If you have any doubt about who really builds small business or the uniqueness that defines American entrepreneurship, I suggest you make plans to attend the next Connections. You hear a lot of talk from the naysayers these days about capitalism being on the decline and climbing the ladder to independence in the U.S. being something for the history books, but I saw up close and personal how blatantly foolishness those claims are at the 2012 edition of the show in Las Vegas.

Who attends Connections? The crowd included contractor owners, managers and employees of companies involved in carpet and upholstery cleaning and restoration, water and fire damage, mold remediation and trauma scene cleanup. There were also janitorial companies and companies involved in duct cleaning. Incidentally this year’s event was the biggest ever from both an attendee and exhibitor standpoint, with over 315 exhibitors.

Men, women and couples from around the country attended this convention and trade show, all of whom had fascinating stories of launching their cleaning, maintenance and/or restoration businesses. One guy told me he had borrowed a carpet-cleaning machine from a neighbor to clean his own carpet, and by the time he finished the job the neighbor had been evicted and disappeared without the machine. Discussing the situation with some neighbors, he offered to clean their carpets, and the next thing you know he has three crews on the street and is a successful business owner.

I heard dozens of similar stories of people who had an idea and some ambition, took a chance and invested. Some are big, some small, but all are successful entrepreneurs. And that’s just talking about the attendees at the show; the exhibitors in the tradeshow part of the outing had the same kinds of stories. Small businesspeople who had an idea of how to get a job done faster, cheaper or more efficiently put their money and energy where their mouths were and next thing you know, they’re selling their wares to other entrepreneurs from all over the country.

The thing that impressed me the most about the cleaning and maintenance contractors, even more than their decision to get in the business in the first place, was their attitude toward service. We all hear so much about the bait and switch artists, who set out to deceive the customer with low-ball deals. However, the contractors I talked with were on the opposite end of the scale. Many didn’t even collect until the customer was happy. If a problem arose they would go back and remedy it at no cost. Talk about building a customer for life. These folks really walk the walk.

With carpet’s market share on the wane, the trend for the last few years has been toward hard surface maintenance, primarily grout cleaning and hardwood cleaning. There were generous crowds of interested contractors at the live demos held by these hard surface cleaning companies, which were another very effective feature at this convention and certainly a sign of things to come.

We had an opportunity to talk with Larry Cooper, president of Meetings & Events, the organization that puts this operation together, at its 10th show in Las Vegas. There are some changes in store for next year’s show and convention. The location will be the same, the LVH in Las Vegas, but the name will be changed and the number of associations behind the show will be reduced from 14 to eight. Meetings & Events will continue to produce the show.

When all is said and done, this Las Vegas outing was really about education and learning about the latest techniques as well as the newest tools, equipment and products. The measure of the effectiveness and profitability of a contractor in this business is knowledge, including analyzing the customer’s problem, discerning the material that makes up the spot or spill, determining the fiber and other factors in the space and then effectively remediating the problem. The remediation part of the problem is what really matters, to solve the problem for the long term.

They tell me there is somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 carpet cleaning contractors in the U.S. Certainly with the ease of entry and exit, that number I suspect is constantly changing. The estimates I’ve heard indicate that of those 100,000 total contractors out there, no more than 20,000 have been exposed to training, are aware of any of the industry trade associations, or have even heard of let alone attended Connections.

The fact that this year attendance at the show hit an all-time high shows that regardless of the motivation and how those people got there, they were all hungry to build their knowledge base and better serve their customers and the customers of carpet companies. That is what everyone has been working toward for decades, and that focus on customer service is a good, long-term sign of health for this industry.