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updated: 8/5/2013 9:13 AM

Successful serial entrepreneur shares her insights

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Karen Lennon's first business plan was seven words: We should be doing more in Chicago.

Spoken during a breakfast conversation with Peter Fox, then head of Springfield-based Growth Corp., a small business 504 lender, that short sentence was the beginning of Lennon's highly successful entrepreneurial career.

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Every entrepreneur is different, of course, but even if you're in the just-thinkin'-about-it phase, Lennon's experiences are worth noting. A math teacher, lawyer, banker and consultant who spent her early school years in Glen Ellyn, Lennon has created eight businesses -- most, though not all, highly successful.

When Fox said that Growth Corp. was not ready to expand its Chicago presence -- essentially Lennon -- she asked, "Do you mind if I start a company to make 504 loans here?"

Fox gave his blessing, and SomerCor 504 Inc., the first Lennon start up, was born in 1993. (Working with banks and the Small Business Administration, 504 corporations are federally certified nonprofit development companies that administer the SBA's low-rate, low down payment real estate and equipment loan program for qualifying small businesses.)

SomerCor 504, which Lennon sold in 2001, was her first venture; a similar business, Chicago-headquartered Wessex 504 Corp., is the current.

In between, Lennon's startups include a lighting manufacturer whose products are based on patented LED technology; a company that made artist action figures, sold in museum stores; and a maker of garden products (and urns for funeral homes) with an angel theme.

With 20 years of mostly entrepreneurial winners behind her, Lennon willingly shares some insights:

• Knock on doors. "There was no magic" in SomerCor's success, Lennon says. "It was me knocking on bankers' doors. 'Let me tell you about this (loan) product.'

"There were other SBA products in the marketplace and they didn't have a good reputation, but we were better. By the third or fourth visit, bankers began to say 'Yes.'"

• Keep trying. "Never, never give up," Lennon says. "Do it. Try 10 things. If one works, go on."

• Get help when you need it. "Ask for directions. Build a strong network of support people" and ask for their input.

• Know yourself, part I. "I learned I do better with partners," Lennon says. "It comes down to the person. How do you treat people? How do you run a business?"

Lennon's partners come only via referral, and she hires "only people I know" as employees.

• Know yourself, part II. "I've learned that the business I'm involved in has to be a product or service I can relate to," Lennon says. "What I bring to the table is energy and experience." If she connects with the idea, Lennon is far more likely to say, "Let's try it."

• Decision time. "The hardest part? The 18-month mark," Lennon says. "It's about then that you really have to look at this thing you've created. Is the marketing working? Pricing? Do we need to change course?"

• Jim Kendall welcomes comments at JKendall@121MarketingResources.com

2013 121 Marketing Resources Inc.

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