Bobby Valentine has been a sports star, a baseball manager, a TV commentator and even a director of public safety. But his longest-running career has been as a businessman and restaurateur as owner of his eponymous Sports Gallery Café Restaurant. In that role, Valentine joined a half-dozen other Stamford entrepreneurs at the first session of Mayor Michael Pavia's Small Business Advantage Series on Tuesday night at Stamford High School.

The theme of the first of five evenings was "How I Did It – From Startup to Success in Stamford." The panelists told their own stories of starting enterprises that have become established fixtures on the city scene, as well as the principles that led to their success, to an audience of more than 50 other small businesspeople.

"The customers always know when you're putting in the effort," said Valentine.

"Take care of your customers, and they'll come back, and bring their friends," said Miguel Juarez of MJM Stone Supply.

Kristella Garcia, owner of Stella's Café and Bakery in the South End, noted the importance of personal service. "It's the little things that add up to make loyal customers," she said.

"Hire people, not résumés," added Valentine. "Inspect what you expect. Expect excellence, inspect performance."

"I see a lot of plans, a lot of construction," said Juarez. "I think the economy has hit bottom and is recovering."

"We all want to be successful, but that's not what owning your own business is about," said Garcia. "It's about the journey."