The New York Times and American Express Open co-hosted their 2010 Small Business Summit on September 23rd in New York. This annual event, now seven years old, is getting better every year. A Mecca for entrepreneurs at all stages of business development, this event consistently draws seven hundred or so like-minded individuals who come to network, rub elbows, be inspired and admire each other’s ingenuity. Every year The Times attracts outstanding keynote speakers and panelists and every year I come away with a treasured nugget or two of new information. This year it was five.

Jerry Greenfield (of Ben & Jerry’s fame) amused us with hilarious tales of his and Ben’s start-up that improbably resulted in a mega brand and product that we all know and love. Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar, reminded us that a great idea won’t go anywhere, forgive the pun, without a strict adherence to principals and the ever-critical attention to detail. Lisa Price, of Carol’s Daughter, stressed the importance of priorities and focus, and David Liu, Founder of The Knot, gave us all something to aspire to: find the niche, fill it and they will come. We small business owners know this stuff, theoretically, but can’t be reminded often enough that with a disciplined vision, a modicum of luck and a boatload of passion – the sky is the limit.

Five Small Business Nuggets from the 2010 Small Business Summit

1. David Liu (The Knot), pointed out that weddings are no longer formulaic. There is every imaginable permutation of union these days, from cross-cultural to interracial, from single sex to blended family, from inter-religious to serial retread (divorced-remarried-widowed-remarried). These new ways of blending mean new ways of celebrating, old rules fly out the window (the way I hope collared shirts will some day) and, I love this part, old traditions get updated! I’m all for that. It’s exactly how I approach design: take the things you know and love and give them a generous tweak, stand them on their heads and reinvent a classic. A wing tip’s not just a wing tip when the toe is pistachiogreen and the shoelaces are sky blue,know what I mean? Kind of like your Catholic grandma meeting your Jewish husband and newly adopted daughter from Bolivia, there being more than one way to reach the pearly gates and define a family, after all.

2. Another gem from David Liu: People getting married generally go on honeymoons and they need stuff! (How I overlooked this juicy tidbit before hearing David Liu speak is beyond me, but that little nuggett was worth its weight in gold.) I sat there wondering how many honeymooners (especially those retreads over the age of thirty-five) were heading off someplace exotic to play golf and needed (absolutely needed) to be rigged out in something special to impress the new spouse – and be seen in in the multitudinous photos sure to be taken? Under the circumstances, who couldn’t use a fab pair of golf shoes and matching glove? Multiples even.

3. Robin Chase (of Zipcar) reminded us to delight our customers. She sends hers, especially the prickly ones, gourmet candies in little tins as thank you’s (or apologies), because she believes that excellent customer service is the foundation of every successful business. We agreed on both points. At Equipt we decided right from the get-go that we wanted to delight our customers (our very word), by starting with first impressions: our packaging. All our shoes arrive in gorgeous, if I do say so myself, shoe boxes, accompanied by the very practical, but oh so lovely, houndstooth fabric shoe bags that make traveling a breeze. We wanted the whole experience to feel like Christmas morning and be as special as the shoes and gloves inside. Like giving the gift of golf to yourself – or someone else. And then the customer service thing. We knew we had to make shipping and exchanging our products easy, breezy, simple – and we did. A nominal flat shipping rate is what we charge and then all returns and exchanges are on us. Good news is that we’ve only had TWO exchanges so far and no returns! (Read: The stuff fits and is drop-dead great looking.)

4. Lisa Price (of Carol’s Daughter), stated the painfully obvious: ‘Don’t drop the baby!’ I guess this resonated deeply with many self-deluded multi-taskers in the audience who actually believed they could (should) text, cook and hold the baby while preparing cash flow statements. It was the most tweeted line of the whole conference. Something had to fall through the cracks, as Lisa said, and it had better not be the baby. If you don’t have kids and your business is your baby, you get the point: set priorities, stay focused and know when to say no. I’ve been asked to design hospital shoes (No), boating shoes (there are Topsiders for that) and cross-trainers (Hell No). If a product doesn’t fit into the play-filled vision of Equipt’s future, it gets nixed, deleted, zero attention from this avowed single-tasker.

5. Annie J. (Equipt for Play) reaffirms that we should never ever overlook an opportunity to come together with new peopleto tap into their energy, experience and ingenuity – to be inspired – to learn something new. There’s nothing more wonderful than saying to yourself, I hadn’t thought of that, right? And it’s why we’re meant to mingle-mingle and mix it up.  No telling what’s going to come out of the cocktail shaker at the end of an event like this, when non-obvious opportunities for partnering materialize out of thin air. It’s just that old eureka phenomenon at work.