Best Practices

How Loudoun County Rallies Its Community around Entrepreneurship

Published Oct 19, 2017 by Pola Firestone

How Loudoun County Rallies Its Community around Entrepreneurship

Your goal: bring your whole community together to celebrate entrepreneurs. How do you go about doing that?

If you’re like most entrepreneurial ecosystem builders, you have to get a little entrepreneurial about celebrating entrepreneurship. Most of us—entrepreneurial service providers and economic development organizations alike—aren’t flush with cash or time, so we have to get creative and strategic about how we market our community's spirit of entrepreneurship.

But market we must, because we know that telling the story of our entrepreneurs is how you inspire others to follow their path to invent new ideas, create new jobs and strengthen local economies.

One way to do that is by hitching a ride on a week that already celebrates entrepreneurs.

One such week is National Small Business Week, celebrated here in the States in the first week of May. Loudoun County, Virginia, saw that week as an opportunity to celebrate its entrepreneurs and connect them with resources; however, they wanted to make their celebration of entrepreneurship local and personal.

Their solution: hold an after-party and celebrate Small Business Week the week after the national recognition.

Here’s why. Loudoun County is located just 25 miles outside of Washington, D.C. Home to more than 12,000 businesses, 86 percent of which have fewer than 20 employees, Loudoun Economic Development wanted to make sure their programs were not in competition with the celebrations in our nation’s capital.

Loudoun Economic Development is dedicated to recruiting new businesses, growing its existing industries, and overall improving the county's business climate. They provide a wide range of services, whether the business is a startup or an existing company. Vanessa Wagner’s role as small business and entrepreneurship manager is ensuring that Loudoun County has the programs, the places and the people that can help small businesses succeed.

Starting Loudoun County Small Business Week

Enter Loudoun Small Business Week. It’s one of the ways that Loudoun has worked to magnify its reach and impact.

It started seven years ago with the intention of honoring and inspiring business owners and spotlighting local resources of the entrepreneurial community. Over the years, the week’s organizers have applied strategic lessons to help the week keep its momentum, relevancy and still remain business-owner friendly. For example:

  • Events are scheduled at business friendly times (breakfast, lunch and happy hour) and at easy-to-access locations.
  • General business “skill” events are front-loaded to the top of the week to give busy business owners access to educational events in one setting.
  • The rest of the week’s events are targeted at Loudoun County’s growing industries, giving business owners and industry professionals a chance to build their community and connect with industry-relevant resources.

Using a central calendar as a hub for the week’s events allows Loudoun County to be at the center of all things entrepreneurial, while it gives entrepreneurs one place to access event details and registration. 

How Loudoun County Rallies Its Community around Entrepreneurship

Engage Collaborations for Engaging Business Events

How does Loudoun County manage to host a robust week of events and keep their sanity? It’s all about collaborations and partnerships. And the first step is with their network of entrepreneurial service organizations.

Vanessa sits down with key partners and asks them about their goals for Small Business Week.

Do they want to:

  • build awareness of their services
  • attract new members
  • make more connections
  • make more relevant referrals

“We make sure that the programming is meeting the needs not just of our entrepreneurs but also of our service providers,” says Vanessa. “They’re part of the planning from day one.”

Implementing a countywide event takes months of planning, and so kickoff meetings start in August, an entire nine months before the event.

“We will have one-on-one meetings with service providers, but then we'll do group calls, email and social media so that they can participate at their own comfort level. We want it to be easy for them to participate in Small Business Week, even if they aren't one of the key partners or a key participant in a program.”

Vanessa advises staying in contact with service providers year-round and including a core group of supporters in the beginning planning stages. These meetings offer community supporters a chance to be in the planning process, share what their entrepreneurs are telling them and shine a spotlight on the services they offer to the community.

Ensuring the topic content is fresh and relevant to the business community, Vanessa knows exactly what Loudoun County business owners are looking for because of the data she collects from local network of service providers. From web inquiries to face-to-face conversations with entrepreneurs, Vanessa can pinpoint what is most relevant and will provide the most impact for the community.

Once the programming is set and the calendar is established, Vanessa shifts into marketing mode. She develops and shares a Loudoun County Small Business Week kit with service providers to make promoting the week and its programming easy.

Attendance Is Not the Only Measure

Nearly every economic developer reports to stakeholders on their metrics. While attendance is important, and often the most-requested metric by stakeholders, Vanessa says attendance is not the best metric in measuring the success of Small Business Week.

Vanessa and her team look at partner engagement, media attention and providing quality information and resources to their entrepreneurs.

What interactions happen after Small Business Week ends? A quick survey gives her the scoop on what their partners loved about the week and what they want to change. Vanessa adds, “We follow up to see if our Resource Partners reached their goals: did they get new members, did they build awareness, did they engage new companies?” Having that data ensures that they continue to build on this impactful week, year after year.

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Pola Firestone Relationship Manager and Affiliate Liaison of SourceLink

Pola Firestone
is the relationship manager and affiliate liaison for SourceLink. Through her outreach work, she has a window into the challenges of building entrepreneurial ecosystems, and uses that knowledge to help inform new products and solutions to the SourceLink network