Fifty well-dressed, attentive small-business owners and potential entrepreneurs underwent three intensive hours of mercantile group therapy at an Arlington motel last week. The weekly support session included a guest speaker who explained how he took the plunge into video arcades, intimate rap groups for individuals sharing the same problems, and a closing address on finding "unspoiled" workers.
It was the eighth meeting of E-Net, an Alexandria-based entrepreneurial network for small investors who want to get or stay in business. The eager entrepreneurs plunked down $10 to attend the meeting, after having traveled to the Virginia suburbs from as far away as Columbia, Md., at the end of a work day.
"The basic idea," explained Peter Bahnsen, who eventually hopes to franchise his E-Net network to other cities, "is to promote an honest marketplace for entrepreneurs to meet." Bahnsen said the E-Net group offers the independent business operator "contact and peer support."
In a flurry of story-swapping, business card trading and name taking, members of the profit-minded small business group sought to achieve the highest possible return on their $10 admission fee.
The star of the seminar was Leo C. Loevner, a tough talking, pragmatic Annandale CPA, who explained his route to successful ownership of two franchised video arcades.
He said that while the alluring games might earn back their cost within a few months, with utilities, rent and salaries, "we're talking more in the neighborhood of 10 to 11 months" before a profit is turned on the video games. He also described architectural, plumbing and zoning headaches.
Immediately after his presentation, Loevner was surrounded by a cluster of potential investors, who ignored the small group discussions to quiz Loevner about his video game operation.
Before opening up the small group discussions in the middle of the program, E-Net founder Bahnsen said that while anyone was free to make a pitch for his or her business during the meeting, "There's something morally wrong when you turn every relationship you have into an economic one."
The small groups, composed of as few as three and as many as a dozen persons, met under such topic names as "Tenacious," "Positive Thinkers," and "Innovators" for novices, with "Directors," "Boomers," and "Old Reliables" for owners of established businesses.
"Our whole purpose is to network," observed Mardo Alley, a discussion group "facilitator" for the benefit of two E-Net novices. No sooner had she completed that remark to the two men, one of whom hoped to become a real estate broker, than John B. Schobelock, a real estate agent, wandered into the discussion. Shobelock amiably discussed the merits of the business for the potential entrepreneur.
One candid man, who hoped to purchase a carpet cleaning franchise, stated "I enjoy investigating businesses; I think I'd enjoy that more than running the business itself."
Al Short came to the E-Net meeting even though he is well established in the defense business. Short is an Army lieutenant colonel stationed at the Pentagon. He wanted to explore business options in case he decided to leave the service. "I am 42," the uniformed officer told a fellow E-Net member, "I can't retire."
Video entrepreneur Loevner and his followers were still stationed in the hallway near a coffee urn while the Arlington school system's director of distributive education began the final segment of the program with a talk on student workers.
As meeting ended, E-Net's Bahnsen promoted this week's gathering, focusing on high technology venture capital and investment planning. Bahnsen and his wife, Kathleen Dearden, have refinanced their home to provide capital for the two-month-old E-Net business, he told an interviewer.
Outside the empty seminar room, Leo Loevner was still holding court about game boards and coin boxes, three hours after his presentation began.