Library brings small businesses, nonprofits together to talk technology - Inside Tucson Business: Guest Opinion

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GUEST OPINION Library brings small businesses, nonprofits together to talk technology

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Posted: Friday, April 5, 2013 12:00 am

What if your library hosted a free monthly forum where people who run small businesses, nonprofits and other organizations could get together and talk informally about emerging technologies?

What if you could meet other Tucsonans who have actually tried some of these tools and strategies?

Catalyst Café is a series of meet-ups provided by Pima County Public Library. The topic changes every month, but the comfortable, informal vibe remains the same.

And many people are taking note.

Mia Schnaible from the Arizona International Film Festival and the Screening Room participated on February’s panel, titled “Build the Buzz: Launching a Business with Social Media,” and she had a blast. “It was a terrific sharing of ideas and solutions,” Schnaible said. “I picked up some tips, too.”

In its first year, the library’s Catalyst Café has presented panels on crowdfunding tools, social media best practices, and using Pinterest as a branding tool. An expert in “gamestorming” presented a lively discussion to 40 participants to explain the new way for organizations to brainstorm ideas. We learned how to incorporate games involving index cards, sticky notes, and whatever creative juice you bring to the table to get the ideas flowing.

After attending one workshop, Debbi Wainright located a partner for her own community café and is in the process of establishing her own nonprofit organization. “The Catalyst Café workshop is one of the many programs at the library that has helped me start a community café,” Wainright said. “But the social media café session really helped me step things up.”

The key seems to be about bringing people together.

At the Catalyst Café on Tuesday (April 9), a panel of Tucson freelance writers, software entrepreneurs and social media managers will be coming to the Joel D. Valdez Main Library, 101 N. Stone Ave., to discuss what they learned at the South by Southwest (SxSW) Interactive conference held in March in Austin, Texas. SxSW Interactive brings together software developers, entrepreneurs, nonprofit organizers, and social media managers who are looking for ways to put technology to work for social good.

It’s not a coincidence that SxSW inspired the library to launch a program targeting businesses and nonprofits. The conference is also well-known for being hip, casual, and the place to meet some of the best and brightest thinkers and doers in the tech and media world.

Catalyst Café offers a chance for members of the community to see the workings of other organizations, says Andrew Lenards from iPlant Collaborative, a group that is focusing on innovation in the plant sciences.

Lenards has presented at Catalyst Café and believes that learning how others apply something new and then modifying it for yourself can make a big difference. “If you’re looking to use a new tool or a new process, getting you from zero knowledge to ‘getting by’ is often the toughest obstacle.”

Learning something new isn’t always the only motivation for Catalyst Café participants. There’s also something to be gained about sharing your experiences with others.

Marge Pellegrino, who works with The Owl & Panther Project, recently sat on a panel to discuss the organization’s success with online fundraising. The nonprofit helps refugee families from Iraq, Nepal, Somalia, Ethiopia, Guatemala and Congo express themselves through creative arts including poetry, art, drama and music.

“I left feeling enriched by others’ experiences,” says Pellegrino, who also enjoyed meeting some amazing folks from the community.

The library has always been a place where you could find information. Now, it’s also a place where people who have small businesses or run nonprofit organizations — or are just thinking about it — can come together to share information and experiences with each other.

A few tidbits that Catalyst Café participants have learned:

• Crowdfunding — a new way to raise money from your friends, fans, and community — isn’t just for musicians and game designers. There is a fundraising platform for just about anyone, including businesses and organizations.

• Crowdfunding does require a great idea or an engaging story. It also works best when you already have a solid online network of friends or fans.

• Many Tucson businesses and nonprofits are rocking how they use social media.

• Facebook and Twitter can be used to build awareness of a new business and engage potential customers, especially when the planning, renovation, and progress are shared in real time.

• Social media can level the playing field for a small business because authenticity and the human touch are so important in building readership and relationships.

Liz Danforth, an artist who’s been an entrepreneur for nearly 40 years, says that she hasn’t seen the environment change as fast as it is these days. “Catalyst Café draws people out of their silos for cross-fertilization of knowledge, technologies and ideas.”

Contact Lisa Waite Bunker, Social Media Librarian for Pima County Public Library, at lisa.bunker@pima.gov. She facilitates Catalyst Café at the Joel D. Valdez Main Library the second Tuesday of every month.

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