Tom Ortega II

The concept of Tiny Business (i.e. smaller than Small Business)

In 360Conferences, 360Flex, Business, Community on January 28, 2008 at 3:04 pm

Business is changing. We’ve been hearing this for quite sometime now. As a whole though, business really hasn’t changed much. You still have massive companies, with many different layers. Even Small Businesses tend not to be very “small”. I think I’d like to coin a new term, if I may be so bold: the Tiny Business.

By tiny, I’m referring to employee count vs company reach. My business partner John Wilker and I put on tech shows for 300 to 400 attendees under the tiny company known as 360Conferences. We’ve done two so far and two more are in the works. Running a tiny business is hard, very hard. I’m sure all tinies have it hard, but what adds pressure to ours are two things: Part-time and Industy Transformation.

First, I’ll talk about the Part Time aspect. John and I have full time jobs as developers. I work at Workday and really enjoy my job. Last week was an incredibly busy time for the UI team. It was so busy that not much time went to 360Conferences. As the dust settled on the Workday front, the work for the 360|Flex Atlanta show picked up steam. I mentioned to John, “I never realize how much we do for 360Conferences while we do it. When we’re in tune with work and family, things get done at an amazing pace. However, jumping back in after a week off, it seems overwhelming.”

At first, I thought I was being a bit over dramatic. My wife says I’m full of “drama” and she’s probably right. However, I was thinking there was some merit to my feelings and received some validation in Atlanta. Ang’elle, the gal helping us out at the OMNI Hotel, was about 3/4 of the way through our onsite visit before she asked the following: “Now, are you guys a 3rd party planning company? Someone’s hiring your company to do this show, right?” We told her no and explained that we put on 360|Flex for developers. We tell her it’s not an Adobe conference. “They support us, but it’s not an Adobe show per se.” She followed up with, “Well, how big is your company? How many in your department?” John and I laughed, then explained we were the entire company. “The buck stops here…literally.” She ended with, “You’re kidding, right? I was thinking there was a whole army back home helping you do this event. Wow.”

Now, if John and I were just repeating a familiar formula of planning high-priced conferences, things may be simpler for us. We’d be taking a known pattern, adjusting it to fit our topic (Flex) and then be calling it a day. However, John and I also felt the need to throw another challenge into the mix, “Rather than just do a better conference for Flex, what if we changed the way conferences were done as a whole?” This is where the Industry Transformation aspect comes in.

To be a memorable and honest business, you have to be ready to take on an industry and change the playing field. Being a tiny company also helps play a roll in that. With it being only John and I, we can turn on a dime. We can come up with, discuss, hash out, re-argue and refine a point over night. We can then implement that new aspect the very next day as a concerted business effort. The effects of that power cannot be understated.

We’re not the first to enter into this foray of low-cost, developer-centric conferences. We’ve never claimed to be the first, but we would like to think that we’re one of the better ones out there. That’s the thing about trying to be a truly disruptive company vs. one that just talks about being one. You have to listen to your heart/gut as you destroy the business norm, but you still have to make sure the customers are happy. If no one likes what your disruption brings, then your disruption is more to feed your ego than it is to provide a better environment in the particular marketplace you serve.

It’s also incredibly lonely being a market disrupter. The old guard doesn’t like you, rightfully so since you’re killing their business. Being a tiny business doesn’t help either. I have John and my wife to fall back on when I get discouraged; no department, no manager and no Big Boss. John, the poor guy, then has to not only support the workload we share, his full time job, but also my floundering spirits. My wife, the poor gal, then has to deal with not only two growing toddlers, but a husband who then needs a little TLC. Both of them are amazing though and I’m usually back to high spirits soon enough thanks to their efforts. There’s one more source I can go to for support as well, and more often than not, I forget about them because I don’t see them when I get home and they’re not IMing me all day. However, this source plays just as big a role in the grand picture as my wife and my business partner. That third source is my customers.

Yes, MY customers. I work hard for them. I literally give my blood, sweat and tears for them. Sure, you can say every company does that, but let’s face it, the heart, the love, the passion are usually not there. Like I tell John, I wake up with customers on my mind and go to bed with them in my heart. Heck, I even include my customers in my prayers, “Heavenly Father, help me find better ways to serve my customers.”

I am proud of every single one of my customers. Whenever one buys a ticket, Eventbrite sends John and I an email. I see their names long before I see their faces. They maybe faceless for a little while but not for long. John and I greet every one of our customers at our shows. If you can’t welcome your own customers to your show, you shouldn’t be putting on a conference. Sorry. We hand greet all 300 to 400 of our attendees and sponsors. Nothing makes me smile more than when I say, “Hi, <insert customer name>. I’m Tom, welcome to 360|Flex.” and they do a double take. They look back at John then me, saying “THE John and Tom who planned the show?” To which, we answer, “That’s us.” The person gets a smile and you can tell that you have made them feel special. We’re not super stars, but we can make our customers feel like they are the most important thing in the world to us. This is because, quite simply, they are.

We sent out a little note to past customers at 2am on Friday night/Saturday morning. We asked them to share the experience they had at our conference with others as we’re nearing the final 30 days of 360|Atlanta. By Saturday morning, we had a few email responses and blog posts. I have a feeling that we will continue to see the “love” be poured out by them over the next week or so.

I thank my wife and John all the time for their support. To my customers though, I wanted to send out a huge thanks. Not just for your monetary support, but for all the kind words (and constructive criticism) you send our way. I know John feels the same, but he’s just not as mushy as I am. I’m a softy though, and my customers help me feel the love.

If you’ve never had the pleasure of truly serving a customer of your own. You should definitely give it a try. Nothing beats the feeling, especially if you’re lucky enough (and humble enough, I’d say) to learn how to serve them correctly. That’s what business is about: Not money, but people. Sadly though, many businesses fail to remember that.

John and I aren’t perfect. Far from it. One thing you’ll notice at our shows is that we bicker like an old married couple. The reason for that is because while we cannot promise our customers perfection we can promise passion. We will do everything in our power to try to achieve the closest thing to perfection that you can get at a show. It’s not because of your money that we strive for perfection. It’s because you are a real person who deserves the best experience. Your money is merely a vehicle to help us achieve that goal. Too many businesses these days feel like their customers owe them something. I hope those businesses die off and let those who care take over. I have a feeling that the replacement companies will be Tiny Businesses: small in size, but big in reach.

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  1. Amen! I love the 360 Flex events, it always feels like going over to your friend’s house and chilling on the couch with a beer.

    If something sucks, I yell at you guys. If something’s good, I usually chalk it up to stellar speakers 🙂

    360 events really do have a great vibe, and this post gets at the core of that. It’s like we’re all in it together (but you two do all the hard work). Thanks for everything, and see you in the ATL!

  2. I think you are on a very good track, remember it will be passion that gets you through the night even when you have hired your first employees and are wondering how you will meet payroll that week.

    It is all about passion.

  3. Really enjoyed this “look behind the scenes” of your tiny business. More and more of this is happening – a couple guys and gals finding a passion they can pursue “on the side” and still do very, very well. Best of luck.

  4. “It is all about passion.”
    Well said.

  5. I believe that small business officially means under 50 employees. I’m not sure if annual sales numbers are involved. 😉

    I think I speak for many when I say that we appreciate the conference and the work you two do.

  6. Your comments about it being lonely being a market disrupter really spoke to me. I focus on female entrepreneurs and even though there are a lot of them, it doesn’t seem that the mainstream marketing media realizes that. Even when I google what I would consider relevant keywords, very little helpful info comes up. So, I decided I would make my mark. I am working to not only empower this group but also to unify the field by gathering together the information they need in one place, creating what I can’t find somewhere else, and celebrating their amazing contribution to tiny and small business.

    Thanks for the insightful viewpoint. I think you’re right on track.
    Vicki Flaugher

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