News / World

Awards: A plaque on the wall, but also a catalyst for growth

In a Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016, photo, Hajj Flemings, who won nearly $165,000 from the Knight Foundation Cities Challenge competition a year earlier, poses for a picture at the Detroit Center of Design and Technology in Detroit. Flemings won the grant for his proposal to help small businesses in Detroit develop an online presence and a brand. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

In a Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016, photo, Hajj Flemings, who won nearly $165,000 from the Knight Foundation Cities Challenge competition a year earlier, poses for a picture at the Detroit Center of Design and Technology in Detroit. Flemings won the grant for his proposal to help small businesses in Detroit develop an online presence and a brand. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

NEW YORK — After Finegold Alexander Architects began winning awards for its work on synagogues, calls started coming in from congregations around the country.

"'You clearly know how to design a synagogue. Can you talk to us?'" firm partner Tony Hsiao recalls the rabbis and executive directors asking.

The Boston-based firm has won more than 150 architecture-related awards for a variety of building projects in its more than 50-year history, including 15 in the past three years. The honours have brought Finegold Alexander a considerable amount of new business.

Awards can be just plaques on a wall, but can also be a catalyst for growth. They can get a small or midsize business noticed, help create or buff up a reputation, and catch the eye of prospective customers. And — critical in a digital world — any publicity, online article, social media mention or blog post can help a company improve its visibility in online searches.

Honours that include cash prizes can also give a small company the needed capital to expand. In some competitions, businesses vie for grants for specific projects, but by winning, they also get the benefits of recognition.

"There's so much noise and competition, and your customers are just looking for a bit of a differentiator, that little extra bit that sets you apart," says Gene Marks, owner of The Marks Group, a small-business consulting firm based in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.

Awards vary widely in prestige. Some are well-known, like the Small Business Administration's Small Business Person of the Year awards or Inc. magazine's rankings of the fastest-growing small companies. Some are recognized within specific industries, such as advertising's Clio awards or the American Institute of Architects Design Awards. Chambers of commerce and other local business groups often hand out prizes as well.

But some can be scams, as when a business is approached about winning an award, and gets a plaque or certificate in return for a monetary payment. These schemes, known as vanity or "pay to play" awards, are on the Better Business Bureau's list of tricks that small companies need to be wary of.

"If they ask you for any money other than postage, then it's a disingenuous award scheme and not worth your time," Marks says.

Awards are part of Julie Auslander's marketing strategy for her company, cSubs, which manages magazine and other subscriptions for clients including large corporations. It has won small business awards including several from the consulting firm Ernst & Young and the philanthropic Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. It was also named one of Inc. magazine's 5,000 fastest-growing companies.

Auslander chooses competitions that will win the notice of different customers; for example, she pursued the Inc. award because it would make an impression with corporate executives who want to work with a thriving business.

"If you just go apply willy-nilly for awards, it won't give you the benefits you want," says Auslander, whose company is based in Montvale, New Jersey.

Companies also need to assess whether an award is worth the time investment to apply, Marks says. Many, if not most, require a company to put together a submission or be nominated by someone else. A submission, which includes an application and documents to help a company make its case for winning, can be time-consuming — hours of essay-writing, according to Auslander.

Hajj Flemings won nearly $165,000 from the Knight Foundation Cities Challenge competition last year for his proposal to help small businesses in Detroit develop an online presence and a brand. The money is intended for the project alone, but Flemings, who runs several ventures to help people market themselves, has been able to make contacts as a result of the award.

"The fact that we are a Knight Cities Challenge winner opens up media opportunities," says Flemings, who didn't think he had a chance to win and had to be persuaded to enter. "It gives us instant credibility."

It takes time for some companies to feel the impact of an award, and they might not be able to directly link it to an increase in their business. But Vivian Isaak believes the awards she won last year — from the Women's Business Enterprise Council, a nationwide professional organization, and this year's citation as the SBA's Eastern Pennsylvania Woman-Owned Small Business of the Year — help give her foreign-language communications company more visibility with prospective customers like large corporations and the government.

"Once you have the award, the award follows you. You have the ability to stand out among the rest," says Isaak, whose Magnum Group is based in Philadelphia.

In truth, the ego boost and validation from awards matter, too. "They tell you, 'you're on the right path,'" she says.

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Follow Joyce Rosenberg at www.twitter.com/JoyceMRosenberg . Her work can be found here: http://bigstory.ap.org/content/joyce-m-rosenberg