how to create a local business coalitionhow to create a local business coalition

By Jacob Harper
American Express OPEN Forum

Creating partnerships — both inside and outside your industry — ensures cross-pollination of customers and a culmination of resources. Here are some tips on creating your own local-business coalition.

1. Cross-promote, and not just by referral. Let’s say a business down the street runs a hot dog shop, and you run a soda fountain (okay, it’s not the 1950s, but bear with me). The two companies probably share a fair amount of customers. But some will be completely unaware of the one or the other shop. It’s your job to make them aware.

2. Direct customers, and not just in recommendation. They need to be led with savings. Offer specials contingent on visiting both shops, and ask the other business to do likewise.

3. Get out there, and meet the other businesses in complementary lines of business around the neighborhood (and perhaps even your competitors). See if they have “regulars” they think would be interested in a mutually beneficial special. And be willing to share what you have.

4. Trade up. One of the other things we entrepreneurs have had hammered into our head is that every transaction has to include money. You can, however, cut out the green paper middleman if you’re willing to trade your product for another company’s product. What you sell professionally is probably what you have the most pressing need to move. This is true of other businesses as well. And if you give at cost, you can get at cost, including supplies, labor and promotional time. People have been proposing trades since one guy had a different kind of rock than another guy. Go back to those roots. It can also establish a good working relationship, useful in organizing symbiotic mass events.

5. Bring out the people. In the brick-and-mortar clothing shop I used to own, the biggest night of the month was invariably Friday Night Artwalk. This was an event the downtown’s businesses had originally organized as a showcase for the local art galleries. But we all soon realized that people, out on a Friday night, didn’t want to just buy art — they wanted to drink, they wanted to eat, they wanted to shop for clothes. So the local businesses got together and figured out how to expand the event, how to “push” customers from one venue to the next. By working together (and by seeking support of the city, too) we figured out how to bring the most people possible downtown at the same time and have a huge, long, busy and profitable night.

6. Meet other business owners without talking business. Possibly the most important part of being a part of a cooperative community is “face time.” It’s meeting other traders in the neighborhood, and getting to know them. But it is very important to get to know them without trying to sell them something. People who network with their sales caps on are exhausting to deal with. Just get to know your fellow businesspeople so you can look out for one another. Developing and building a strong local network is not just good karma, it’s good business.

Jacob Harper cofounded the Vintage Vice clothing store and apparel brand in 2006 when he was 23 years old. He sold Vintage Vice in 2009 and now works as a teacher and writer.

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