Small Businesses, Big Dreams

These little success stories speak volumes.

Sudie Thorsen, an avid gardener, was trying to tackle some yardwork. Every time she’d dig in, she’d realize she needed one more tool from the shed. As with so many people who garden or simply enjoy yardwork, Sudie’s real challenge was keeping everything together. She told her husband, Robert, that she needed a pack burro; he invented one.

Robert’s organizer fits over the back of a standard wheelbarrow, between the handles. It even has a cupholder and a secure place for cell phones. The Thorsen’s adult children helped them form a company, and the Little Burro was born. Then, with high hopes, they took their new product to the huge National Hardware Show in Las Vegas. Out of 11,000 entries for new products, they won first prize. Little Burros was a hit. It became a best seller on Amazon and was recognized by multiple retailers as a favorite. It’s another American Dream made real because a family was able to put its idea in front of the right people.

That’s what trade shows do better than any other medium — they connect small, innovative companies with the vast marketplace. And this isn’t an isolated story.

OMI Gems has been a family-owned business for five generations, with a solid reputation for providing only the finest loose gemstones. They rely on face-to-face transactions at trade shows to market their finely curated stones to buyers who want the best.

Bernie Fay invented an apparatus he called the “MISIG” (Most Important Stretch in Golf); he designed it as an exercise device and swing trainer to up his golf game and prevent injury. He took it to the PGA Merchandise Show and met the “king makers” whose thumbs-up meant instant success.

The Resnick family took their idea for the UpCart, a stair-climbing, foldable hand truck, from concept to successful business by getting it in front of buyers at the National Hardware Show.

Of the 1.7 million exhibiting companies like these, 80 percent are small businesses — with fewer than 500 employees. Forty-six percent of small businesses attend at least one show annually and 41 percent consider event marketing to be their top channel for lead generation. As business people and as consumers, we tend to watch Wall Street and big corporations as early indicators of recovery. But we cannot afford to forget the small businesses who make it happen. Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Amazon, Google, The Walt Disney Company, and Tesla Motors all started in somebody’s garage. Phil Knight launched Nike from the trunk of his green Plymouth Valiant. Michael Dell’s computer empire came together in his Austin dorm room.

I wonder what big innovations are quarantined right now, waiting to emerge from the garage or basement into the white-hot spotlight of a trade show. I can’t wait to see. In the meantime, we can advocate on their behalf. Check out #GoLIVETogether and find out how to help bring small dreams to the big market.

Whether you are a trade show organizer or an exhibitor, we’d love to hear about your success. You can share your story by posting it to our Go LIVE Together Facebook page or emailing it to

The Difference Between Managing and Leading

Companies need both great managers and great leaders

Which describes you best

A.  I get great satisfaction by checking things off my list and accomplishing tasks in a measurable way. If I can’t see that progress is being made, I’m restless and will poke around to get things moving again. I am good at supervising other people in a way that ensures mutual success. I know how to manage for outcomes, focusing on the details that matter. When I’m in the zone, everything goes like clockwork.

B.  I am a big-picture person. I can articulate a clear vision, purpose and strategy and inspire other people to execute against a plan that describes “what beautiful looks like.” I am usually running too fast to spell out the tactical details. Fortunately, I have surrounded myself with great lieutenants who, if they know where we want to go, can be trusted to keep the trains on track and running on schedule.

If description A fits you best, you are probably a great manager. And if B sounds more like your modus operandi, you are probably a true leader. The thing is, successful companies need both. And it’s important to have enough self-awareness to understand which you are and what you aspire to be as your career unfolds. Most of us are better at one than another. And it is almost impossible to do both well at the same time. Managers and leaders use different skill sets, so it’s important to know where you are happiest and most effective.

Many leaders start out as managers and then are promoted into positions of leadership. But it can be very hard for a good manager to let go of the details and shift focus. This was my own experience early in my career. I’d been a very hands-on COO who managed several department heads and enjoyed watching our sales numbers grow. When I was promoted to CEO, I found that I enjoyed articulating a vision and strategy for the company – but resisted delegating the details to my managers. It meant letting go of what I was good at and trusting that the people would follow – and act on – my lead. A few years later, when I joined a start-up company and was once again in a position of supervising the work of others, it was even harder to switch back to a manager mode. I knew how to sketch out the big picture, but had to relearn the knack of filling in the details to make that picture a reality.

The question we each need to ask ourselves is, where do I do my best work? Where am I happiest?

If you desire a long and successful career as a great manager – which is no small goal – align yourself with great leaders and push their comet into the rarefied atmosphere of success. Take care of the details, and you’ll be taken care of.

If you are a manager who aspires to be a true leader, you need to be realistic about where you are in your career and set different goals. Surround yourself with the right mix of people who complement your skills. Hire great managers who can execute your vision and then teach yourself to let go of the details. Understanding the difference between being a manager and a leader is the first step to being the best you can be – whichever one that is.