One year after winning contest, Wabash businesses see success

May 25th, 2017

By Lisa Ryan | WBOI

One year ago, Wabash, Indiana competed in a national competition to bring a half million dollars into the city. The money went to small business owners and improvements to the city’s downtown.

Business was slow for Lisa Downs, the owner of Ellen’s Bridal and Dress Boutique in Wabash. She had started the business in 2012, and four years later, she says she still wasn’t making a profit. Downs wasn’t sure what to change to bring more people to her shop an hour southwest of Fort Wayne.

“We feel like we have a unique marketing challenge in the bridal industry in that you typically don’t get repeat customers,” Downs said.

But then she was chosen as one of the featured stores on a video series about small business owners. The series was created by Deluxe, a company that has marketing services for small businesses. It originally aired on Deluxe’s website, but was recently picked up by Hulu.

Deluxe created a campaign called Small Business Revolution, and began accepting submissions from cities around the country. The winning city would not only get a spot on the series, but also a grand prize of $500,000, which would go to help small businesses. Wabash was chosen out of 10,000 cities that applied.

Downs says Small Business Revolution had a major impact on her store. She went from selling one dress in January of 2016 to selling 12 dresses in January 2017.

“Still not enough to be a booming business, but we’re moving in the right direction,” she said.

The Small Business Revolution marketing team helped Downs build a website, which she says has had a significant impact on her ability to reach a wider audience. During the video series, they also brought together similar stores in Wabash, like a nail salon and flower shop, to help them market their city as a place for people to go to plan their weddings.

Ellen’s Bridal and Dress Boutique isn’t the only Wabash shop that received marketing and business advice from Small Business Revolution.

A tattoo shop in the city was struggling against an image issue. Matt Haynes owns Filament Tattoo.

“Obviously my industry is a little bit different than some others because it has historically been possibly a little bit questionable,” he said.

But Haynes says that’s no longer the case. He says this video series helped people realize that his store is just another small business that can help Wabash grow.

“People are realizing, no this is actually just another family man, in fact a group of family men and women that work together and trying to feed our kids and just trying to be a part of our community as best as we possibly can,” he said. “People began to see we were what we said we were, and that’s definitely changed our reputation.”

Haynes’ tattoo shop was already profitable, but he says Small Business Revolution helped him grow.

"We all became better friends. We were neighbors but we weren't necessarily all friends."

The video series also followed the challenges that bar owners Harry and Judy Kilmer face. The married couple own Harry’s Old Kettle Pub and Grill, but before Wabash won the contest, it was only a pub. With the help of Small Business Revolution, they were able to build a kitchen, and business grew by more than 50 percent. Kilmer says he thinks they’ll be able to sustain the growth.

“We’ve got some ideas, we’ve got some things on the horizon we’re going to try, and while we may not increase another 50 percent next year, anything over what we do now is gravy.”

Other businesses featured on the series are The Eclectic Shoppe and Thriftalicious, two retail stores, and Schlemmer Brothers, a metal manufacturer.

In addition to providing marketing services, Small Business Revolution helped develop Wabash’s downtown. They also donated money to the visitor’s bureau and the local economic development organization.

Christine Flohr is with Visit Wabash County, the visitor’s bureau. She says the money made a big impact on the city, and they’ve seen an increase in website traffic by 30 percent. Flohr says the amount of people visiting Wabash has also increased.

Flohr says the biggest change she has seen is in the growth of relationships in the community.

“We all became better friends. We were neighbors but we weren’t necessarily all friends,” Flohr said. “A deeper relationship was formed with each other out of this, and that in itself can strengthen any community whether it’s a business community, a city, a town, a county. Whenever you start to make sincere meaningful relationships, everything starts to get really strong.”

"Small Business Revolution has drawn the spotlight to what an amazing this community is."

Amanda Brinkman was the host of Small Business Revolution’s video series, along with Shark Tank's Robert Herjavec. Brinkman spent a lot of time in Wabash getting to know the business owners and providing advice.

“The Small Business Revolution has drawn the spotlight to what an amazing community this is,” Brinkman said. “I think people who have lived here knew that, but I think it has given them a renewed sense of pride for how amazing their community is and what a special town this is.”

Wabash was the first city to win the contest, and for the second season of the series, Brinkman and the team are now headed to Bristol Borough, Pennsylvania.

Many business owners in Wabash say they think their growth will be sustainable, because Small Business Revolution not only provided marketing services for them, they also explained the reasoning behind the changes and gave advice on how to continue long after the film crews are gone.

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