marketing for Staples Canada, tells it, the WEC relationship was key to their sponsorship of the Silver Lining Tour.
“We actually had the opportunity to get to know one another for quite some time before the Silver Lining Tour,” Ross says.
“What we found with the Silver Lining Tour is that it is a tangible and practical way to help small business – something that was sensible and reasonable in terms of how-to. Staples is in the business of helping small business achieve success and grow – we believe that the Silver Lining Tour does just that.”
The WEC-Staples relationship is a testimonial to volunteering in your community – it’s not just good karma, but often it’s good business too – as you never know who you will meet or what opportunities will present themselves in the course of your duties.
Reiniger is currently president of WEC (a national non-profit organization committed to supporting women entrepreneurs across the country), but it was in her prior role as a board member in charge of sponsor relations that she brought Staples on as the signature sponsor for WEC.
“We cold-called Lori Ross and her team at Staples and convinced them that WEC was a worthy organization that would be of great benefit to helping build the Staples brand in the business community.”