BELONGING

How a Small Business Fair Transformed the Community in KC

By

Erika Riley

– VOL. 17

When Neighborhood Manager Sarah Eblen got four Kansas City residents together to hold an event for local small businesses at Mac Properties’ Arcade last spring, she didn’t expect for the event to become a midtown staple. 

The event, now called Small Business Wednesdays, has now grown into a monthly high point for neighbors and local entrepreneurs drawing over 25 vendors and 100 attendees at the most recent event this fall. What started as four vendors wanting to introduce themselves to their community has now become an attraction, with a colorful offering of locally made goods along with drinks, a live DJ, and food trucks.

Sarah credits the “founding vendors,” who include residents Andrew Merriweather of Hefe Design Shop and photographer Halle Lang, for building on the events’ success and continually improving it.

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The founding vendors of Mac+Venn’s Small Business Wednesday series pose at the event in September. Pictured left to right: Andrew Merriweather, Halle Lang, Sydney Merrell, and Saimelis Quinones.

“Whether the vendor is new or maybe just starting back up again, they’re really good at just getting people excited and confident to do it,” she says. “It’s really the neighbors. I’m on the ground to move tables and pour wine but it’s really their vision.”

Here are four lessons Venn learned from holding Small Business Wednesdays.

Small business owners thrive on collaboration

The saying “it takes a village” certainly applies to small business owners. Not only do they need their community to support them, but they also need other small business owners in their community to learn from, collaborate with, and share knowledge.

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Taelyr and Bella are roommates and business partners. Their company, Down To Earth, sells homemade protein balls and promotes clean health foods.

Small Business Wednesdays has effectively created a network of small business owners in Kansas City who can lean on one another. Sarah shared that the vendors set up early to eat and get to know one another before attendees are let in, and they inevitably end up buying from one another.

Networking with one another can also help foster collaboration. For example, photographer Halle Lang worked with a graphic designer to create a package including a resume and professional headshot. 

Not only can this collaboration help businesses reach more customers, but it also fosters a feeling of morale and community amongst the owners, many of whom are neighbors, too.

“Not only are we supporting each other as businesses, but we’re also just getting to know them and  realizing that we’re all kind of doing the same thing,” Halle says. “We’re all working toward this common goal, and we’re also living together. So whenever we need help, we need something, we’re right there.”

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A local jeweler, who doesn’t have a storefront of her own, connects with a neighbor and customer at the Small Business Wednesday event.

Meeting people IRL can be vital for business owners 

One of the initial reasons the founding vendors of Small Business Wednesday wanted to hold the event was to get to know the community face-to-face. This can be a huge factor for businesses, even in the age of online shopping when more and more businesses run exclusively through social media apps like Instagram. 

But plenty of small businesses can thrive from active communities IRL. Getting to meet people in real life can help foster a connection with clients, and can be vital for some businesses who need a little more time with each client to explain their services or products. 

For example, Halle offered 10-minute photo sessions at the last Small Business Wednesday, where she took clients outside for a quick photoshoot and sent them their edited photos within the next few days. 

“I’m really excited to do that, because I won’t just be standing and chatting with people, I’ll really get to show people what I do and spend time with them, even only for a short amount of time, [and] get to create some really meaningful art with them,” shares Halle.

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The Small Business Wednesday series offers members of the Mac + Venn the opportunity to educate community members and prospective residents on the value of the platform. 

IRL meetups are also meaningful for landlords

Creating this opportunity for small businesses to interact with their neighbors can help landlords and leasing companies retain both their entrepreneurs and the neighbors who attend these events and enjoy consuming these vibrant opportunities. Venn’s Kansas City neighborhood is situated in Mac Properties’ buildings along Armour Boulevard in Midtown. Mac leaned into its partnership with Venn by creating the Arcade on Armour, a gathering space for the entire community. Events like Small Business Wednesdays bring vital foot traffic to the area, while creating an organic space for connection between residents and the building. 

At the most recent Small Business Wednesday event, several Mac employees attended, with one employee even joining as a vendor herself, selling her handmade candles. The company has also been instrumental in marketing Small Business Wednesdays, helping bring more people through the Arcade doors. Mac’s involvement and promotion helps get more eyes on the small businesses, but also gets more eyes on Mac Properties and what they have to offer Kansas City residents. “Attendees are always shocked to know that this is a feature of living in a Mac Property,” says Sarah.

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Hosting over 30 vendors and attracting hundreds of neighbors, the events create powerful opportunities for the Mac team to connect with and attract new residents.

Next month, Mac plans to set up a table of their own at Small Business Wednesday to meet current residents in addition to potential new tenants. This face-to-face interaction at such a lively event not only gives a chance for genuine connection, but also for potential tenants to see all that Mac has to offer them firsthand.

“Mac has been instrumental in getting Small Business Wednesday off the ground,” says Sarah. “With their co-planning—from having Mac employees sell their personal products at the event to having a Mac table at the event to cross-marketing—the event has grown from 4 vendors to over 30!”

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Moragen Feller (middle), a personal fitness instructor and empowerment coach, connects with KC neighbors at a recent Small Business Wednesday meet up.

Inclusive spaces attract vendors and community

Having been to many different pop-ups in the Kansas City area, Andrew Merriweather of Hefe Designs knows that it’s hard to get started as a small business when entry fees get in the way. This insight helped the founding vendors decide to have a truly inclusive event—with no vendor fees and tables provided. 

“So that’s why it is such a unique opportunity for these vendors, because you can essentially come in the door, sell as much as you want, make as much you want. Nobody’s trying to tax you. That’s crazy,” Drew says. “That just speaks to Venn as a company. That’s just a remarkable opportunity.”

For many vendors, Small Business Wednesday was their first-ever pop-up event. Sarah shares that one vendor made $300 during her first night and was shocked at the ease of access and the warm community. “It’s a very low investment for new people. It’s not scary. It’s not like, hey I might lose a hundred dollars if I don’t make any money because there’s a fee.”

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The meet ups continue to attract more and more local vendors across all industries — from fitness instuctors to photographers, food truck vendors and beyond. 

Insights and resources for business owners drive retention 

Not only does Small Business Wednesday offer small businesses a low-risk event to introduce themselves to their community, but they also offer them insights and tools to help continue their careers. 

Andrew plans to hold a marketing workshop for the vendors who participate in the next Small Business Wednesday to share some of his expertise with the community. Plus, the more entrepreneurs get to know each other during the events, the more they can help them learn and level up their businesses.

“That’s why I love working with these founding vendors, because they’re really thinking through the lens of how do we coach up these events… [not just] how do we get bigger, but how do we get better?” Sarah says.

These events also help the community become a space for learning, as more and more entrepreneurs introduce themselves to the neighborhood. Everybody can learn from one another.

“It’s just so great to look around and see all the people being able to interact,” says Andrew.  “And it’s continuing to grow and grow and grow and grow.”