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Let's Party!

How throwing a first-rate shindig for your start-up can help bring in the business

You're cordially invited...to have a bit of fun with your start-up. That's right-amid all the funding and business plans and zoning laws, there can be an oasis. It's called the "Getting to Know You Party," and it's your way of introducing yourself to the neighborhood. "A grand opening party is great because it's a nonthreatening way to get people to come to your business," says Phyllis Cambria, co-founder of PartyPlansPlus.com, an event planning company in Coconut Creek, Florida.

There are a few ground rules, though. First of all, "party" doesn't equal "pitch." Yes, you're throwing the shindig to advance your business and make connections-but it's also a social event. "If you were to invite a client over for dinner at your house, and it turns into a sales pitch, that's bad manners...and bad business," says Cambria. To keep the event feeling festive, refrain from giving people your business spiel the moment they walk in the door. Say "Hi, I'm Joan Entrepreneur. Welcome to our soiree-food is this way; drinks are this way. Make yourself comfortable."

But before guests even arrive, you'll be shouting a message with your invitation. Make it fun-for example, a piece of a puzzle that says "The picture won't be complete without you." The invite can also relate to the theme of your business. Cambria remembers an event she planned for a packing and shipping company where the invites were printed on brown packing paper-and hand-delivered in little crates. "Everybody wanted to come to the party," she recalls. "It didn't cost them a lot either-it was done on the computer."

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Find out why planning your grand opening should just be part of planning your start-up.

You may also consider sponsoring the event with other local businesses to share the costs, suggests Cambria's partner, Patty Sachs. "Dealing with another company, [you] get access to their mailing list," says Sachs. "You can cooperatively put together your open house."

What does that mean for you? More networking, of course. Since people are more likely to do business with people they know, this introductory party can be just what you need to get your name out there.

People will remember the name of XYZ Shipping Co., for example, if, at the grand opening party of their newest location, the food table represents cuisine from the different countries in which they have offices, the centerpieces are little shipping crates including the items they've shipped, and the dessert table includes chocolates from the country in which the company was founded. This is how Cambria and Sachs planned to introduce one client to the neighborhood. "Needless to say, the prospects just flipped over it," says Cambria.

Though you won't beat people over the head with your marketing messages, you will still want to have a table set up in a corner with brochures, business cards, promotional items and such. Sachs also notes that it's worthwhile to put a marketing message on the back of the invitation-so even if people don't come to the party, you've still introduced yourself. (Just don't put a full insert or brochure in the invite-that's overkill.)

Don't worry if you lack the funds for a huge party at a four-star hotel. You can save costs by recruiting local college students to act as servers, for example. Bottom line is to put on those creative hats. "Have fun! This isn't rocket science; it's a party," says Cambria. "Do it to the best of your financial ability, and be gracious [about it]."

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