Association uniting small Whidbey businesses

The founders of the Whidbey Island Small Business Association

Soap artisans, dog groomers, web designers and more — the Whidbey Island Small Business Association, or WISBA, is uniting locally owned ventures of all varieties to ensure the “little guy” has a shot against big league businesses.

Oak Harbor’s own Mallory Panchelli and Selene Muldowney established the local association less than a year ago, hoping to empower business owners to support each other. The group already has 50 members and a 100 percent retention rate.

“The infrastructure of any local economy is a strong financial foundation, which can only be built from the bottom up,” Muldowney said. “And small business owners are the ones to do that.”

But, Panchelli added, they can’t always do it on their own.

Rather, Muldowney describes every small business owner as metaphorically holding a branch.

“They can either light their single branch knowing it will burn briefly,” she said, “or they can combine their branches to create a much stronger bonfire.”

To Muldowney, the flame represents the power and success of each business.

To the surprise of most business owners, she said, smaller ventures are most successful when they combine resources and professional knowledge, much like a bonfire.

“Small businesses tend to think that they have to be competitive with one another to be successful,” Muldowney said. “They think they can’t promote each other or work together, but we’ve found that that’s simply not true.”

In fact, Panchelli and Muldowney said they find small businesses are best served when they work together. WISBA aims to bring that reality to the businessmen and women working across the island.

The founders formed the association to bring community to the many crafters, direct sellers and small franchise owners that have joined. The best way to accomplish this, they said, is to encourage the businesses to promote and partner with each other.

“We have a lot of crossover in the services that one business might need, and what another business offers in the association,” Panchelli said.

WISBA’s job then, Muldowney added, is to identify this crossover and make the connection.

“What you have then is one, two or more businesses spreading the word about another business that has helped make them successful,” Muldowney said, adding that many members give discounts as a further means of supporting one another.

Between the two of them, Panchelli and Muldowney own several businesses aside from WISBA. Panchelli operates Created on 86th, a vinyl business that creates custom decals and clothing, and is a consultant for clothing distributor Lularoe, and Muldowney is the digital media specialist behind her marketing and web design service, Pink Martini Designs.

Though neither studied business, both say their passion and years of experience combined are what guides them.

“Our goal is to focus on the small businesses and run the association a lot like a union,” Muldowney said. “We’re always asking our members what we can do differently and they often deliver with great ideas.”

To join WISBA, owners pay $50 annually, gaining access to virtually year around advertising, association meet-and-greets and vendor fairs.

Muldowney and Panchelli make no profit from WISBA. Instead, every dollar is put toward promoting the members through the association’s website and other digital venues such as Facebook.

Aside from virtual promoting, WISBA meet-and-greets are held at member businesses to spread awareness of the storefronts on the island. The pair also organizes events for WISBA’s members at least every other month. Their next event on July 30 will showcase crafters and direct sellers at a Christmas in July Fair held at Elks Lodge.

“Communities grow when we invest in each other,” Muldowney said.

“The association is meant to be a channel for that, to invest in the wonderful businesses in our community.”