#Reinventing: Chamber of Commerce

By Hunter Walk , written on January 17, 2012

From The News Desk

Startups look at the world without any baggage or legacy while most institutions lumber under historical constraints ranging from “that’s the way we’ve always done it” to Christensen’s Disruptive Innovation. In our #Reinventing series, Hunter Walk will apply the question “how would it look if it started today” to existing products, companies and ideas. 

My love of local small businesses developed while working at an independently owned bookstore in the New York City suburbs. The store eventually succumbed to tough economics - although Amazon & the ecommerce displacement were a few years away, big box retailers could price bestsellers lower than our wholesale cost. And although customers praised our service, they ultimately spent their dollars at Barnes & Noble for 40% off hardcovers.

Many things have changed since my teenage years discussing Sweet Valley High books with tween girls. For one, I’ve abandoned SVH for The Hunger Games. But running a local business is still an incredibly difficult endeavor. During the 2008-09 recessions I consciously concentrated my spending at a few local restaurants, hoping to help them stay viable. Local small/medium business (SMB) is still cash flow dependent - a bad quarter and you start laying off employees or cutting hours. Two or more bad quarters and you might be out of business completely. So as consumers you really vote with your feet and your wallet - everything else is just talk.

How can businesses improve their odds given these challenges? Safety in numbers is always a natural response and many communities have chambers of commerce (CoC) to help align the interests of business. The first CoC was founded in 1599 France. Now 400+ years later, it’s hard to find a US town without their own chamber. Browsing a bunch of their websites, the typical chamber focuses on meeting with local politicians, encouraging visitation, helping businesses navigate their bank financing and physical space needs. While worthwhile, these activities still resemble the 1599 model.  Some CoCs have sought new tools, such as Palo Alto pushing a version of local shopping aggregation via ShopLocally with very limited success.

Head scratch - CoCs should be a vibrant part of the new economy but seem tied to their historical functions. If you were creating these coalitions from scratch today, with the single goal of a vibrant local economy, what could they do? How would the Chamber of Commerce be #Reinvented?

Think like a CTO, act like a SysAdmin

Every small business is in the technology industry - from managing their internal systems to public-facing web presence. CoCs could function as a local version of the Geek Squad, hiring 1-2 technical support folks to service local businesses.

Beyond intermittent needs, the CoC would help fund and manage a commercial district-wide WiFi network. In exchange for logging on - and allowing themselves to be anonymously tracked for market research purposes - shoppers could have great continuous connectivity in shopping hubs. CoCs would have informed opinions on what coming technology trends would mean for local businesses and issue thought papers with actionable tips (see BigData down the page).

Purchasing Co-op -- and Someone to Put the Screws to Groupon

The collective purchasing power of a town’s businesses is significant but today rarely harnessed. Orders likely don’t even need to be bundled, just annual volumes negotiated with suppliers. Whether physical goods, speciality items or services such as security guards or cleaning crews, the CoC could be negotiating on behalf of the town. Issue RFPs, evaluate responses, and award contracts.

And on that note, every town needs its Ari Gold-  a slick agent-type to negotiate with daily deals sites. Imagine the Palo Alto CoC using their leverage pits Groupon vs Living Social to see who can give them best terms, promotion and other benefits. You want merchants in our town to use you en masse? We want 75% rev share.

Run Demo Days

There’s an explosion of tech companies calling on small business, so many that “merchant fatigue” is becoming a real issue. The local bakery has to actually service customers not just listen to Y Combinator companies pitch them the latest greatest local mobile social gamification daily deal service. The CoC should serve as a central evaluation and coordination hub to run actual and virtual demo days with service providers. Saving on coordination and acquisition costs would be hugely valuable to providers --  a whole town could “go Square” instead of Square needing to approach individual merchants. Interested businesses would sit through four 15 minutes pitches from employee benefit providers instead of needing to coordinate and schedule multiple visits. In fact, participating vendors would pick up the costs of sponsoring these events - even just a small amount of money to put some skin in the game and buy our local businesses some sandwiches for lunch.

Centralized Hiring Pool

CoC would collect resumes from qualified workers and run a town-wide job board. Think of something similar to the Common App for college - why should a teenager need to fill out separate applications for the yogurt shop, the diner and the Indian take out place? CoC could even go a step further and actually interview candidates, providing a first level of screening and making results available via written summary or video.

Think Big (BigData that is)

So much data available - imagine if local businesses were able to share customer lists for remarketing purposes. Or go a level further with a town-specific loyalty program spanning all local businesses (eg spend $100 get $5 in virtual currency redeemable locally). Forget the issues around competition - the next city over and the entire Internet is a bigger threat than the other hardware store in town. Local business competes with national retailers by getting smarter with their data. Pricing and inventory management. Marketing, customer acquisition and retention. All of this can be improved via some centralized business intelligence.

The individual is now a business

The CoC of today would be less tied to physical bricks and mortar establishments. Technology and economic necessity means the individual is now a business. Whether you like it or not, the eBay seller, the airbnb renter, the taskrabbit rabbit -- they are all “businesses” in your local economy. Don’t ignore them or sue them. Embrace and bring them into the conversation.

These are just some of the ways local economies would benefit from coordination. Net result, the Chamber of Commerce could play a significantly increased role in accelerating local entrepreneurs and local economies. Most of the ideas here revolve around allowing participating businesses to combine or outsource every task which doesn’t translate to immediate benefits or competitive advantage. And at the same time, spreading best practices and technology tools such as CRM which were previously only available to the largest companies. Storefronts now compete in a global economy and their survival odds are dependent on new infrastructure and new support. Or we risk losing the vibrancy, and jobs, provided by our local commercial spaces.

Hunter Walk enjoys writing about the impact of technology and product design at You can also follow him on Twitter via @hunterwalk or add him to your Google+ circle