Although photographer Melissa Leeper enjoys traveling to photo locations and meeting people, she describes attending her first local chamber of commerce event as more than a little intimidating. "They had me stand up, and they introduced me. I was so nervous," recalls Leeper, 35, who founded Leeper Photo, her own homebased studio, nearly two years ago and is a member of the Greater Royal Oak Chamber of Commerce, a suburban Detroit group.
"Joining the chamber and the Business Women's Network really helped me make the transition from a corporate environment to [entrepreneurship]," agrees training and communication consultant Christine Gloss, a past BWN president. "It gave me a lot of practice in talking about my business and what I do."
Still, chamber membership provided a much-needed jumpstart for Leeper's networking efforts. By attending smaller gatherings like morning coffees and her chamber's Business Women's Network (BWN) meetings, she gradually became more confident. "I eventually developed a three-sentence spiel about what I do and was able to practice that at chamber events," she says. "That helped me better deal with clients on the phone as well."
What's more, chambers of commerce often offer constituent groups geared toward retailers, women entrepreneurs or businesses in specific districts, notes Sheila Brice, executive director of the Royal Oak group. And there are usually added perks like group discount plans on health insurance, office supplies and merchant bankcard programs.
Perhaps more important, chamber membership can help you spread the word about your business. Donating goods or services to the chamber is one method-Leeper, for instance, donated a photography package to a chamber fund-raising party. "They mentioned my business throughout the event, so my name got out that way," she says.
Brice recommends seeking out other members who have similar interests with an eye toward jointly sponsoring events and promotions. "Members can rely on the chamber for promotional programs, but they also need to be proactive and find the fellow members they want to target," says Brice, whose chamber distributes 31,000 member directories each year. "Chamber membership is an incredible marketing bargain for your business."
"It's what you put into it," concludes Leeper. "If you don't get involved, you don't meet anybody."
Dominique King mixes and mingles at chamber events as a business reporter and columnist for a small chain of suburban Detroit weekly newspapers.