Atlanta Entrepreneurs Prove People are the Heart of Small Businesses

Atlanta Entrepreneurs Prove People are the Heart of Small Businesses

By Phoebe Knight

It’s time to break out the hors d’oeuvres and bubbly beverages to celebrate National Small Business Week. Often hailed as the backbone of the American economy, small businesses are the embodiment of the American dream, where anyone can be successful with the right tools and determination.

Of course, the road to prosperity isn’t easy. More than half of new businesses fail within the first five years. That’s why Comcast Business and CNBC‘s The Profit partnered to host nationwide events designed to support and empower business owners. On Monday, May 1, Atlanta entrepreneurs gathered to network, speak with successful startup founders and apply to be casted on The Profit


A guest gets in on the celebration (Photo by Bill Rush Photography)

Among the hopeful candidates were and Henry and Ben Wischusen, father and son owners of Forestique, who have been in the business of making and selling unique wood jewelry and accessories for six years. For this duo, a success story would mean stable profitability and solid brand recognition. “I’d also like to retire,” Wischusen Sr. joked.


Ben Wischusen showing off his Forestique brand wood tie (Photo by Bill Rush Photography) 

Mover and shaker Denise Zannu, founder of Black Mermaid Soaps, put her name in the hat as well. Zannu began her career as a schoolteacher who made natural bath and body products as gifts. When her coworkers asked to purchase her products, she realized she had something special. Zannu expanded her market, selling in bulk to spas and specialty shops. Zannu hopes being cast on The Profit will lead to a strategic partnership that will scale her business internationally.

Atlanta’s business talent shone during the networking section of the event. Georgia Tech alum Dr. Marcus Schute P.E. of Shute Enterprises explained how he uses his technical experience to help other small businesses commercialize new research from concept to product.

Another attendee was the enthusiastic crimson-coated Jack Crawford, a.k.a. Chef Jack. Chef Jack’s signature service, Mastermind Dinners, caters upscale corporate meals designed to encourage conversation and creative thinking.

Hopeful entrepreneurs fill out casting applications (Photo by Bill Rush Photography)

Hopeful entrepreneurs fill out casting applications (Photo by Bill Rush Photography)

The evening’s capstone panel featured the wisdom and experience of successful business leaders, including past businesses from The Profit, along with Julianna Reed, the winner of CNBC’s competition series The Partner. Moderated by CNBC Small Business Reporter Kate Rogers, the panelists shared both inspiration and motivation with their captivated audience.

The Best Time to Be an Entrepreneur is Now

Sanjay Parekh, cofounder of Atlanta-based early stage tech incubator Prototype Prime, said, “Any time is a good time. Better sooner than later. It’s riskier to work for someone else than it is to work for yourself.”

“When things are bad, that’s when there are great opportunities,” he continued. “The cost of technology has gone down; the cost of starting has gone down. You can start for a lot less money than you did just ten [or] fifteen years ago.”

President and CEO of Next Marketing Henry Rischitelli agreed. “I think the economy is strong; it just needs to be unleashed.”

Be Bold When You Need Funding

“Put yourself out there, and ask,” said 2017 winner of The Partner Julianna Reed. Sharing her experience managing funding for a nonprofit, Reed explained that it was important always to be prepared and know where the money is going. “Know your numbers, know what your need is, and how to best utilize the funding to serve that.”

L-R: Kate Rogers, Alison Behringer, Julianna Reed, Henry Rischitetti and Sanjay Parekh

L-R: Kate Rogers, Alison Behringer, Julianna Reed, Henry Rischitetti and Sanjay Parekh (Photo by Bill Rush Photography)

When It Comes to Funding, Include Disasters In Your Estimates

“I think [new businesses] overestimate what they can accomplish,” Parekh said. “A lot of folks will say, ‘We can do it for this amount of money,’ and they don’t anticipate all the things that will go wrong. I think we’ve seen many good companies go under because of that. The unknown is what kills a lot of companies.”

Once You Have Money, Hold Tight

Rischitelli’s advice to budding businesses is to over-manage finances. Sign up for every credit card deal, get the frequent flyer miles and tally up little things that make a difference. “If you create that culture early on, the culture lives in the business,” he said. Never stop reinvesting in the business.” 

CNBC's Kate Rogers moderates the panel discussion (Photo by Bill Rush Photography)

CNBC’s Kate Rogers moderates the panel discussion (Photo by Bill Rush Photography)

If Times Get Tough, Tighten the Belt

When asked about how she raised her funding, Allison Behringer, founder and co-owner of candy shop Sweet Pete’s, shared how her family lost everything in their first business venture and seeded their current business with only 10,000 dollars. “Money can go further than you think when you bootstrap it,” Behringer said. Though the family made a lot of sacrifices, it was their commitment to putting everything they made back into their business that secured their position as a featured business on the second season of The Profit.

Create a Culture of Honest Feedback

“It’s always about the team,” said Parekh. “The idea almost doesn’t matter as long as you have a great team. If you have an ‘A’ team with a ‘B’ idea, they’ll figure out the idea is bad, and they’ll pivot, fix it and move on. You have to empower the people that work for you to give you bad feedback.”

Rischitelli agreed, adding, “Good ideas live in an environment that is not afraid to challenge the status quo. If we ride that horse [of a bad idea] to the ground, we’re dead. Sometimes we need our peers to tell us we’re doing something wrong.”

The crowd at Prototype Prime (Photo by Bill Rush Photography)

The crowd at Prototype Prime (Photo by Bill Rush Photography)

When it comes to feedback, receiving is often easier than giving, especially for those working in a family business like Behringer. Her advice is to let the person who is not the in-law do the telling. (Meaning parents may take feedback more easily from their child than their child’s spouse.)

Most of All, Keep Your Clients

Rischitelli explained what he considers to be most important to successful businesses of any size: “The key is retaining clients. Fight for your clients. It is so important to deliver a quality product with integrity, honesty and authenticity. If you fail to do that, they don’t believe in you. If they believe in your journey, then the journey becomes theirs. They’ll support you, and you can build on those platforms.”

Atlanta is Great For New Businesses

If you’re thinking about creating your own business, the panelists agree that Atlanta is a great place to start.

“Before starting, we had a clean state,” Rischitelli explained. “We looked at every available market, and what brought us here was available and cheap airfare. We can fly anywhere, any day of the week.”

The panelists share a laugh (Photo by Bill Rush Photography)

The panelists share a laugh (Photo by Bill Rush Photography)

He went on to explain that Atlanta also has a large professional workforce, with several employment agencies. “It’s a great place to do business, work, and travel from.”

“[The] cost of living is phenomenal, we have great schools and we have great graduates,” said Parekh. Another virtue, Parekh believes, is the friendliness of the city’s people. “We like to help one another.”

Reed agreed. She has traveled all over the country to other major startup hubs and says that everyone she meets has the same thing to say about Atlanta: The people are great.

Of course, we agree with the panelists. Atlanta is the perfect place to start a new venture, as evidenced by its thriving ecosystem of innovators and entrepreneurs. Opportunities are almost limitless for visionaries ready to open the doors of their own small businesses.

All photos by Bill Rush Photography