Running a business is hard. EO Seattle gives area founders a place to air concerns and share ideas to help their companies grow

David Nilssen, CEO of Guidant Financial and EO Seattle member. Photo by Gary Burckhardt Photography

David Nilssen, CEO of Guidant Financial and EO Seattle member. Photo by Gary Burckhardt Photography

In at least one way, entrepreneurs leading million-dollar businesses are just like the rest of us: They want a place where they can discuss their concerns and challenges with people who have faced similar issues and can offer support.

More than 125 local business owners have found that in EO Seattle, a chapter of the global Entrepreneur’s Organization. The group offers social and educational events, leadership development, and monthly forums where groups of eight to 10 members share ideas to help their businesses grow. Membership is limited to owners and founders of businesses with at least $1 million in annual revenue. Each forum is comprised of entrepreneurs from non-competing industries to allow an open flow of ideas.

So what exactly do entrepreneurs discuss? Topics range from what to do about slumping sales to handling personnel and family problems. The confidential, supportive environment gives CEOs a place where they can be themselves without worrying about being judged by their employees or the public. “As an entrepreneur, there are not a lot of peers to talk to,” said Ben Hansen, president of Redmond-based Mactus Group and an EO Seattle member. “EO is the only place I can engage in open discussions with peers without any ramifications for the company I lead or the people I work with.”

Strictly Tile owner Kris Trees is part of the EO Seattle Accelerator Program, which guides small businesses to $1 million in revenue. kris trees. Photo by Rachel Coward.

Strictly Tile owner Kris Trees is part of the EO Seattle Accelerator Program, which guides small businesses to $1 million in revenue. kris trees. Photo by Rachel Coward.

David Nilssen, CEO of Guidant Financial, has been a member of EO Seattle since 2005. When his company had to downsize from 110 employees to 30 over a two-month period in 2008, Nilssen said his EO forum supported him through the crisis and helped him overcome the feeling that his business had failed. Today, the Bellevue-based firm is back to around 100 employees.

Nilssen is a firm believer that EO is beneficial, but he said committing to the mandatory, five-hour monthly forum meetings can be a deal-breaker for some. Still, around 90 percent of EO members renew each year, and Nilssen says that the organization’s slogan — “If you don’t have time for EO, you’re perfect for EO” — is apt. He believes membership is well worth the investment of time and money and appreciates being forced to take the time to think about important aspects of his business.

EO is a volunteer-run organization. The Seattle chapter has one full-time employee who handles event logistics and acts as a general manager, but the board of directors determines the strategic direction for the chapter. Charles Bender, current EO Seattle board president and a 15-year member, enjoys working with other board members, who he says share his understanding of and commitment to EO and are stewards of its values.

“It’s pretty amazing what an eight-member volunteer board and one staff member can accomplish,” said Nilssen, a past board president.

Along with classes and regular meetings, EO Seattle facilitates networking events like this one, held at a Hunts Point waterfront home in July. Photo by Josh Dunn.

Along with classes and regular meetings, EO Seattle facilitates networking events like this one, held at a Hunts Point waterfront home in July. Photo by Josh Dunn.

The membership requirements might make EO seem exclusive, but its goal is to serve a broad range of successful entrepreneurs. The Seattle chapter, for example, includes men and women of many ages. Its entrepreneurs span the political spectrum and hail from numerous industries.

For businesses that have yet to reach $1 million in revenue but aspire to get there, EO Seattle runs its Accelerator program, which Bender describes as an “entrepreneurial MBA wrapped up in a three-year program.” The accelerator teaches smaller business owners how to apply knowledge about strategic planning, finance, sales and marketing, product development, and more. At around $2,000 per year, it is a lot less expensive and time-intensive than going back to school for an MBA, and unlike most accelerators, participating companies don’t have to give up equity.

The program is geared toward owners of companies with at least $250,000 in annual sales. From EO’s perspective, Accelerator gives members a chance to mentor newer entrepreneurs and establishes a new-member pipeline.

EOSeattleSidebarAccelerator entrepreneurs are assigned a mentor group of several participants with whom they share information and are held accountable in working toward the goal of $1 million in sales. Participants also get access to some of EO’s other offerings, with a limited number of spots available at social and educational events that are otherwise for EO members only.

Kris Trees, owner of Strictly Tile, recently joined the Accelerator program. “It’s a really great opportunity for a small business owner like me who doesn’t have the connections. I’m at a point in my business where family and peers can’t help me anymore,” he said. Trees is considering acquiring another tile-installation company. Trees believes his contacts at EO will help him navigate the acquisition process if that is the route he chooses.

While EO Seattle welcomes new members, the existing group feels it is important not to grow so large that EO loses its culture. Bender says the group’s “Forum of 140” tagline describes an ideal maximum size in which all members know and can benefit from knowing each other.