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VOL. 36 | NO. 44 | Friday, November 2, 2012

Peer to peer: Catalyst program helps area entrepreneurs thrive

By Hollie Deese

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Michael Burcham,  president and CEO of the Entrepreneur Center, has Brad Hill, owner of Local Search Masters, on the hot seat during a recent class.

-- Photo: Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

When building a business from scratch, no one will ever love and care for that business that way you do.

But while you are nurturing growth, you can also become an island, working as CEO, head of sales and director of marketing -- all at the same time. And growth can stall if you don’t have the right people helping you.

“I am so busy planning events for other people I can’t finish anything for myself,” says Angela Proffitt, a local wedding and event planner in her 10th year of business. She has a few unfinished projects she would like to complete, and there have even been opportunities she has had to pass on due to her current workload.

Other business owners are going through the same thing as Proffitt, and a local program she recently joined aims to bring her together with other business owners for support and guidance.

Last year the Nashville chapter of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization and the Nashville Entrepreneur Center announced the launch of Catalyst, a mentorship program geared toward helping local entrepreneurs grow their companies past $1 million in annual sales.

“There are very few things you hear the Democratic Party and the Republican Party both agree on, but one of those things is the fact that small business and entrepreneurs are the job engine of the country,” says Bryan Ansley, owner of FNB Merchants in Nashville.

“If only one out of three small businesses each hired one person, unemployment would go away.”

In order to spur that kind of growth right here at home, Ansley and other EO members created the Catalyst program as a way to contribute to the community and give other entrepreneurs a boost.

“In the current economic environment, it is hard to grow,” he says. “While we say we are in recovery, the average business has not fully recovered. Navigating these challenging waters is a service. It is giving back to the community. The average business that comes into Catalyst is doubling its number of employees before they leave the program. We are helping employ more people in Nashville.”

To qualify for Catalyst, an individual must be the founder, co-founder, owner or controlling shareholder of a local company grossing between $250,000 and $999,999 in annual revenue. The program includes participation in 12 biweekly classes led by EC President and CEO Michael Burcham, who teaches at Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management.

After the classes, Catalyst participants break into smaller peer-to-peer forum groups to meet monthly for 12 months, with the first six meetings led by two EO Nashville members. Catalyst participants are also invited to EO members-only learning seminars and social outings.

‘Priceless’ connections

“Being connected to the real successful mover-and-shaker entrepreneurs in town is priceless,” says Amy Tanksley, owner of Uncle Classic Barbershop and member of the first Catalyst class.

“Access to the knowledge of people who have, ‘been there, done that,’ there is no other way to do that. I like to say they are not going to tell you how to run your business and be successful, but they might give you one or two tips on how to avoid major disasters. Those are worth more than you can imagine,” adds Tanksley, who opened her third location in Cool Springs this fall.

The new round of Catalyst participants also benefit from sponsorship gifts that total $35,000, including a free lease of copier equipment for the length of the program from NovaCopy, 10 percent off current credit card processing expenses for 18 months from First Payment Services, and free technology and strategic planning from Teknetex.

“The Catalyst program is a real entrée into a quality group of entrepreneurs,” says Dan Hogan, president and CEO of Medalogix, and one of the EO Nashville board members responsible for the program. “There is a network of growing businesses in the entrepreneurial community. We are all really mutually supportive. It is just so much easier a way to build a business and be an entrepreneur when you don’t feel like you have to do it all by yourself.”

The best investment

Blake Chaffin, owner of Nashville Event Lighting and member of the first Catalyst group, saw his business grow 51 percent last year and is on track to grow 54 percent this year. He attributes what he has learned through Catalyst in helping him run a tighter ship.

“One of the best investments I can make is in myself, educating myself and challenging myself around other people who are more successful than I am and learning from those people,” Chaffin says. “This is really going to challenge you to set some goals.”

It was Chaffin who encouraged Proffitt to get involved.

“He and I kind of grew up in the industry together when I moved to Nashville,” Proffitt says. “I was brand new, and he and I confided in each other about business. It is hard to find people who really understand what you are going through when you are building a business. And so, after he went through it, he recommended me. I was so busy planning other people’s events, but you have to stay focused on growth when you are building your company.”

David Frederiksen is the CEO of PatientCredit, Inc., and another member of the first Catalyst class. He launched his business in 2010 and has since tripled his revenue. He says the program has helped him most in hiring practices.

“We have instituted the principles that Michael shared with us in terms of evaluating people,” he says. “We put together a heck of a group of people. I owe a lot of that to some of the things I learned from Michael. We are growing fast and within the next 24 months I would love to be a source of $5 million dollars in revenue, if not more.”

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