The local Chamber of Commerce should be the first stop for the small business owner. While local chambers are independently managed, the benefits are fairly stable across locations. Perhaps the most obvious benefit is the ability to call yourself a member. Customers recognize the Chamber of Commerce logo, and incorporating it into your brochure or advertising material gives you credibility. That alone is worth the small fee that most chambers ask for annual membership dues. But the real value comes with the less visible benefits.
Most chambers host Business After Hours events. Some chambers have turned that into Business Before Hours for you early morning risers. One business member hosts an event at their business location, usually with a nice assortment of food and beverage. Attendees are free to mingle with each other, exchange business cards and information, and discuss the local business economy. The opportunity for networking is unlimited. Beware of the tendency to discuss non-business related topics. While it is nice to have the opportunity to socialize, the benefits of the After Hours event is maximized if you go with an understanding of what you want to take away. If you are looking for the best business to business marketing plan, or the best deal on business phone service, chances are somebody in the room has the answers you are looking for. You won’t find it unless you mingle and ask around.
Most chambers host these events on a monthly basis. Once you have attended a few, sign up to host one. The opportunity to bring local business people into your offices and show them what your business is all about is a great chance for free advertising. Those folks who are enjoying good food and conversation in your office are going to remember you. When they have a customer or friend who needs the service you are offering, they will refer to you before they will refer to Joe Schmo who isn’t a member of the Chamber, and who didn’t invite them over. You will do the same for your friends and customers, and in the process, you will build a business to business relationship with many of your neighbors. The benefits of that go beyond the direct financial gain and carry over into reputation and long-term marketing strategy. The monthly opportunity should be one of the first things on your calendar each month.
In addition to the After Hours events, Chambers of Commerce generally support a variety of community activities. From sponsoring a summer concert series to supporting a newspaper “Best Of Your City” competition, the advertising opportunities are endless. Typically, the Chamber pays for an advertisement, and member businesses place their ad underneath it for a lesser rate. Again, the positive association consumers have for the Chamber works to your benefit. Your credibility and devotion to your community is reflected in your association with that organization. I recommend including “A member of the (city name) Chamber of Commerce” in all advertisements.
Beyond the networking and marketing advantages, Chamber membership can help with insurance needs.The small business can buy into an insurance plan with other businesses. This is especially helpful when you are ready to offer health insurance to your employees, but is also useful if you are looking only to insure yourself. Health insurance especially is very hard to come by at a reasonable cost. But the chamber can also help in securing error and omissions insurance, particularly if your business is unique and doesn’t fit well into the pools covering more traditional fields. I had spent months looking for an insurer for my business before I found the chamber. They hooked me up with an agent with one week, and I was able to move forward from there. Lesson learned? Always ask at the chamber first. Without insurance, I had no business at all.
I did not start my new business with an office. I started it out of my living room. But there were times I needed official meeting space. The chamber came through. Members can take advantage of common meeting space, common office space, and shared training opportunities, such as Sexual Harassment Training for supervisors and other OSHA required training. There is no need for a small business to take on the expense of doing everything independently. Sharing with other local businesses through the chamber allows a small business to access things that might otherwise be difficult to find. The best way to find out what your local chamber offers is to stop by and visit. Make it a point to put that on your calendar. The time spent will be well worth it.