Mouth for Sale: Winning the Growth Game

"I went to a lot of events in my industries and ended up on program committees. I was always surprised by how much speakers cost and how little they brought to the table; I was bold enough to say, 'I can do that,' and someone challenged me to try," explains Steve Little, former president of Fame, a uniform apparel firm; Erb Industries, a provider of safety products; and The Queensboro Shirt Company, which specialized in logoed corporate apparel. About five years ago he made the switch to speaking full time, and now speaks 100 times a year.

"I don't run across many people who speak to my constituency who have managed large groups of people. There are people who have studied it or written books about it, but I don't often run across people who have been practitioners and became speakers. I was a practitioner. That gives me credibility, which immediately buys me ten minutes," he says, half-joking.

Little does not shy away from topics that can make people uncomfortable, including race and how shifting demographics will change the future of business, but he is careful to interject humor and to keep the overall tone positive. "You don't want to start a fight, but you do want to start a conversation," he says.

"I'm not here to tell you how to get rich, and I'm not here to make you feel good, but I am here to tell you where growth organizations concentrate their efforts," Little continues. " 'How not to act like a big company' is a theme that seems to resonate with everyone. I often get brought in by the top level to get their people thinking more entrepreneurially. Twenty years ago, being an entrepreneur meant you couldn't get a 'real' job, but today everybody wants to be more of an entrepreneur."

Little's target audience is "anybody who considers themselves a leader and is interested in growth," he says. "I specialize in talking to business growth leaders but I am fascinated by the number of nonprofits and community-centric groups that hire me." Past clients have included Meeting Professionals International, the American Staffing Association, the National Association of Gas and Welding Distributors, and local chambers of commerce.

Little, who is the author of The 7 Irrefutable Rules of Small Business Growth (John Wiley & Sons, 2005), also toured with a rock band in his spare time until a few years ago. "I miss the camaraderie," he says. "But I don't miss arguing about $500 at four in the morning."