daymond john taking selfie with a crowd
Founder and CEO of FUBU and “Shark Tank" star Daymond John takes a photo with the audience at the CO— Summit in Washington, D.C., on October 17, 2019. — Ian Wagreich/U.S. Chamber of Commerce

As companies across the country close the books on 2019, they’re looking back on an excellent year — and small and growing businesses are some of the most optimistic of all. Throughout 2019, small business owners’ feelings about the economy have grown increasingly positive, with nearly 60% now believing the U.S. economy is in good shape, according to a report released quarterly by MetLife and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Those business owners brought their optimism to Washington, D.C., for the CO— Summit for Small and Growing Businesses, the capstone in a year-long tour across the nation with stops in Houston, Minneapolis, Atlanta and Salt Lake City. More than 600 entrepreneurs from across the country joined the CO— Summit to share their stories, learn business secrets from some of the country’s most successful founders and make connections with peers.

We’ve compiled all the action from the Summit into a few key highlights and takeaways.

To win an investor, know your strengths

For business founders seeking cash to grow their companies, the chance to pitch a potential investor is as daunting as it is exhilarating. Daymond John, founder and Chief Executive Officer of FUBU and star of ABC’s “Shark Tank,” has seen hundreds of business pitches and knows how to make them shine. He says the most attractive pitches paint the investment as a can’t-miss opportunity for the investor.

“Make us feel like no matter what, this train is going to leave the station,” John said. “You want us on the train, but you’re not going to stop no matter what, and we’re missing out on something [if we don’t invest in you]. The best pitches are someone just telling us a story about where they’re going. ‘Do you want to be part of my dream? If not, you’re done.’”

John advises entrepreneurs to understand every facet of the business, including every line on the company balance sheet. He also tells business owners to be frank about their business journeys during pitches.

“I want to hear your story and your history,” said John. “I want to hear your challenges and speed bumps. How did you get around those, or who did you bring in to help you with those?”

Smart business owners also carry a specific vision for the relationship they’d like to have with their future investor. Whether they want capital, mentorship or a combination of the two, John suggests entrepreneurs lay out their expectations up front.

Daymond John, founder and Chief Executive Officer of FUBU and star of ABC’s “Shark Tank,” speaking at the CO— Summit in Washington, D.C., on October 17, 2019.

Spend funds wisely to maximize business profitability

When a business owner has cash to invest in the company, it’s not always obvious where that cash is best spent. The predicament can be even more pronounced when a company wins venture capital funding, because it comes with heavy pressure for fast growth. While many companies focus their cash on marketing efforts to gain new customers and grow their brands, Blavity, Inc. founder Morgan DeBaun took a different approach with the $9 million she gained from venture capital investors. She says her decision to use the funds to make strategic hires enabled the media company, which is focused on black millennials, to grow sustainably.

“I raised the money and then I hired a sales team,” DeBaun said, “because I wanted to immediately wean ourselves off of being dependent on Silicon Valley investors. So we hired a sales team and we hired a business development team.”

With her new team by her side, DeBaun went on to develop a strategy to create new avenues for revenue, so the business could stand on its own throughout any twists and turns the marketplace might bring. The company has since acquired new brands, all focused on a black millennial audience.

While it’s critically important to invest funds into a business, experts also advise entrepreneurs to keep a strong cash reserve. John suggests each business have enough cash on hand to run the company for at least six months.

Morgan DeBaun, founder of Blavity, Inc., speaking at the CO— Summit in Washington, D.C., on October 17, 2019.

Well-defined core values can help brands grow

When it comes to raising public awareness about a small or growing business, a company’s employees are often its greatest tool. Nick Friedman and Omar Soliman co-founded College H.U.N.K.S. Hauling Junk as a way to make some extra cash during their summer breaks from school. They’ve since grown their business into a nationally recognized franchise, bringing in more than $100 million in annual sales. The two founders work hard to ensure their employees adopt and understand the organization’s focus on creating a great customer experience. They believe when the team truly buys into a company’s vision, the team becomes the brand’s best advertisers.

“Every one of your employees is your brand. They need to be walking, talking billboards for the organization,” Friedman shared. “They need to conduct themselves as if they’re on a stage at all times.”

This philosophy paid off tremendously several years ago, when a company employee was photographed inside a broken elevator, crouching on his hands and knees so a stranded woman could sit on his back. The photograph spread across the world, showing new audiences the values the company holds dear.

“I can assure you there’s nowhere in our operations manual that says, ‘When you get stuck in an elevator with an elderly woman, get down on all fours and become a human chair,’ but when you are a purpose-driven organization, these things start to happen,” said Omar Soliman.

Nick Friedman and Omar Soliman, co-founders of College H.U.N.K.S. Hauling Junk, speaking at the CO— Summit in Washington, D.C., on October 17, 2019.

Leadership development programs help retain top employees

In this strong economy, small business owners across the country are embattled in a “war for talent,” competing with large corporations for the best people in the workforce. Small and growing businesses can maximize their odds of retaining star employees by investing in their professional growth, said SSA Consultants President Dr. Bill Slaughter. Leadership training and professional development programs improve top talent and incent them to stay, Slaughter said.

“A lot of times, organizations are not doing leadership development. They are not equipping people with the right skill sets from a leadership perspective and so they don’t perform well,” Slaughter said. “If you’re not spending enough time on your investment in your people from a leadership perspective, I think you’re not capitalizing on one of the most important factors in the success of an organization.”

Most importantly, keeping talent ensures that your investment pays off. The cost of leadership development initiatives pales in comparison to the cost of losing and replacing top employees, Slaughter says.

Dr. Bill Slaughter, president of SSA Consultants, speaking at the CO— Summit in Washington, D.C., on October 17, 2019.

To improve productivity, delete email procrastination from your day

Small business ownership often feels like a complex juggling routine, requiring a true mastery of time management and efficiency. But some of the greatest gifts of modern productivity, especially email, can also be the greatest downfalls for those trying to focus on long-term projects. Business owners should learn how and when to step away from their inboxes, according to small business owner and productivity expert Heather Cocozza.

“Email is a great procrastination tool. So, don’t think that you can say, ‘Let me just go check my email to make sure there’s not a crisis before I go work on this important leadership task,’” Cocozza said. “Why? There will always be a fire to put out. So be realistic about what’s really a crisis and try to manage your reaction. Ask yourself, ‘Can this crisis wait one hour?’”

Cocozza suggests scheduling time — free of distractions and respected as a dedicated timeblock — to focus on the projects important to leading and growing your business.

Many thanks to our series partners, MetLife, FedEx and Square, and to our event sponsors, Chase for Business, Grow with Google and Verizon.

Full list of the CO — Summit speakers, in order of appearance:

  • Steve Patterson, Host, Twin Cities Live, Emcee
  • Tom Fuge, Senior Regional Vice President, Truss
  • Cam Kostyack, Brokerage Associate, Truss
  • Randi Penfil, Educator, Grow With Google
  • Lawrence Bowdish, Director of Research and Issue Networks, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Corporate Citizenship Center
  • Elody Crimi, Owner, Davanti Photo Workshops, and Instructor, Washington Photo Safari
  • Dr. Christel Slaughter, Chair, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Small Business Council and Chief Executive Officer, SSA Consultants
  • Jessica Moser, Senior Vice President, Small and Specialty Business, MetLife
  • Katherine Berman and Sophie LaMontagne, Co-Founders and Co-Owners, Georgetown Cupcake
  • Thomas J. Donohue, Chief Executive Officer, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
  • Morgan DeBaun, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Blavity, Inc.
  • Jeanette Mulvey, Executive Content Director, CO— by U.S. Chamber of Commerce
  • Dan Hurst, President and Founder, Strata-G
  • Hailley Griffis, Head of Public Relations, Buffer
  • Heather Cocozza, Organizing and Productivity Consultant, Cocozza Organizing + Design, LLC
  • Dr. Bill Slaughter, Founder and President, SSA Consultants
  • Hasan Mannan, Mid-Atlantic Business Banking Region Manager, Chase for Business
  • Darla Harris, Vice President, Business Development Manager, Chase for Business
  • Mustafa Nasseh, Vice President, Business Relationship Manager, Chase for Business
  • Nick Friedman and Omar Soliman, Co-Founders, College H.U.N.K.S Hauling Junk & Moving
  • The Honorable Jovita Carranza, Treasurer of the United States, Department of the Treasury
  • Neil Bradley, Executive Vice President and Chief Policy Officer, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
  • Marcus Davis, President and CEO, The Breakfast Klub, Reggae Hut, Alley Kat Bar & Lounge, and Kulture
  • Richard Ward, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Merchology
  • Sara Irvani, Chief Executive Officer, Okabashi Shoes
  • Shannon Bahrke Happe, Founder and Chief Inspirational Olympian, Team Empower Hour
  • Daymond John, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, FUBU; Star, ABC’s “Shark Tank;” Chief Executive Officer, Shark Branding; and New York Times Best-Selling Author
  • Carolyn Cawley, President, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, and Senior Vice President, U.S. Chamber of Commerce