Gwyn Brown, owner of Conference America, shares her story.
Small Business Lessons from Longtime NFIB/Alabama Member
When Gwyn Brown and fellow co-owners started Conference America in July 1992, they were at the forefront of the telecommunications industry. Three of the four people who were involved in starting the business had worked together in the past and had experience in the industry, so they saw the need for a conference calling company. Others had not quite caught on to the idea yet.
“When we first started Conference America, people would ask me what we did,” Brown says. “If I answered, ‘we provide conference calling services,’ they would look at me like I was crazy and ask what I meant. Today everyone knows what a conference call is, and most have participated in one. So we have gone from providing an unknown service to one that is used everywhere.”
While there is risk associated with every business endeavor, especially cutting-edge ones, Brown says the idea of starting something from scratch, being her own boss, having fun and enjoying each day, and taking responsibility for her own success appealed to her.
Today Conference America is not just an audio provider for conference calls; they have expanded their capabilities to offer conferencing platforms using web and video, and they continually adapt to rapidly changing technology to best serve customer needs.
“Many of our customers look to us to be their solution experts as far as helping them choose and use the tools available to them,” Brown says. “With our help, they just have to concentrate on their meetings.”
Over the years, Brown has dealt with many challenges as a small business owner, including adjusting to a 24/7 pace of the business and competing on the national level with companies that have big advertising budgets. Here she shares some advice based on the lessons she’s learned in the process:
- In owning your own business, you are a jack-of-all-trades to a certain degree. But there comes a point when you have to let go, delegate and let others do their jobs. Surrounding yourself with smart, energetic and trustworthy people is a must.
- Don’t just count on one plan to work; always have at least two other options available and work on them at the same time.
- Cash is fact, and profit is opinion. Avoid long-term fixed costs like the plague.
- Our acid test for any decision is, ‘Is this in the best interest of our enterprise?’ It’s not about us, it’s about the business.
One of Brown’s biggest challenges comes from the government.
“Over the last five years, the federal government has imposed more than $1 million annually of taxes and fees on us, not to mention all of the form filing requirements that go along with it,” she says. “There is nothing that we or our customers have gotten from this increase.”
On the brighter side, Brown says Alabama is a good place to do business because of its favorable regulatory climate, low tax rates and little intrusion from the state government. And being a longtime member of NFIB has helped Brown keep tabs on policy issues that impact her business.
“The Alabama chapter is very active and has always been on top of local and national issues that affect small businesses,” she says. “By having them in place, we have a wonderful source of information available to us without having to do the research ourselves.”
Brown also recently joined the Alabama Leadership Council, which she says she’s very excited about.
“Our first meeting was very refreshing and informative,” she says. “I was especially impressed listening firsthand to the different ways the state chapter is working with the legislature on behalf of small business….We as business owners can really have a voice and help make a difference.”