Chambers of commerce haven’t changed much in the past 30 years but businesses and technology sure have and it’s time that our chambers evolve. Chambers used to be a vital part of any small business strategy. Chambers became stagnant while technology made it cheaper and easier for small businesses to find online most of what chambers were offering.
Certainly there are some chambers that are evolving, but are they doing it fast enough for them to survive. Chambers will have to find a new business model if they want to reverse the trend of declining membership, revenues and member satisfaction. One such model is to serve a niche market; small businesses.
Small businesses have unique needs in that their resources are limited by their size. They can’t start out with a staff of marketing experts and skilled sales teams. They need a support network to have any chance to thrive. They need a dedicated small business chamber of commerce.
You may be wondering why not just focus on big companies; they’re the big employers. But how many of those big companies started out big and how many started out in someone’s garage.
Harley Davidson 6,000
Dell Computer(dorm) 106,700
What community wouldn’t love to have any of these companies located in their backyard and who knows, the next name on this list might exist right now in our community, just looking for some support to help it grow.
With small businesses being so vital to communities, this new chamber model would focus on these six areas where the biggest impact can be made:
1. Helping small businesses make more money
2. Helping small businesses spend less money
3. Helping small businesses make important connections
4. Helping small businesses learn how to better run their company
5. Helping small businesses have a voice with local and state governments
6. Helping small businesses create the next generation of small business owners
I would love to say that these are all my original ideas, but they are not. I have taken my inspiration from the Tucson Chamber of Commerce and the Council of Smaller Enterprises serving the Cleveland Ohio region. These two organizations show that there is more than one way to accomplish this, both as part of a chamber and as a standalone entity.
Let’s get started on how a chamber can meet a small businesses needs…
Make More Money
Probably the #1 item on every small business owners To Do list is to find more customers. Talk to most chambers today and their solution to getting new business is to network at chamber events.
You know what I am talking about; greeters, luncheons, after hours events etc. Three problems with that: 1) It is always the same people at every event; 2) it’s generally filled with people looking only for their next client and not looking to be someone else’s next client and 3) You have to show up to get any value.
Time is a small business owners most precious commodity. A survey by the Western Association of Chamber Executives (WACE)showed that 68% of respondents had not joined a chamber because they didn’t have the time to participate. (h/t Kyle Sexton’s book ReMembership) The new chamber model has to provide value to the members WITHOUT requiring them to addend events. The resources must be online and available 24/7.
What could a small business chamber do instead…create a leads group like LeTip. I had heard about LeTip for years and always knew that they were expensive ($940/year vs. $240 for my chamber membership) but I had no idea how successful they were until I discovered one of my local chapters published their financial results for each member on their website. I quickly checked out some businesses like mine and discovered that they were getting $12-15,000 per year in closed leads. The local chapter has about 75 members and just under $1.8M in paid referrals last year. That’s just under $24,000 per member. Not too shabby.
What a great way for a small business chamber to really create some member value. Its win-win for a chamber because it would cost little to execute and you could make the groups member led, so no precious staff time would be needed. I know, with social media and a well thought out website, you could even run these virtually and require NO in real life meetings (for those who don’t have the time).
Spend Less Money
Most small businesses focus on growing revenue all the time. When that no longer is working, or a business gets hit with an economic downturn, finding ways to spend less becomes ever so important. Member discounts on products and services have long been a staple of trade groups and the like.
The National Association for the Self Employed (NASE) is a perfect example. Focused on micro businesses (10 or fewer employees) they offer many discounted services to their members. That is where I got my health insurance, something I have had for 15 years.
It would be real easy for a chamber to create their own discount program, and they might even generate some non-dues revenue in the process. Here are some examples:
· Payroll& Taxes Paychex
· Human Resources Paychex
· Employee Benefits Paychex
· Shipping UPS
· Office Supplies Office Depot(commission to chamber)
· Cable/TV/Phone Comcast(commission to chamber)
· Health Insurance Many
There are obviously many more possibilities. Who knows, you might find some of your members able to offer similar services as well.
Make Important Connections
Connections are one of the ways small businesses can compete with the big boys. Any connection that can help you grow your business is a good connection. There are three main areas to focus on: mentors, friends and resources.
Mentors are so valuable to an owner with limited experience. It would consist of a group of 8-10 business owners of non-competing businesses that function much like a Board of Directors would. They would help fill in the blanks that the owner has. Help them set goals and hold them accountable to them. Help them with strategy and problem solving. Provide the proverbial shoulder to cry on when needed. A chamber could go either way here with in-person or online, although in-person might work better.
Making friends with other business owners is critical since they may be the only people in your life that truly understand just what you are going through. Here is a great place for after hour events to come into play. Don’t make it a “networking” event, but an event for people to hang out and “shoot the breeze.” A chamber could also create an online forum for its members to hang out virtually as well. Think facebook for chamber members.
What is the one thing a chamber has in abundance? Resources. What are those resources? The membership. You have lawyers, insurance agents, Realtors, graphic designers, health coaches, trainers, web developers, etc. All experts in their field (or working on becoming one). When a chamber checks in with each member during the year (you do that don’t you?) you ask the owner a simple question: “What part of your business is keeping you awake at night?” Typical answers might include “I need a new website”, “I need to hire my first employee and don’t know what’s involved” or “I need an introduction to…” The chambers response is simple…”Let me see what I can do to help you with that.” You have just turned your chamber into a concierge service and created immense value for your members. YOU SOLVE THEIR PROBLEMS! (h/t to Joe Abraham for this idea. The chamber concierge model is his and I stole it darn near word for word. More details here.)
Learn How to Better Run Their Company
When I started my first business, I spent nearly every free minute I had for the first 5-6 years reading every book and magazine on business I could find. I read about bookkeeping and taxes, marketing and business strategy, customer service and anything else I could find. I took some classes at my local SBDC as well. 17 years later, I still spend most of my reading time on business books or watching online webinars. There is still so much to learn.
What a perfect opportunity for a chamber to fill an enormous void. Business Education. They could make it as simple as adding StartUpLab to their facebook page or license any of the numerous business tool kits that are out there. This is a real simple way to give your members a library of videos, ebooks and whitepapers covering just about everything they could possibly need.
Better yet, take advantage of that vast supply of knowledge you have right at your fingertips; your membership. Have them make videos, write blog post or whitepapers about the topics they know. It wouldn’t take long to create a diverse library of 100-150 articles that any member could access off your website anytime that it is convenient for them.
This is also a 2 for 1 on membership value for your chamber. The chamber gets value for educating their members and value for the educators who get to show their expertise with potential new clients. It’s a win win.
This is for many, the most important reason why they join a chamber. At a local and state level, it is incredibly hard for a chamber of commerce to represent its entire membership since its membership is so diverse. A single chamber can represent the spectrum from solopreneur to Fortune 100 company. What’s in the best interests of the Fortune 100 company may not be in the best interests of the smallest companies. What happens if the big companies want the chamber to take a position that will HURT the small members? Does the chamber say no to the big guys and risk losing the large membership dues they pay. Or do they stick with the companies that pay the bill at the expense of what could be the majority of their membership?
This is the dilemma faced by the leadership of most every chamber in the country. How do they advocate for ALL members. Is it even possible? I say NO. That’s why small businesses need a dedicated advocate for their interests.
Create the Next Generation
A small business chamber could create a business plan competition for students; launch a StartupWeekend type of event to help aspiring entrepreneurs or something as simple as allowing students to join the chamber for a nominal fee and share their enthusiasm for business while learning from those that have gone where they are headed. What better way to find new customers for our businesses than to create them from scratch.
There you have it, my vision of the perfect small business chamber of commerce. The only remaining issue would be how to implement it. Obviously, it makes sense to be associated with an existing chamber of commerce since they have the experience and resources. To work, it is going to have to be a separate entity from the existing chamber with its own staff and agenda. Structured correctly, and with the proper use of technology, it might be pretty easy to get going. There certainly are enough small businesses around that need the services.
Michael Pingree is a marketing professional with 18+ of experience in print and digital marketing. He is currently combining his passion for social media with his love of chambers of commerce and membership organizations. He can be reached at www.pinsondigital.com or @pinsondigital