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Duluth business owners stress networking for young entrepreneurs

A multi-tasking entrepreneur, Amber Griffith, owner of Cake Occasions, talks on the phone while carrying a tray. Griffith was one of the panelists to share her experiences of starting a business during an event sponsored by Twin Ports Connex. (Photo by Naomi Yaeger)

Round up a group of successful Duluth entrepreneurs and they'll tell you that one thing matters most when it comes to running your own business: networking.

That was the advice that a panel of six Duluth business owners shared with more than 50 young aspiring entrepreneurs during a panel discussion on Jan. 31 at Clyde Iron Works.

"I can't know enough people in order to have enough customers," said Dave Orman, owner of Raven & Associates, a company that specializes in graphic design and marketing. "I'm always keeping my eyes open for new contacts."

The panel discussion and networking opportunity was hosted by Twin Ports Connex, a company that helps connect the 18- to 35-year-old market with employers and business resources.

The panel consisted of Orman; Briana von Elbe, owner of three Duluth advertising and marketing firms; Eric Faust, owner of the Duluth Coffee Company; Alex Giuliani, owner of the Clyde Iron Works; Amber Griffith, owner of Cake Occasions; and Michael Schraepfer, a realtor and owner of Lake Avenue Restaurant and Bar and Lawn Care Express.

The panelists advised the young entrepreneurs not only on how to start a business but, more importantly, how to bring in customers.

"Finding customers in a town like Duluth is all about word of mouth," Faust said. "Duluth is extremely loyal as long as you have a product of quality. Every customer matters. They have the power to tell other people if your product is good or if it's crappy."

Several panelists noted that Duluth's "big small town" attitude is what allows for small businesses to thrive.

"People who live in Duluth want Duluth to succeed," Giuliani said. "They want us to grow and prosper. I don't think there's a better community than Duluth. I'm proud of Duluth, everyone's here to help. I don't think that's something you'd get in a place like New York."

The panelists warned the aspiring entrepreneurs that a business can require early mornings and late nights and interfere with family life. Yet they encouraged the attendees to take the plunge whenever the time seems right.

"My right time was when I was going to college and taking 23 credits," Griffith said. "That's when I felt ready. I said, 'I'm taking 23 credits. Why not go ahead and start a business, too? What else could I do with my spare time?'"

The event drew dozens of young entrepreneurs, some who already own businesses and some who hope to start one soon.

"I work with small businesses all the time and help them find homes," said attendee Jens Torgrimson, an associate at the AtWater commercial real estate group. "Entrepreneurs generally have a lot of ideas and a lot of questions. Networking in a town like Duluth is very important, and we've got to utilize it."

Brok Hansmeyer, a self-employed realtor attending his first Twin Ports Connex event, said his success largely depends on networking. In fact, the reverse side of his business card reads: "The finest compliment I can receive is a referral from past clients and customers."

"It's nice to meet other people who are in that position of waking up every day and not really knowing what the day is going to bring, but making it happen," Hansmeyer said of the networking opportunity. "It always is a good thing to meet new people."

Paul Baysinger, a mental health practitioner, attended the event to help promote a nonprofit side business he runs, taking people with developmental disabilities on outdoor trips.

"I'm here because I want to expand those opportunities," he said. "I appreciate the efforts that are being put on for young entrepreneurs. I appreciate the optimism and being able to learn from other folks. It's great to have another resource."

The next Twin Ports Connex event, "Business and Law: The legal side of running a business," is scheduled for March 12.