By Veronica Jorden, Red, White & Blue Pages & First Page Last Page

GoldfishWhen it comes to the world of business, I’m a goldfish. I’m not the CEO of a multi-million dollar company. I’ve never built a business so grand that a competitor makes an offer to buy. Yes, when you consider size and bottom line, I am happily treading water, but am living at the edge of the shallows. But not everything about me is small. I’ve got big dreams, whale-sized dream, even. And recently, I took the first steps toward that monumental growth by attending the 2013 Inc 500|5000 conference.

So I know what you’re thinking, how in the heck does a small-fry like me get an invitation to a conference like that? How does the goldfish get the horizon-expanding, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to mingle with the whales of business? It happened only because of the generosity and support of the folks from Inc. and the brilliant, purpose-driven mind of Natalie Thomas and her Military Entrepreneur program.

From the minute I scanned the daily agenda I knew my business life was about to change. I was about to swim in the same waters as business phenomena like Norm Brodsky, and Gary Vanderchuck, Marc Ecko, and Ben Rattray. I was flapping fins with the whales of the business world, the giants of industry and growth, and the best part was that I wasn’t hiding in their shadows…I had been invited. I was being welcomed. I was being taught and challenged to shed my tiny self and grow into something bigger.

I could literally write you a book about all of the amazing people, the tidbits of knowledge, the techniques and ideas that I can home with. But for now, I’d like to share a little bit about my favorite four speakers. Even weeks after the conference, their words and idea are still rattling around in my brain.

Profitability and social mission are not mutually exclusive.

Ben Rattray, founder of Change.org is not only helping to change the world through his website, but he is working to help change the way we think about business. His for-profit company was built to fulfill a social mission and he challenges other businesses to find ways to both make a profit and make a difference. For me, the idea that a business can both turn a profit and have a positive impact on their community, is one that we should all aspire to. Imagine the world we could live in if more businesses focused on their ability to do good while they are making money and worked to find a way to not sacrifice one for the other.

Empower people to high-level thinking and you can change the world

Jack Stack, President and CEO of SRC Holdings Corporation and author of the book, The Great Game of Business, operates his company by an open-book policy. Every employee, from the senior executives down to the janitorial staff, has access to the company financials. The idea is that by empowering people at all levels to a higher level of thinking, you allow them to own their part in the process. When every single member of your team understands that how they do their job has an impact on all the other moving parts of a business, amazing things start to happen. You create an environment that is strengthened by a sense of teamwork and allows those people doing the job to help you find ways to do it better.

“You are a brand.”

Marc Ecko, founder and CEO of Ecko Unlimited, has spent his career learning how to stay true to the ideas and reasons he started his business, while growing it into a multi-million dollar operation. In his book, Unlabel: Selling Without Selling Out (watch the video trailer, it’s awesome!) offers a unique formula for finding success in business without surrendering the part of the business that is “you.” We are all a brand. And that brand starts in our gut and is a reflection of who we are and the vision we have for our company. If you want to be successful in business you have to be a creator and you have stop focusing on all of the things you don’t do well and give your energy to those things you can do well. But no matter what you do, make sure you are creating wealth that matters. Use your energy and your talents on impact and don’t lose sight of how what you do affects those around you.

“In marketing, helpful is the new viral.”

One of the most colorful speakers at the conference was Gary Vanderchuck. He is the co-founder and CEO of VaynerMedia and is the author of bestsellers “Crush It” and “Thank You Economy.” Gary is the Yoda of social media, he’s the master. He has built a tremendous social media influence by following a simple approach, summed up in four little words: Listen. Learn. Care. Serve. Gone are the days when you can just push out your product and service to a captive audience. We live in the middle of the hum and buzz of almost constant messaging. To stand out in the crowd you either have to “write something worth reading or do something worth writing about.” And as you grow your influence, you have to be willing to be generous to others. “Helpful is the new viral.” If you can figure out how to become the trusted friend and valuable resource for your customers, you will set yourself up for nothing but success.

So while I am still a goldfish, I am absorbing the lessons learned by these mammoths of business. And thanks to Inc. and all of the mentors, attendees, staff, and speakers, I now have a real sense of how to move forward.

For me the most incredible part of the experience and all that I learned is this:

It doesn’t matter if you are turning huge profits or are a company of one, if you are selling cupcakes or providing high-tech information services, opening yourself up to learning from those around you can and will have a profound impact on your business.

To all of my fellow goldfish out there, don’t be afraid to dream about being a whale, and don’t be afraid to reach out to those who can help teach you. As entrepreneurs, true growth and success will only come when we are willing to tap into our business community and share and learn from each other.