First thoughts from my first Makers Summit

Friday was a planes, trains and automobiles kind of day. I boarded a Metro train bound for Reagan National Airport shortly after 5 am. The streets were quiet and the air was crisp—12 degrees and five new inches of snow will do that. I arrived at the airport in time to watch the sunrise from Historic Terminal A lobby. Then crossed a shiny tarmac and climbed up some narrow steps to the first of two tiny planes that would get me to my destination: Greenville, S.C., for my first Makers Summit—a creative small business conference designed for entrepreneurs who want to grow successful businesses.

By noon I was collecting my name badge, selecting my workshops and signing up for one-on-one meetings with consultants. Then it was time to hit the streets of downtown Greenville to find lunch before the opening keynote.

I crossed the street and spotted a sign that said, “Falls Park, 4 blocks.” After nearly seven hours of travel, a walk in the sun sounded like a fine idea, so I took the detour. I passed some great sculptures and the bones of a lovely old brick building along the way. A quick stop for a slice of pizza on the return trip to the Summit and it was time to dive in.

Jeff Shinabarger, founder of Plywood People, opened up the conference. A social entrepreneur with experience helping more than 100 others, he shared that fear is the number one challenge that he sees leaders face in decision making. So understanding what drives that fear, your own decision making style and the decision making style of the team you’ve got supporting you are all key to moving your company forward.

After taking us through the seven decision making styles and four sources of fear he’s encountered from his work with leaders, Jeff posed a “simple” fill-in-the-blank exercise for whatever is facing you today: “Say yes to_________. Say no to _______.” And he drove it home with, “What we say yes or no to will define who we will become and what we will be known for.” A reminder that there are only so many hours in the day, so we need to “say yes” to doing the things that we’re uniquely suited to do to advance our work.

Taking action despite the fear was a sentiment echoed by Friday’s closing speaker, Nathan Bond of Rifle Paper Co. In taking us through the history of the company he co-founded with wife Anna in 2009, Nathan shared his belief that “you’re never and always ready.” When starting out “we knew nothing…what we overcame in the beginning make challenges today seem easy.” He stressed a need to act and learn by doing because “you can’t count on opportunity always being there.”

Nathan also addressed another fear he sees among makers: a fear of growth. This part of his talk segued right into the importance of profit, which Nathan sees as an important tool that helps you reinvest in your business, develop new products and hire people. Nathan shared that their business started out focusing on weddings and that success in that industry helped make it possible to take the business where they wanted it to go.

And at the heart of it all, never lose sight of the need to make a great product.

Which brings us to Jeni Britton Bauer of Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams. Jeni, the opening keynote for day two of Makers Summit, is passionate about making great ice cream. Every one of Jeni’s products is made from scratch with “grass-grazed milk, local produce, American bean-to-bar chocolate and select ingredients from around the world, including exquisite Fair-Trade-Certified African vanilla and Dutch cocoa.”

Early on she worked behind the counter six days a week making and scooping ice cream, listening to and learning from her customers. After four years, she closed her first company, rewrote the business plan and two years later launched the company you see today. She urged us to “define your own idea of quality…charge what you need to charge, grow slowly and build your community.”

That importance of community was another thread that wove its way through the halls of the Makers Summit. Evident in so many ways throughout the two days, that last thread really tied things together for me as I made an early exit to begin the journey home. Rather than a nuts and bolts workshop session on “Manufacturing,” Eric Fulcher, founder of Sutter Street Manufacturing, Inc. - a division of Williams-Sonoma, Inc., and Beau Burdette, creative director of Rewined Candles, talked about the bigger picture things to keep in mind when (and if) you decide grow by manufacturing your products.  

The two points that I keep coming back to from their talk are these: have a vision for your life, then build a business to support it; and make sure your vision blesses other people. Both Eric and Beau have helped to build companies that connect with, and support, the communities they’re in…while making a great product.