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VOL. 131 | NO. 174 | Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Handling The Isolation That Small Business Owners Face

By Don Wade

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When Robbie Johnson Weinberg and her optometrist husband Michael Weinberg decided to open up Eclectic Eye in Midtown in 2002, a lot of people told them it couldn’t work. Included this group: Weinberg’s colleagues.

They were all wrong.

“They still act surprised,” Michael Weinberg said of his colleagues. “My father (who has his own optometric business) was one of them, but now he’s proud of what we’ve done.”

Said Robbie Weinberg: “We just saw it as an opportunity and we wanted to do it differently.”

Robbie Weinberg, who is co-founder and director of operations for Eclectic Eye, will share that story as part of her keynote address on Thursday, Sept. 15, at the Daily News Publishing Co. Small Business program that is part of the newspaper’s ongoing Seminar Series. The event begins at 3:30 p.m. at the Brooks Museum, with a wine and cheese reception to follow. Registration is $25 and can be made at seminars.memphisdailynews.com.

Panelists for the Small Business Seminar will include Meka Egwuekwe, co-founder and executive director at CodeCrew; Elizabeth Lemmonds, director of talent programming at EPICenter Memphis; and Josh Horton, founder/director of Creative Works.

The short version of the Weinbergs’ story is this: They did some research and discovered Midtown was underserved and could support a business combining optometry care and “boutique” eyeglasses. They also had a University of Memphis study showing that the area had enough wealth for the business to not just survive, but thrive.

“People were going to the closest place they could find,” Robbie Weinberg said. “Sometimes it was a Wal-Mart, but overwhelmingly no one had been to an optometric boutique in Memphis.”

She says they exceeded their expectations for business within the first few months and by 2006 they had opened a second location in Collierville.

Weinberg’s message at the seminar: “Small business entrepreneurship is possible and I want to talk about what that looks like. I think it’s really hard sometimes in Memphis to be a small business. It feels very isolating.”

Which is one reason why in 2014 the Greater Memphis Chamber launched EPICenter – short for Memphis Entrepreneurship Powered Innovation Center. The goal: create 1,000 entrepreneurs and 50 new companies locally over the next decade.

“One of my mantras is that it takes a village to launch a successful business,” Lemmonds said. “Entrepreneurs need broad-based talent, both externally and internally. They need mentors who can help walk them through tough decisions, subject matter experts who can help with financials, and marketing strategies and champions who can help make strategic introductions.”

Weinberg also has been involved with Vistage, an executive coaching organization that she says is sort of a life “support group” for a small business owner.

“It’s been incredibly helpful because it’s kind of like having a board of directors that can hold you accountable and guide you when you have bigger issues,” she said. “A lot of times in a small business, that’s part of the problem – you’re consumed by a small problem that seems bigger than it is, or maybe a big problem you have no idea how to tunnel through.”

Lemmonds says, too, that just because EPICenter’s long-term goal is ambitious and of a large scale, that does not mean they are not aware of the hurdles each small business owner faces.

“Starting a business is hard,” she said. “It involves risk and uncertainty. Sustainable business ownership takes passion, tenacity and access to vital resources. We are always working to develop creative solutions to challenges faced by small businesses, and opportunities to convene and collaborate in ways that make both entrepreneurs and our network of partners more successful.”

PROPERTY SALES 53 210 10,146
MORTGAGES 53 214 11,160
BUILDING PERMITS 245 474 22,646
BANKRUPTCIES 271 271 6,490