By Jessica Masulli
New Jersey Herald
July 17, 2011
No fees, no dues, just jeans and sneakers.
That's the motto Informal Small Business Owners Group (ISBOG) lives by, and the members don't plan on changing it in this tough economy. Instead, this group of about 40 small business owners in Sussex County and surrounding areas are leaning on each other more and more to keep their businesses afloat.
"You all are here, so somehow you are managing to survive," ISBOG President Amy Steele said to the Augusta chapter at it monthly meeting location, Yetter's Diner.
But these business owners are doing more than just surviving; they are using the group's connections and friendships to build on their own business and life ventures.
At a Thursday meeting over coffee and Oreo pancakes, Aileen Healy picked up a tip for art classes for her daughter, Sarah Collins questioned other owners on the use of PayPal for credit cards payments, and Harvey Voorhees shared his success in deejaying at charity events.
It is these informal connections and lack of fee or investment pressures that have led ISBOG to grow in the last seven years to reach four towns: Sparta, Augusta, Sussex and most recently Mount Arlington. Each location is meant to attract members from all over New Jersey, not just the specific towns.
"We are not like the hardcore networking groups," Steele said. "Every small business could use a resource like this. There just aren't many things that are free."
In this economy, free versus expensive can be the difference between a small business owner closing a store front or doubling sales, so these owners take advantage of the connections and advice they can gain from each other. At Yetter's, each member passed on tidbits of success and advice for surviving a tough economy.
Collins, a writer, author, publisher and alternative health expert, said her long list of occupations is no accident.
"I'm constantly trying to diversify and stay current," Collins said. "It can be really worthwhile."
Collins has been tying together her two passions in publishing and alternative health to keep her business ventures creative. Most recently, she has been looking into joining other practitioners to open a "true-wellness center."
"It's death if you stay static," she warned the group. "Be creative, but also careful."
Steele, who besides running ISBOG designs children's teepees and is a website designer, cautioned Collins against getting too far from her core business.
"Keep true to the core business," Steele said. "Build on something you already have and has long been established."
Voorhees, owner of Play Your Music DJ and resident of Hamburg, has built on his initial deejay business by designing video and slideshows. He has seen that getting through the tough economy is about offering more services for free, a fact that business owners typically advise against, but the group embraces. Voorhees saw that by helping deejay a charity event, the publicity and connections open up doors that traditional advertising cannot.
"Referrals and networking is the key to business," he told the group, and others agreed.
Steele often gives out one website design a year to a worthy nonprofit, and Collins doesn't mind doing a free consultation for her alternative health services since people almost always book after that.
"I love what I do, so I don't mind to do a free consultation," Collins said.
However, business owners do have to focus on the dollar, and the group had a lot of advice on how to bring that in, even when most customers are closing their wallets. Steele found that after quoting prices for website designs and not getting a good response, she needed to put in place a three-tier pricing and split-payment option.
"That's what I had to do because people just couldn't afford the website," Steele said.
Others in the group loved this idea and have also embraced it to entice customers to the prices. Rosemarie Bohinek, owner of Simply Unique Baskets by R and Montague resident, has come up with creative gift baskets that can cost as little as $5 to $10, rather than the typical $30 range. Her new slogan, "No budget is too small to make an impression," is meant to reflect the new price points.
"My challenge was to let people know they still have to give gifts," she said. "You don't have to stop giving presents in a bad economy."
The group also can lower costs by relying on each other for some of their needs. When Healy, distributor for NuSkin, needed a grief and healing basket she went to Bohinek, and when Bohinek needed a new website she ran to Steele.
"Now, I'm not embarrassed to say, 'Yes, I have a website.' "
As the diner meeting came to an end, Steele left the group with some other survival tips before the members venture back into the business world. Don't fall into the trap of excessive loans. Focus on free marketing opportunities. Protect your core business. Don't try to be the low-price leader, but be the better service and product.
And, most important, band together — the ISBOG way.