When Derrell Vaughn Jr. incorporated his company, Benefit Options Inc., in 1994, there was no question in his mind about joining the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce.
"My dad owns a 75-year-old plumbing company. He was the state president of the junior chamber, and he's always been in the local chamber. I was brought up in it and feel like it's a starting point," says the 31-year-old homebased insurance broker.
But joining the local chamber did more than just continue a family tradition; it helped Vaughn make contacts in Montgomery's corporate community.
"I have an ad in the chamber's buyer's guide and directory, which is given to all chamber mem-bers. There's also an after-hours networking event once a month at a different member's business," says the entrepreneur, who sells supplemental health and dental insurance and other employee benefits.
Vaughn is also a member of one of the chamber's CEO Roundtables, in which 10 to 12 CEOs from noncompeting companies meet monthly to discuss challenges. The Roundtable acts as an informal board of directors to help him with business decisions and problems.
Like Vaughn, many homebased entrepreneurs are discovering the benefits of membership in a chamber of commerce. From moral support to business advice, from political clout to profitable contacts, chambers of commerce offer it all. And with a growing number of chambers offering programs and services specifically for homebased businesses, the time has never been better to get involved.
One benefit any chamber of commerce can offer a homebased business owner is the chance to gain a larger presence in the community. In Alabama, for example, the 1,100-member Gadsden Area Chamber of Commerce offers programs including a matchmaker business expo, where members set up booths to establish contacts with local corporate heads and purchasing agents.
"We also have a consumer service department, where people in the community who have misunderstandings with one of our members can call," says chamber president Tom Quinn. The chamber tries to reconcile the two parties by phone, written communication or, if all else fails, arbitration. It's a win-win situation: Consumers know they have recourse, and entrepreneurs get help in avoiding the bad publicity that can result from unsatisfied customers.
Homebased businesses can also benefit from the discounts most chambers of commerce offer to their members on products and services ranging from health insurance to long-dis-tance and cellular phone service. Many chambers conduct educational and business exchange programs that members can attend at low or even no cost, and some even help you obtain credit card merchant status.
In addition to the advantages membership offers any small business, there is a growing trend toward the creation of special homebased business committees and councils within chambers of commerce. Heidi Sammons, marketing and membership manager with the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce in California, says the growing number of homebased business owners inspired her to establish homebased business committees in the Anaheim and nearby Cerritos chambers in 1994 and 1993, respectively. "In Cerritos in 1992, for example, I found that 50 percent of all new businesses in the city started in homes," Sammons says.
The types of homebased business programs established vary widely. Some, like Sammons', are targeted to homebased businesses, while others simply focus on small and new businesses, many of which also happen to be homebased. Some require membership in the chamber; others, like the Business Growth Network run by Virginia's Richmond Area Chamber of Commerce, offer business owners a chance to grow into membership.
At the Business Growth Network, participants meet twice monthly for two years to get tips on subjects such as marketing and sales. They can also attend the quarterly chamber of commerce socializing and networking event, even though they aren't members.
"Network members may also participate in the chamber's annual trade show," adds Robinson, who says the primary purpose of the network is to build companies. After two years, an entrepreneur must either join the chamber or drop out of the network.
In New York, the Albany-Colonie Regional Chamber of Commerce has created a homebased business council within the chamber, which meets regularly to provide networking opportunities and programs useful to homebased business owners, says chamber vice president of communications and government relations Jo Ann LeSage.
"We formed a separate entity because we felt the need to address issues homebased entrepreneurs face that no one else does," explains Helen Volk, the council's chair and one of its founders.
"I joined the chamber to deal with the isolation and to get involved in the business community," says Volk, owner of Beyond Clutter, an organizational training and consulting firm. "As homebased business owners, we can easily work at home [alone] for hours, and we don't have those [social or business] connections normally found in an office setting. The chamber gives me both of those.
"When I initially joined the chamber, there wasn't a homebased business council," adds Volk, who says the council enables entrepreneurs to further explore unique issues such as how to stay motivated, maintaining discipline, and knowing when it's time to stop working.
Other signs of the movement toward homebased services: At the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce, vice president of small-business development Sonya Buckner says there are plans to institute a CEO Roundtable program for homebased businesses this year. And some organizations, such as the Torrance Area Chamber of Commerce in California, have created special reduced-priced membership categories for homebased businesses.
Strength In Numbers
The Evanston Chamber of Commerce displays one of the most important benefits of membership-political clout. The group was instrumental in helping change home zoning ordinances in the Illinois community, according to chamber executive director Jonathan Perman.
"Two years ago, when Evanston revamped its zoning ordinances, we lobbied very heavily to get homebased businesses recognized and legitimized in the code," explains Perman, who says the abundance of homebased enterprises in the city prompted his chamber to get into the zoning fray.
After the success of its lobbying efforts, the chamber created the Homebased Business Network. Members meet regularly to discuss concerns ranging from how to buy office equipment to designing a business card.
Clearly, chambers of commerce offer advantages far beyond long-distance phone discounts and the exchange of business cards. But if you really want to benefit from chamber membership, you must do your part to benefit the chamber in return.
"Our chamber does a lot of work in promoting the image of Montgomery," says Vaughn at Benefits Options. "I find most outsiders know very little about our city and have a negative image of it. I want to do my part to change that."
Vaughn does his part through paying his membership dues and getting involved in civic activities such as Partners in Education, a program that offers local schools everything from newspaper subscriptions to entrepreneurs willing to teach classes.
"You only get out of membership what you put into it," says Vaughn. Whether your chamber has programs tailored for homebased entrepreneurs or focuses on small businesses in general, you, too, can realize enormous benefits if you make the effort.
Albany-Colonie Regional Chamber of Commerce, 540 Broadway, Albany, NY 12207, (518) 434-1214;
Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, 100 S. Anaheim Blvd., #300, Anaheim, CA 92805, (714) 758-0222;
Benefit Options, Inc., P.O. Box 70545, Montgomery, AL 36107, (334) 264-4892;
Gadsden Chamber of Commerce, 1 Commerce Square, Gadsden, AL 35902, (205) 543-3472;
Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 12280, Richmond, VA 23241, (804) 648-1234;
Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce, 41 Commerce St., Montgomery, AL 36104, (334) 834-5200;
Torrance Area Chamber of Commerce, 3400 Torrance Blvd., #100, Torrance, CA 90503, (310) 540-5858.