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Non-profit organization creates market opportunities for NE biz
GROW Nebraska CEO and Founder Janelle Anderson Ehrke in their Grand Island storefront. GROW Nebraska provides marketing tools and tips for their members.
Artists and crafters have the ability to create beautiful, useful items when most of us cannot imagine how to even start the process. Their craft, their art, fill the shelves and online store for GROW Nebraska™.
A sale creates revenue, but the largest opportunities GROW Nebraska provides for its over 350 members are education and education. Many of the entrepreneurs featured in GROW stores utilize the services offered by the 501(c)3 non-profit organization to grow their product lines and companies.
Wendy McKenzie, Owner/Creator of Udderly Naked, a goat milk soap company based in Overton, Nebraska, said her membership with GROW has more than doubled her business. McKenzie joined GROW for the education.
"I knew that I didn't know anything," she said. "I spent my years in school in the home economics department and avoided the business wing."
She explained how GROW has helped guide her business by holding her hand through decisions she was not sure of making due to lack of knowledge.
"As I've gotten the education, I know now I need to build my product line and increase the stock," she said. "I like that Janelle is very close to where I live. I can easily email her and in less than a day I get a response from Janelle (Anderson Ehrke, CEO) and Heidi (Garvin, Program Services Coordinator)."
McKenzie has been a member for almost a year and says she has taken tidbits from the different seminars and classes and "put them to work." She has sat in on the Third Thursday Trainings since before she was a member.
These trainings are offered once a month and are free to the public. Topics vary, but each month focuses on strengthening business savvy as a small entrepreneur.
Udderly Naked has become a recognized brand across the state, McKenzie said.
"People recognize my logo at craft shows now and it's not because I've been there before. It's because it's where GROW has been. (People) are seeing it more through publications and advertising now that I'm a member of GROW."
GROW Nebraska is not only a storefront for small business owners, it's an economic engine, according to CEO and Founder Janelle Anderson Ehrke. The GROW engine was built in 1998 and has been shifting and changing gears since.
Anderson Ehrke is a UNL grad and hit the ground running after college, living in Kansas City until she returned to her home state in 1993.
She came back to help with expansion of her family's business, Power Genetics, in Holbrook.
"My brother wanted to know if I'd come back and help him," she said. "I quickly realized I wasn't the right staffing for the expansion; we needed more accountants and feed truck drivers and I really wasn't good at any of that."
What she is good at is helping small businesses reach their market potential. The Central Plains Foundation in Holbrook was a business incubator, but it was floundering. They had gone through three directors. While serving as a Nebraska Economic Development Corporation Community Builder in Arapahoe, Anderson Ehrke approached the Central Plains Foundation president.
"I said they needed a new director. I told them I would fundraise my own salary. How stupid am I?" she says with a chuckle.
Anderson Ehrke became the Executive Director of the Central Plains foundation in 1995. She quickly realized a program located in Holbrook didn't have enough economic or sociological demographic to obtain the grant funds the program would need to be successful.
While perusing a magazine on a flight, she came across a craft co-op that was doing well in Appalachian, Kentucky. She thought if they can do well in that rural area, a rural craft co-op could work in Nebraska.
From there, she approached all of the right people— her board at Central Plains Foundation, and then Lieutenant Governor Kim Robak. She was able to secure a USDA Rural Business Opportunity Grant (RBOG).
Part of the grant funding allowed Anderson Ehrke to bring together 50 to 60 small businesses and artists for the "Showcase." Here, they brought in a panel of industry experts to talk about, and also jury the products, presented by the participants.
The "Showcase" was full of discussion with the small entrepreneurs and artists.
"The information we got was overwhelming," Anderson Ehrke said. "The artists and crafters said, 'Yes, we think it'd be great if there were a program to help us find more wholesale markets and promote ourselves.'"
Those at "Showcase" said they wanted it to be strictly about marketing because that was their weak point. The business owners expressed the need for a program that had growth platforms that would help them build their brands and the brands' awareness.
After the "Showcase," Anderson Ehrke went to work on the business plan. She was pregnant at the time and her daughter decided she wanted to make an early arrival. So, twelve weeks before her due date, Janelle gave birth. She lived at Good Samaritan Hospital for 55 days, and there, she said, is where she got a lot of things done for the GROW Nebraska Program.
"The last thing I ever wanted to create was an economic development program where I was sitting behind a desk, guessing what emerging businesses or entrepreneurs would want," she said.
The business plan was finished in 1996 and by January of 1998, they launched the program, accepting their first members.
MORE THAN A STOREFRONT
GROW Nebraska stores feature items created in Nebraska. The storefronts, located in Kearney at Hilltop Mall; Grand Island at Conestoga Mall; and Omaha at Eppley Airfield, give Nebraska-owned and operated businesses the opportunity to get their products to the masses.
But simply getting items on shelves is not the goal at GROW Nebraska. This non-profit entrepreneurial service organization was started, "to create sustainable economic development by supporting entrepreneurs and small businesses through promotion, market access and education."
Storefronts give a physical location for shoppers seeking products created by Nebraska entrepreneurs. The e-commerce listings on BuyNebraska.com, eBay, and Amazon bring local shop owners to a global market.
The GROW e-commerce store has gone from $2,385 in online sales in 2007 to over $50,000 in 2013. Of the online orders, 86 percent come from out-of-state and 70 percent of those people have no ties to Nebraska.
Always doing her market research, Anderson Ehrke is sure to survey people as to why they are purchasing products from the Nebraska entrepreneurs.
"We have the reputation of being a clean, trustworthy state," she says. " People buy from us because they respect our work ethic and people are friendly."
GROW Nebraska encourages its members to sell their story, do market research, and become the face of their product or service.
“Come to our stores and sell your product for a few hours on a Saturday,” Anderson Ehrke encourages members. “Do your market research then. If your product cannot do well with you, the owner, standing behind it, it won’t do well sitting on a shelf. That’s where you take time to reevaluate your objectives. Is it the packaging? Is it the branding? Sit down and determine what will and will not work.”
GROW isn't only for companies with retail products to sell. 16 percent of their members are in some sort of service organization. GROW helps connect the Nebraska service providers with Nebraska businesses. The network within the 350-plus GROW members list is deep. It's been archived and indexed since the organization first started, creating a vast marketplace for business.
Anderson Ehrke said GROW refers its members for services, creating another benefit for small business owners.
"I want our members to know they are getting a benefit from using services from another member," she said. "If they don't feel they are getting the best deal, I want them to contact me."
"Contact me." That term resonates with the small, but strong, staff at GROW. They are available to answer questions, big or little. No appointments are needed -- just an email or a phone call and GROW members have the benefit of talking to someone about their question.
Program Services Coordinator Heidi Garvin said she loves having the ability to be available.
"I love the fact that GROW members can pick up the phone to call me. They call asking anything from, 'I don't understand how to use the hashtag' to 'I don't know what needs to be on labeling for my food produce.'"
Garvin tries to answer as many questions as possible, but if she doesn't know an answer, "I always refer them to someone who does."
GROW bridges the gap between success and failure for small entrepreneurs. The have held strong to their mission of providing marketing strategies, critiques, connections and classes to help small business succeed.
Members seem to be pleased with the program. They had an 82 percent renewal rate in 2013.
To learn more about how to become a GROW Nebraska member, visit their website.
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