Organizing Business Showcases
Organizing Business Showcases
Once you have educated and inspired local investors, you need to help them connect with business owners with high-quality investing opportunities. This can happen naturally through ecosystem-related networking. For example, entrepreneurs may hear about your local investing efforts through the local Chamber of Commerce where they are members and the Chamber leadership is a part of your ecosystem.
However, to really kickstart the networking process, consider organizing business showcases, which are a fun way to bring your community together to hear presentations from specific local small businesses and to generate support and connections for them. .
Business showcases bring key members of the community together to connect with entrepreneurs and business owners, to learn about the challenges and opportunities that local businesses face, and to inspire everyone to work together to support their local businesses in a variety of creative ways.
Business showcases are community gatherings that highlight specific local small businesses and entrepreneurs in order to rally technical, promotional, and financial support for them. They are fun and engaging, featuring a handful of compelling business presentations, a question-and-answer session, optional speaker(s) on local economic and community topics, and plenty of time for networking before and afterward.
Although raising investment money is a goal for many presenters, local business showcases are not “pitch competitions” where the presenters compete with each other to entice the audience to invest with them. Legally, if unaccredited investors are in attendance, business owners and entrepreneurs cannot speak publicly about the specific terms of their investment opportunity. Instead, business showcases bring key members of the community together to connect with the presenters, learn about the challenges and opportunities that local businesses face, and inspire everyone to work together to support their local businesses in a variety of creative ways. After the event, private follow-up meetings can be arranged where presenters and interested attendees can continue to build relationships, and if/when appropriate, discuss investing opportunities.
Business showcases are ideally held periodically, as a series, so that different businesses can present over time, keeping the events fresh and maintaining momentum. The events can be promoted publicly and made open to all, or they can be invitation-only events for members of local investing groups.
Organizing business showcases requires a highly functional team of volunteers to:
- tackle the logistics of recruiting, vetting, and educating potential presenters
- book a venue and arrange for food, drinks, and event infrastructure
- invite attendees and promote the event
- staff and facilitate the event itself
- help to set up the crucial follow-up meetings after the event is over
Local business showcases are organized by many local investing and local economic development groups around the country. They are also called entrepreneur showcases and “pitchfests,” they come in a variety of formats and are adapted for the needs of the local communities they take place in. Slow Money chapters around the country have used this model extensively, but in different ways. The innovative Slow Money Northern California organizes large-scale “Farm Fests” roughly once a year which are open to the public for the cost of a ticket, and have showcased a wide variety of local food-related businesses such as farms, food retailers, and value-added food producers. Slow Money Northwest hosts smaller food business showcases that are open to accredited investors only; their more conservative model is similar to accredited-only “angel pitchfests” that have been a feature of technology startup circles for many years. Slow Money Maine convenes relatively frequent but low-key, inexpensive gatherings every couple months that are open to the public but primarily promoted to their 900+ strong e-mail list. The Local Investing Opportunities Network (LION) of East Jefferson County, WA, holds private showcases for members and their guests that have featured a wide variety of retail, construction, food, education, and entertainment businesses.
One of the best aspects of showcases is that any kind of group can organize them; even groups comprised of local businesses, like Chambers of Commerce, can do it. Seacoast Local is a great example of a “Local First” nonprofit economic development group – as opposed to an investor group – hosting a series of entrepreneur showcases in Southeast New Hampshire that have featured local home and furniture builders, technology companies, and, of course, food businesses. Food businesses are perennial crowd favorites at showcases, without a doubt.
Getting Ready for a Business Showcase
First, assemble your organizing team and begin with a visioning session. Get on the same page about the big picture aspects of your event, starting with its intended purpose and name. Avoid investment-related themes; instead, focus on creative ways of rallying your community behind your local small businesses, with event names like “Local Small Business Rally,” “Local Business Booster Night,” or “Meet the People That Make It Happen.” Then, keeping the intended purpose of the event in mind, discuss how the event should “feel”: what kind of businesses should present, what related educational topics should be presented (if any), who should be invited/promoted to, how many people are likely to attend, what types of local venues might be appropriate, when it should take place, what costs might be involved, and how to pay for them. All of those aspects can be refined over time, but it’s essential to talk them over early in the process.
When considering promotion and attendance, your focus should be on ensuring that you get as many key people in the room together as you need to create the outcomes you desire. Desired outcomes can include community/relationship building, non-investment support for local businesses such as promotion, mentoring, and facilitating connections to helpful resources, and investments being made in local small businesses. The people that can help make those outcomes happen are typically members of what we call your local economy ecosystem, a network of people and organizations that share your goal of supporting local small businesses and nonprofits. They can include investors, economic development leaders, financial professionals, business people and groups, like-minded nonprofits, community organizers, and members of local government, media, and educational institutions. With this in mind, create a list of people and groups that you would like to invite and/or promote to more broadly. Will the event be invitation-only, or open to the public?
“…the venue selection can be a great opportunity to highlight something special and inspiring about your community… This sets the tone and the theme of people coming together to make great things happen.”
Choosing a great venue will be a big part of your event’s success. Two primary considerations for a venue are cost and capacity. On the cost side, it’s often possible to get a donated or a reduced rate space for nonprofit or community activities; in any case, your venue choice will depend on your group’s budget. Regarding capacity, it’s essential to have enough space for 1) attendees to mingle comfortably and sit to watch the presentations, 2) a “stage” or presentation space for the presenter(s), MC (Master of Ceremonies; the event’s public facilitator), and projection screen (if you offer one), and 3) a space for food, drink, and any educational or promotional materials that may be offered. Plan to have a little more space than you need, but not far too much, or the event will seem under-attended. Beyond cost and capacity, the venue selection can be a great opportunity to highlight something special and inspiring about your community. Examples of this could include a new or remodeled building that the community rallied to fund, or a restaurant, farm, or other business that was invested in locally and expanded, bringing in fresh energy. This sets the tone and the theme of people coming together to make great things happen.
Next, determine a rough budget that includes an estimate of income as well as various categories of expenses. For income, your group can sell tickets, solicit donations from sponsors (approach your ecosystem allies first), pay for the event directly, or share the expenses among your members. On the expense side, consider the venue, food and drink, supplies such as name tags and equipment rental (Public Address [PA] microphone and speakers, optional projector for PowerPoint presentations, tables, chairs, etc.), and promotional expenses including graphic design, printing, and advertising. One time-tested strategy is to minimize expenses by securing a free venue, donated food and drink, borrowed equipment, and volunteer staff. Another strategy is to go for a bigger budget including a great venue, food, etc; however, you may need to consider the timing of your funding, since some expenses will have to be paid before income rolls in. It is not recommended to charge the business presenters because the whole point is to support them, but they may wish to donate product samples and/or otherwise contribute to the event to further highlight their presence. Decide up front how your group will handle any profits or losses in the likely event that income does not precisely equal expenses.
At this point, your organizing group should be developing a good sense of what it will take to pull this off. Each person should self-select for one of the following roles, and perhaps with a bit of shuffling, your group will collectively cover all the primary areas of responsibility:
- 1. Event Logistics: Selecting & booking a venue, lining up, setting up, and managing food, drinks, supplies, equipment, tracking expenses, and generally setting up, managing, and cleaning up all aspects of the event.
- 2. Presentations: Setting criteria for presenters, recruiting, selecting & prepping the business/nonprofit presenters, lining up an MC and (optionally) other topic speakers, keeping the agenda and schedule on track during the event, and coordinating follow-up meetings with presenters afterwards. Ideally, place some people with entrepreneurship experience in this role, since they can often better support the presenters. See below for more details.
- 3. Promotion: Preparing promotional materials and distributing them over time through a variety of channels, such as an event website, email lists, social media, flyers, personal invitations, and requests for other like-minded groups and individuals (think: ecosystem) to help spread the word; selling tickets and/or soliciting donations (depending on how you are funding your showcase), and gathering RSVPs if you want to get a sense of potential attendance.
- 1. Are the presenters local? If your group hasn’t already, decide how you want to define local, in terms of geography, ownership, and operations. Is a business local that employs many local people but is owned by someone outside of the area?
- 2. Are the presenters collectively diverse? They should represent a variety of industries, to minimize competition between presenters and keep the audience engaged. For events that focus on one sector (like Slow Money groups focus on food), line up presenters that work in a variety of areas within that sector, such as production, processing, and distribution. Your presenters could also reflect different ages, cultures, ethnicities, and backgrounds, which will help make your event more interesting.
- 3. Do the presenters reflect the values and purpose espoused by your event?
- 4. Do they have a viable business or business model? You may wish to specify that presenters should be in business for at least three years, or that entrepreneurs starting new businesses have prior business experience. You could keep one spot per showcase open for a startup with no experience, for example, but keep the other spots for more established businesses that are likely to stick around. Don’t make it your mission to save a business that’s in financial trouble unless there is a compelling community case for doing so. Avoid conducting investment research or due diligence, such as gathering and evaluating financial statements or projections. That job should be done by any potential investors for themselves.
- 5. Do they have a compelling and current business opportunity? Opportunities carry risk and uncertainty, which makes for a more exciting story. In an ideal showcase, each presenter would be in an interesting and dynamic local industry and have an opportunity to start, buy, or expand a business. Examples could include opening a new location, launching a new product, and hiring people and/or buying new equipment to scale up operations. Even if a business owner just wants to refinance their credit card debt (which is a great thing to support), they should pair that goal with some other initiative that people can rally behind, and focus on that in the presentation. Some businesses may be running a crowdfunding campaign, which could create additional excitement and possibility for their presentation. There’s also value in presenting businesses that can share significant recent accomplishments with the audience. Although they may not have new opportunities, their stories can be compelling and they can often use the community support.
- 6. Are they exciting presenters? If you put boring presenters without any personality on your showcase stage, even if the business is exciting, your event will fall flat. Be discriminating, but do try to include a variety of personality types and styles (see item #2 above).
- 7. Are they representing a nonprofit? Local nonprofits that simply want to solicit donations are not as compelling as entrepreneurs that are facing immediate risks and opportunities. Yet, some nonprofits may have exciting opportunities to share at the showcase. Certain nonprofits, such as community loan funds, may be offering investment opportunities that they can discuss publicly and which are aligned with your event’s mission. Organizers should decide if they want to feature nonprofits, and if so, establish criteria for them.
- 8. How many presenters do you want in all? You can generally feature between three and 12 presenters, which can range between five and ten minutes each. Be sure that all presentations together don’t last much longer than one hour, in order to hold the audience’s attention and leave some good energy for afterwards. Question & Answer sessions can follow each presentation (which can add significantly to each presenter’s time) or Q & A can be saved for after the final presentation.
- 1. Create a list of ideal business presenters, and approach them in person to explain the event and encourage them to apply. Seek referrals from members of your local economy ecosystem.
- 2. Work with your promotions team, asking people to both attend the event and refer potential presenters to your group.
- 3. On your event’s website, add an invitation for presenters to apply, along with your presenter criteria and application form. Then post a link to that page on your social media channels, and encourage your whole organizing team to share and spread that link.
- 4. You can feel out potential presenters before you commit to holding the event.
- 1. Time, date, location, schedule of the event, and when to arrive.
- 2. The format of the presentations: How long they should be, whether Q & A will follow each presentation or take place afterwards, whether a projector will be available or required for use, whether presenters are welcome or required to provide handouts for the audience, etc.
- 3. Speaking guidelines: What topics are good to speak on, and how to avoid speaking about investing and financial information (see below for more details).
- 4. Ask them to be prepared to schedule a follow-up meeting with interested attendees after the event, but to not expect to make investment deals right away, and possibly not at all. Getting to know people comes first, discussing potential investments comes later, and many people do not get funded. Those that do get funded are usually very good at following up with potentially interested investors, which takes time, energy, and persistence. Feel free to refer your presenters to our Overview of Raising Money Locally guide (when published) for more information about how to navigate this process. It’s very important to set their expectations properly to avoid disappointments which can work against your showcases in the long run.
- 1. Booth or table space will be available for them to interact with people and offer flyers, samples, etc.
- 2. Time and date of one or two required “dry run” practice sessions between three and ten days before the event. These sessions can be in person or by conference call. Ask presenters to be ready to give their full presentation at the session(s).
- 3. Tips or requirements for slide show presentations (e.g. PowerPoint). Good basic recommendations are to feature plenty of imagery and not too much text, and avoid reading from the presentation to the audience.
- 1. An investment offering that has been registered with, and approved by, securities regulators, such as a Direct Public Offering (DPO). If a presenter has a registered DPO, complete with prospectus, you may allow them to present any information that securities regulators allow them to, which will still not include financial projections or any statements about future performance.
- 2. A relatively new exemption from registration called Rule 506(c) that allows “general solicitation,” but only verified accredited investors may invest. Unless your audience consists of accredited investors only, businesses using this exemption should be held to the same speaking guidelines as other businesses.
- 3. Advance sales (“pre-sales”) of products or services, offering nonfinancial rewards or “perks” in exchange for donations (such as in a crowdfunding campaign), or asking for donations only, is usually not considered an offering of securities, though this may vary state to state. You may allow businesses in this category to talk about their campaigns, including how they will use the money they raise, but only if they will assure you, the organizer, that they will not raise investment money for at least six months after the presentation.
- 1. Withhold any questions until the end of each business presentation, or the end of all the presentations, depending on what the organizers decided.
- 2. Presenters cannot speak publicly about financial or investment-related information, so please do not ask for this type of information.
- 3. Everyone is encouraged to stay after the presenters are done, mingle, introduce themselves to the presenters, and enjoy themselves.
- 1. Do NOT set your event’s title, promotion, or primary purpose to be the facilitation of local investments unless your audience will consist of accredited investors only.
- 2. Do NOT solicit businesses for payments in return for presenting at your showcase. Fund the event from donors, attendees, and/or your own group’s budget.
- 3. DO give the presenters guidelines on what they should and should not speak about.
- 4. DO set fundraising expectations appropriately for presenters, so they do not feel disappointed if they do not raise money. Highlight other benefits that are in it for them.
- 5. DO broadcast exciting email and social media reminders about the event 2-3 beforehand to maximize attendance.
- 6. DO save sufficient energy for after the showcase, when the follow-up meetings need to be scheduled and facilitated, and interested people invited to attend.
- 1. Assemble your organizing team.
- 2. Discuss and decide on the big picture aspects of the event, such as name, stated purpose, type and number of attendees, potential venues and dates, rough budget, and how the event will be paid for.
- 3. Assign event logistics, presentations, and promotions roles. Everybody gets down to work.
- 4. Event logistics researches and books the venue, lines up refreshments and equipment such as projectors and PA systems, tracks expenses, and manages the setup and cleanup of the event.
- 5. Presentations sets criteria for presenters (possibly in conjunction with the whole organizing team), creates, solicits, and evaluates applications from presenters, constructs the final lineup of presenters (including the emcee and optional educational speakers), helps the business presenters prepare by giving them guidelines, offering support, and holding one or two dry run sessions before the event, and helps arrange follow-up meetings after the event.
- 6. Promotions develops both online and traditional marketing materials such as flyers, promotes the event strategically over time, leads the charge on getting the word out person-to-person, sells event tickets and/or solicits donations, and optionally gathers RSVPs.
- 7. Enjoy your well-produced event!
- 8. Gather feedback from all participants afterwards, and repeat the process for your next showcase.
Choose a range of times and dates for the event that are at least six weeks out, or more if your group is new to the process. Be aware of holidays and other potential conflicts that might affect your audience. The organizer(s) that research and ultimately reserve the venue will need to know which dates are possible, which work best, which venues are acceptable, and a venue budget. Once the venue is booked and your date is set, promotion begins in earnest. If it is publicly advertised, create a web and social media presence for your event, and see if local newspaper(s) are interested in covering it. Get the word out and have fun doing it! One simple yet reliable way to ensure the best attendance possible: Send out one final e-mail and social media reminder to all invitees two or three days before the event, hyping it up and getting people excited to come.
Selecting & Preparing the Presenters
The main feature of every showcase is the local small business presenters, so it’s well worth giving plenty of time and energy to selecting, and then preparing, your presenters to give outstanding talks at your event. The first step is to write down the criteria for your presenters, which can be done by the Presentation team, or by the larger organizing team. Your criteria may include the following according to how they fit with the intention of your event:
The Recruiting Process
Once your criteria are established, your presentations team should begin the recruiting process. Create a flyer touting the event and its benefits for local small businesses and the community, combined with a short application form for gathering general contact information plus the additional information that’s needed to evaluate a business according to your criteria. Set a deadline of approximately four weeks before the event to stop accepting applications, and three weeks before the event to finalize your presenter lineup. This gives you time to help the presenters, who are all busy people, prepare their presentations.
A multi-pronged approach to recruiting presenters is usually best; here are some possibilities:
As candidates come in, evaluate them on their own merits, and also consider how they fit in your whole lineup. You may wish to accept one extra presenter as a backup in case another cannot appear. Rather than “rejecting” applicants that don’t fit into your upcoming event, you could let them know they will be considered for a subsequent showcase. Instead of running your application process for just one event, it could be framed as an ongoing process in which your team is always taking applications for future events, not just the next one up.
Preparing the Presenters
Once you finalize your presenter lineup, you’re ready to begin helping the presenters for the event. Many groups create informational packets that convey everything that a presenter needs to know. At a minimum, you need to give each presenter the following information:
You may also wish to include additional information, such as:
This webpage can also be a helpful resource to help them get familiar with the process. Ask them to check it out, watch the video of the Seacoast Local showcase above, etc.
It’s extremely important to educate your presenters about restrictions on speaking publicly about investing opportunities. As a general rule, businesses cannot speak publicly about any of their past, present, or future investing opportunities. Even privately, they can only discuss investment opportunities with people who self-identify as an accredited investor or someone with whom they have a significant, pre-existing relationship. Even speaking generally about their financial situation, needs, or goals, including projections of how they expect to perform in the future, could be considered a public offering of their securities unless they fall under one of a few exceptions:
If preferable, you may allow those specific exceptions if they come up. Let the presenters know that if they are asked point-blank by an audience member, or someone they do not know, about financial or investment information, they should simply say that they cannot speak publicly about it, and offer to meet privately for further discussions. All of your presenters should be educated on these guidelines, and all of them should make the same commitment to avoid speaking publicly about investment or financial information unless you have granted them a specific exception.
However, don’t just tell them what they can’t talk about! They should be encouraged to introduce themselves and their business to the audience (what their business does, who they serve, what needs they meet, what kinds of impacts they have on the community, etc.), speak about their personal history and business experience, values, ties to the community, the opportunities and challenges they face, and what kind of nonfinancial support or resources they are seeking (such as mentoring or introductions to certain people or resources).
The last step in preparing your presenters is to hold one or two practice sessions or “dry runs.” This is not required, but highly recommended to catch and fix any mistakes (presentation is too long, too short, has financial information, etc.), answer any questions the presenters may have, and generally help everyone involved to be more ready to pull off a professional, polished event. Ask presenters to be ready to give their full presentation, and if they have any slide show presentations or other visuals, ask them to submit those in advance. After the practice session, follow up with any presenters that need refinement to make sure they are on track. Gather final versions of all slide shows and compile them on one computer for projecting at the event.
In addition to selecting and preparing the business presenters, the presentation team is also responsible for selecting an emcee and, optionally, educational presenters for the event. The emcee should be someone that’s generally well-respected, comfortable interacting with crowds, and understands and supports the event’s mission and guidelines. Educational presenters, if you wish to feature them, can provide some diversity in the topics of the evening, warming up the crowd and informing people about groups, events, or opportunities they may not have heard of, including highlighting the work of your own group or the “local” movement in general. They can be given anywhere between a few minutes to 10 minutes each. Leaders of local nonprofits that your group wishes to support are great candidates for this role.
Pulling off a Great Event
The big day has arrived! Your logistics, presentations, and promotions teams have everything lined up. Volunteers are setting up chairs, tables, refreshments, PA system, projector, video camera for recording the event, and anything else that’s wanted or needed. Some business presenters may be setting up tables with samples, flyers, and other materials. A table is at the door where attendees can be greeted and signed in, leaving their email addresses for joining your group’s email list. People are arriving, mingling, introducing themselves, checking out the business setups, and enjoying the refreshments.
When the time comes to start, the emcee asks for everyone to be seated. He or she welcomes and thanks everyone for attending, introduces the organizing team, and previews the event itself, sharing its purpose and mission, how the schedule will unfold, and any housekeeping tips for the audience (“Where’s the bathroom?”). Then the emcee can introduce any educational speakers and pass the mic to them.
When the time comes for business presentations, the emcee informs the audience that the main part of the event has arrived, but first they need to know the ground rules:
Follow-up meetings are a very important part of the event, because they are where more substantial conversations can take place about how to support these local small businesses. Follow-up meetings will be scheduled between the presenters and anyone that would like to get to know them better and find out more about their businesses and their opportunities. Point out the sign-up sheets for each presenter, and/or let them know that they can sign up for follow-up meetings after the event via email.
Next, the emcee introduces the first presenter, and the event flows from there. You should have someone timing each presenter, someone operating the projector if there is one, and optionally, someone recording the event. Everyone else should sit back and enjoy. Soak in what you have created!
The emcee should facilitate the question-and-answer session or sessions. At times, irrelevant questions can be asked, and long-winded answers can be given. The emcee should feel free to interrupt if things get off track, and be sure to thank the audience for their questions when time is up.
When the presenters and Q & A sessions are complete, the emcee should thank everybody involved one last time and reiterate the earlier points about signing up for follow-up sessions and staying afterwards for mingling. If you have music, entertainment, or a fresh round of food and drink, this is the time to bring them out. Be sure to have your whole organizing team stay and enjoy this part. Thank your presenters personally if you get the opportunity.
Afterwards, the all-important follow-up meetings are crucial to build on the momentum your showcase created. It’s common for the organizing team to experience a drop in energy after the event, so the people in charge of organizing follow-up meetings need to save some energy for that process, which should start the day after the event. Ideally, the sign-up sheet for each entrepreneur received a number of people interested in meeting with them. Even if not, the best way to maximize participation in follow-up meetings is to give people many opportunities to sign up for them.
Slow Money Northern California (SMNC) printed postcards with each entrepreneur listed on them, and handed one out to each attendee so they could mark who they wanted to follow up with. Then, after the event, the organizers emailed a survey to all the attendees (which was simple; because they had sold tickets to the showcase through Eventbrite, an online ticket sales service, they had everyone’s email address ready to go) and asked everyone who they wanted to follow up with. SMNC also pioneered a special organizing team role they call the “Champion.” Prior to the event, each presenter would be paired with a Champion, who was a member of SMNC that had a particular interest in promoting and supporting that specific presenter. The Champions take the lead in recruiting people to join the follow-up meetings, scheduling them, and facilitating productive meetings with their presenters. Between sign-up sheets, postcards, e-mail surveys, and Champions, SMNC has been able to create great follow-up meetings and consistently positive outcomes for their presenting entrepreneurs, but that only happens because they place an extremely high priority on maximizing participation in the follow-up meetings.
The follow-up meetings can be scheduled the old-fashioned way, by proposing a list of dates and times and seeing what works for most people, or by using an Internet-based service like Doodle.com that makes that process far more efficient. The content of the meetings themselves is up to the participants, but it is a good idea to suggest that they continue where the event left off, building relationships, discussing the presenter’s business and business opportunities in greater detail, and seeing where that leads. The same restrictions against public offerings still apply when speaking publicly, or privately with unknown people; however, businesses can generally discuss financial and investment information in private with accredited investors and people with whom they have significant pre-existing relationships. Therefore, the goal of follow-up meetings is to create an environment where substantial relationships can be formed prior to investment discussions taking place. For businesses, the process of following up with interested potential investors can take a great deal of patience and persistence, and the most successful ones are usually the best at this part. Meanwhile, investors should be evaluating potential local investments using the guidelines in the section on Evaluating Local Investments.
Finally, the event organizers should solicit feedback from everyone involved: presenters, the audience, and the organizing team itself. Online surveys are highly recommended, especially for the audience. Your audience survey can also ask attendees which presenters they are interested in following up with. Organizers should work together to determine what questions they want to ask the various participants. The best questions are open-ended, inviting thoughtful, descriptive answers, rather than yes/no answers. For example, ask “What can we do to improve our showcases?” rather than “Would you attend another showcase?” Ask your most important questions first and keep the survey short, ideally so it can be completed within 3-5 minutes.
The organizing team should have one final meeting to review the survey responses, take notes on how they can improve the next showcase, and then… start planning the next one!
A Quick Review of What to Do
Here’s a review of Business Showcase Do’s and Don’ts:
Here’s a recap of the steps to organize your own Business Showcase: