Significant challenges faced the small business development center’s programming initiatives when I started in 2016. Program requirements and quotas were governed by an SBDC grant and handed down via the University of Georgia- then implemented by the small business development center at Georgia State University. The criteria was the same for each of the 17 centers regardless of geography, population density or socioeconomic standings. Business consulting services were complimentary, however the perquisite continuing education classes were not. Consultants were required to document a sizable number of “billable” hours within 4 stringent segments. Some segments were easier than others, there were no shortage of start-ups, however business that had been around longer than 5 years and grossed 350+ were in short supply. Continuing education for entrepreneurs is an over saturated market in Downtown Atlanta. With over 50 accelerator programs, co-working spaces and associations traditional education stood at a stark disadvantage. In fact, university branding standards required center pricing to be almost double that of competitors. Pricing and brand recognition weren’t the only obstacles we faced, State law frequently prevented us from providing food. Our governing grant required every class be a minimum of 3 hours long and host no less than 4 participants. Making quota meant assuming participants were able to fight rush hour traffic, find a parking spot, find food, and gain access to a locked building after hours. In summary, attending a continuing education class at the UGA SBDC at GSU from 6-9pm in the middle of the week required running the gauntlet of Atlanta’s least liked activities.
The Commerce Club faced their own set of problems in this newly minted urban entrepreneurial landscape. The Commerce Club hailed from the old world of exclusivity and private membership. Prior to 2007 their business model did very well. Their membership roster boasted the C-suite of fortune 500 companies. Christmas parties were written on blank checks, and Champaign towers refracted the light of one of a kind crystal chandeliers from Tiffany’s. In fact, Club Corp was doing so well they did not have any way to collect cash or charge credit cards in house. Fees and membership dues were billed monthly and often paid through expense accounts. Back then, entrepreneurs were called Self-Titled CEO’s and their success was rather infrequent. The Self-titled CEO was suspicious to the corporate ladder climber of late 90’s and early 2000’s. They were an outlier; a single lone-wolf forging its path away from the pack. 2007 took a wrecking ball to frivolous spending on decadent the champagne towers of the decades that proceeded it. Corporately funded memberships vanished, private events were placed on budgets, and the witnessed the rise of self-titled CEO’s.
In 2018 startups were everywhere. The concept of membership-based services was wide spread, jeans, a laptop and a flexible schedule earmarked success. Overnight success stories like Uber and Facebook served as living legends, drove innovation and entrepreneurs were courted constantly by competitors. The Commerce Club wasn’t suited for these innovations; and neither was traditional academia. The SBDC consultants needed a better space in which to hold class, and a more affluent client base than “free consulting” general results in. The Commerce Club needed an advantage over their pop-up competitors, a retention tool, and revenue driver. The result was to combine social influencers that could drive social media, class attendance, membership dues, food and beverage revenues, provide segmentation quotes for the consultants.