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Diane Mastrull: SmallBizLady: Using social media to spread small-business advice

Melinda Emerson opened the door to her Manhattan hotel suite, enthusiastically welcoming two visitors she then apologetically abandoned for a laptop.

Melinda Emerson (center), known as SmallBizLady on Twitter and Facebook, chats with host JJ Ramberg (left) and business lawyer Nina Kaufman on the set of "Your Business" at MSNBC studios in Manhattan. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)
Melinda Emerson (center), known as SmallBizLady on Twitter and Facebook, chats with host JJ Ramberg (left) and business lawyer Nina Kaufman on the set of "Your Business" at MSNBC studios in Manhattan. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)Read more

Melinda Emerson opened the door to her Manhattan hotel suite, enthusiastically welcoming two visitors she then apologetically abandoned for a laptop.

It was just after 9 on a Thursday morning. And 9 to 9:30 a.m., Emerson explained, is heavy traffic time in the Twitter world, where she's SmallBizLady to 125,000 followers.

Granted, that's not even a crowd measured against Lady Gaga's 16.7 million Twitter fans or Justin Bieber's 15.2 million feverish disciples.

But then again, Emerson's audience, which also extends to Facebook, LinkedIn, and her blog, is a group of people just now realizing that social media are where they need to be to succeed. They are men and women in business for themselves or thinking about making that leap.

They are like Emerson, 39, a Drexel Hill mother and founder of a marketing video-production company, Quintessence Multimedia. Except they haven't had the dream she had three different times that propelled her into her current work - it involved her becoming "America's No. 1 small-business expert," she said.

That's a very crowded field, but one in which Emerson has developed some serious attention and respect.

"Everybody says, 'I'm the small-business expert,' " said Barbara Weltman, a New York tax and business lawyer and publisher of the monthly newsletter Big Ideas for Small Business. "There are only a limited number I would consider trusted advisers, and she's one of them."

Trusted enough that Emerson is in demand on television and radio and at conferences throughout the country. When an Inquirer photographer and reporter met up with a tweeting Emerson recently at the New Yorker Hotel, she was booked on MSNBC's Your Business. Later that day, she moderated a panel discussion at an entrepreneurial-women's conference sponsored by Inc. magazine.

Her SmallBizChat, a Twitter talk show every Wednesday from 8 to 9 p.m., usually draws up to 400 followers and a range of guests. Every Thursday morning, the questions and answers from the previous night's show are posted on Emerson's blog,, which attracts 50,000 unique visitors a month, she said.

Mostly, Emerson sees herself as an enabler.

"I empower people to live their dreams," she said as she was living hers during a limousine ride to MSNBC studios at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

For someone with a reputation largely built from the written - and tweeted - word, Emerson has a comfortable presence in front of the camera. "You don't want to mess with the IRS," she quipped on her Your Business segment about the importance of updating employee records at year's end.

Her on-camera ease comes from five years working off-camera, at jobs including writer/producer at Philadelphia's NBC10 and producer at 6ABC from the mid-to-late 1990s.

A Pittsburgh native and communications major at Virginia Tech, Emerson said she quickly concluded "I didn't like writing about murders and fires constantly, and I didn't like working every Christmas for five years."

So she started a production company while also enrolling in as many classes on entrepreneurship as her schedule allowed. She launched her company while still at 6ABC, following one of the many tenets she preaches: "Launch your business while you're still working. Once you cut those paychecks off, baby, they're off!"

A difficult pregnancy in 2005 required months of bed rest, which virtually destroyed her business because of one major mistake Emerson acknowledges: "I had built my business around myself. I had not built a business that could run without me."

She essentially started anew, reorganizing into a boutique production company focused on health-care and pharmaceutical clients.

But by 2007, she tearfully realized, "I didn't love doing video production anymore." That was, in part, because of a changing industry in which "everybody was out there buying a Mac and didn't really appreciate the art of storytelling and high-level production. Fourteen-year-old kids were doing video for people."

That's when the dream came.

"When I literally had it the third time is when I finally figured out God's calling for me was to help small-business owners," Emerson said.

Her consulting credibility bloomed because of a number of serendipitous events. A phone call to a media company editor to complain that some business-plan software Emerson used had been removed from the market led to her first book, Become Your Own Boss in 12 Months. Its release, initially planned for Sept. 1, 2008, was moved to March 2010, a healthier time for business.

As groundwork for that launch, a publicist advised Emerson to get known on Twitter. She settled on the SmallBizLady handle after rejecting SmallBizExpert as a bit overblown, given that her book wasn't even out.

"That turned out to be the best accidental branding," Emerson said, noting that of thousands of small-business experts on Twitter, "I'm the only SmallBizLady."

Tweeting three times a day earned her 1,200 followers in four months, she said. Soon after, she started SmallBizChat, extending her reach even more.

"It gave me license to call anybody in the industry," she said.

And call she did in the hunt for information to pass on to small-business owners.

"She is so doggedly persistent, she drove my assistant crazy but didn't turn her off, and that's a talent," said Barbara Corcoran, a New York real estate executive and judge on ABC's Shark Tank, which showcases entrepreneurs. "When she interviewed me, she had a set of questions I hadn't heard before."

As Emerson's reputation grew, so did requests for her appearances.

JJ Ramberg, host of MSNBC's Your Business, said Emerson's appeal was her "incredible depth" of knowledge about small business and a "very gregarious personality" that helps her convey information "in a way that people can get it."

They seek it from as far away as Australia, where Annemarie Cross is a branding and business coach. She also hosts "The Ambitious Entrepreneur," a podcast on which Emerson appeared in May to enthusiastic reviews, Cross said.

"Melinda provides practical information that all business owners must know if they wish to build a successful business," she said.

Marveled Marquesa Pettway, Emerson's speaking coach: "It's almost like she got the Oprah touch - without Oprah."

Though she would not disclose her annual income, Emerson said it comes from five sources: professional writing, corporate consulting, public speaking, small-business coaching, and the sale of books and other educational materials.

She averages 28 tweets a day, Monday through Friday, as well as 12 posts a week to Facebook, about five to LinkedIn, and three to her blog, where her goal is the same:

"It's my mission to end small-business failure."

But late last week, her top focus was making her son, John Joseph Heastie, one happy boy. JoJo turned 6 on Wednesday, and Mom surprised him with a trip.

"Off to @Disney It's a priceless moment with my son," she tweeted Thursday morning.

Diane Mastrull: SmallBizLady's Tips for Success

Have an entrepreneurial mind-set.

Observe strict fiscal discipline.

Form a cabinet of advisers.

Have a defined brand.

Focus on a niche market.

Provide excellent customer service.

Understand your cash position and carefully manage your banking relationships.


Diane Mastrull:

Melinda Emerson talks about the need for business plans and life plans at