Part 1 of our series on small business networking groups, Randy Gordon does a deep dive on the upsides and downsides of large metro Chambers of Commerce, and how business owners should navigate them.

Randy:     Sometimes, chambers that are big—our chamber’s got a $1.5M budget with only seven employees, but the chambers of Los Angeles, San Diego are big chambers. But what happens is they’re so big that sometimes, a small business owner doesn’t find its niche unless they have a program specifically geared to small business people, like we do.

I can talk about our success in a minute, but I think the challenge with the chambers for small business owners is if you had a really big chamber like Seattle, sometimes you get lost. What happens is those big chambers are funded 80% by very large companies, like Boeing, for example. They cater to large companies because 80% of their revenue comes from probably 20% of their members. 80% of their members are small business owners that are not providing huge revenue to the organization. So sometimes, the small business owner gets lost in all of that.

We’re sort of that middle-ground chamber where we’re not small, we’re not huge. And we certainly care about small business owners. I think most chambers across America have not been involved in the American Chamber of Commerce Executives Board for many years. I’ve been in this business for 32 years.

We all really care about small business. In fact, small business is really the lifeblood of the membership of almost every chamber that I know of. You show me a chamber anywhere in America, and I would predict to you that 80% of its members have less than 10 employees.

But what happens in this business, it’s very difficult to please the small business owner quickly. For example — and this hit me a few years ago — the small business owner has little investment, but their expectations are pretty big. This business in today’s world is not what it used to be 30 years ago when I got involved in the organization.  

So what happens is when I got involved in 1982, it was basically — there was no such thing as a retention problem. Everybody was a member. Everybody’s father, everybody’s grandparents were members. There were three- or four-generation business owners. It was the thing to do. There was community pride. People were not looking for an immediate gratification when they joined the chamber.

Today, it’s very different. Today, it’s just, “What’s in it for me?” In other words, its $510 to join, but they want a return on that investment, and they want it very quickly. It’s such a short time to please that small business owner because check this out: they join, and we bill 60 days in advance of the next renewal.

So we have about 10 months to somehow get that small business owner to an event, to a networking opportunity so that we can help that small business owner. We can only do so many things when that small business owner doesn’t go to anything. And the greatest challenge today in the chamber world is how do we show value to members who have no time to participate?

Now, I will repeat that because this is one of the most important things I can tell you. For small business owners, for chambers of commerce, how do we show value to those small business members who have no time to participate? That’s difficult. We can do it by social media, we can do it by email blasts, we can communicate with them electronically, and that’s better than nothing.

But unless you get the small business owner out to an event, to a networking breakfast, workshop, seminar, etc… The laws have changed where you can get fined if you don’t have certain things in your business like an employee rights poster. So even though we know it’s really important, and we’re doing a free seminar, we will help you not get fined, make sure that you’re legally sufficient with the new laws that just changed last January 1st — it is like pulling teeth, getting the small business owners out.

The reason for that is they join, and they have all good intentions. But they are so busy making the payroll, worried about can they make the payroll, and they don’t have a lot of employees, and they’re there 10, 12 hours a day, especially if they’re a restaurant business.

So what happens is — how do you get that small business owner out? One of our successes, we basically give them lots of free admissions when they join. We will pay for the meals, whether it be a breakfast, or a lunch, or sometimes a dinner just to get them out because we know that if we get them out, the odds of them being more successful and renewing their dues a second year goes up. So in a way, we’re really working on retention the day they join the chamber.


About Randy Gordon

Randy Gordon was named President/CEO of the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce in April 1994. He is a 1988 graduate of the U.S Chamber Western Institute for Organization Management at San Jose State University, former instructor at the Stanford Institute, a past member of the Board of Regents of Western Institute, a 1993 graduate from the U.S. Chamber’s Academy at Notre Dame and is currently a trustee for the National Board of the Institute.He is a 1995 graduate of Leadership Long Beach. He is a past president of the 330 member Rotary Club of Long Beach and has 29 years of perfect attendance.