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What Good Is a "Small Business of the Year" Award?

It's small business award season, which is bad news for painters and paperhangers since it produces a multitude of plaques that businesses can use to cover up stains on walls without painting or putting up new wallpaper. But are all those "Small Business of the Year" awards good for anything else? The Debunker put that question to a couple of previous winners and found this:

If you think a win as, say, "Tri-Valley Minority Small Business Owner" will translate into a big sales bump, think something else. Waymon Armstrong, the Small Business Administration's 2010 National Small Business Person of the Year, says that a year later his company, Orlando-based Engineering & Computer Simulations, Inc., can't yet trace any actual business to winning what is arguably the biggest honor a small business person can land.

"It has given us a cachet," Armstrong says. "People give us more respect for what we do. Obviously respect is good. Does it lead to more business? It has opened some doors." That's about as far Armstrong will go on that topic, although he notes that his industry has long sales cycles and it may still be too early to tell.

Even years later, however, it still may not pay off big time. Buford Abeldt took top prize in a smaller arena in 2006, when Abeldt's Gaslight Pharmacy in Lufkin, Texas, was named Small Business of the Year by the Lufkin/Angelina County Chamber of Commerce. Today, Abeldt chuckles when asked about the honor. "I think it's a just a nice thing to put on a mantle," he says. "It is a nice thing to earn and it does give you credibility. But at the end of the day you have to have all your ducks in a row or you're not there next week."

Pressed for any concrete advantage, Abeldt says the award gave him a chance to showcase his business one time in front of an audience of about 300. He can't point to any bottom-line benefits that gave him, but that's okay. "I hope you don't think I'm cynical," Abeldt says. "I was very appreciative of the award."

Winners probably should be, because these awards are not always easy to win. Armstrong, for instance, was selected from among 53 winners at the state and territorial levels. What does it take to bring home the trophy? Armstrong feels, first of all, that his story was compelling. It is. He took no salary the first three years, ran up $330,000 in credit card debt (eventually paying it back) and had to lay off all his workers twice.

Today, Engineering & Computer Simulations is okay, with $11.6 million in 2010 sales and a staff of 61 mostly software engineers engaged in designing their products. The products were another factor in their selection, Armstrong believes. They make computer simulations used to train combat medics and prepare people for natural disasters. "We build things that try to save lives and mitigate disasters," Armstrong notes. "That's something we can all relate to."

At bottom, small business awards are odd animals, non-financial rewards in a system where financial rewards are almost the only universally recognized metric. But that doesn't mean they are worthless. Armstrong, for instance, got to meet Barack Obama. "How often do you get a chance to have the President say, 'Congratulations, you're doing a good job -- and hire more people.' I'm never going to have that happen again in my lifetime."

Based on these award-winners' testimony, the programs are at least doing what most sponsors, including the Small Business Administration, say they are meant to do: Honor and express appreciation for successful and admirable businesses and owners. Abeldt says owning a small business has been far more gratifying than any job he could think of. And, as for Armstrong, he says of the award, "I don't know if I can get it on my epitaph but it'll always mean something to me."

Mark Henricks is an Austin, Texas, freelance journalist whose reporting on business, technology and other topics has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, and other leading publications. Learn more about him at The Article Authority. Follow him on Twitter @bizmyths.

Image courtesy of Flickr user ilovememphis, CC2.0