If you're like most business owners, you've come to rely on a team
of advisors. Perhaps it's a loose association of colleagues in similar
businesses. Or maybe it's actually a formal board. Either way, the
group provides support when challenges arise, or when you need input
on new ideas.
John Spinelli, a principal of Rockville Centre-based Spinelli and
Del Gais CPAs, often turns to other entrepreneurs in his building
for advice. But since August he has turned to a new source, American
Express' OPEN: The Small Business Network, an online discussion group
geared for entrepreneurs at www.opennewyorkcity.com.
Spinelli peruses the site first thing in the morning when the office
is quiet. He likes to read what's on the minds of other owners. "It's
like [having] one million people in one room."
Online discussion groups like these provide help for things like
dealing with late-paying customers or finding new vendors for business
owners who often are too busy to attend regular networking events
or too small to have an effective board of advisors. Online groups
can supply opportunities for similar businesses across the country
to trade strategies without appearing vulnerable to local competitors.
And it gives business owners the chance to tout their expertise and
perhaps win new business opportunities.
But just as in face-to-face networking, a certain amount of scrutiny
is required when engaging new Internet contacts.
Spinelli calls the OPEN Network a "powerful resource."
Sometimes he checks it before responding to a client query. If he
finds an answer that is put more concisely than what he had in mind,
he models his reply accordingly.
Careful wording is something to which Christine Hirschfeld, owner
of Catholic Home and Garden, a provider of religious supplies, pays
close attention when participating in groups that include Catholic
Auction Apostolate. Hirschfeld, who has used message boards since
the late 1990s, always includes her company's Web site in her replies
so that people can find her site readily.
"If you put in keywords that are relevant, you'll come up in
search engines," she said. "I found people were responding,
so I started joining [more] groups. It started driving sales up. It
does take time. You don't have to respond to everything."
Claire Meirowitz, owner of Babylon-based Professional Editing Services,
shares in WorldWIT's discussions at www.worldwit.org, a site for women
in technology. Meirowitz made a habit of visiting the new business
Web sites of members. "I looked at them with an eye toward their
need for my editing services. In a couple of cases I found that their
spelling, grammar and word usage needed my help, so I contacted the
owners and they hired me to fix the sites," she said.
When looking for new clients, be sure to follow certain etiquette
"As a regular participant, you become known to members and a
trusted person," Hirschfeld notes. "If something comes up
and you respond in a helpful manner, you're helping them find information
on a product. But if you sort of lurk and only post blatant commercial
things, you'll be distrusted and people will think you're spamming
Most sites post rules and regulations, denying access links to sites
that include adult-only topics, violence and weapons. In general,
discussions should be respectful, and spamming and blatant selling
With the rules spelled out clearly, participants are more apt to
build online communities, said Donna Bliss, an online retailer who
owns Nesconset-based My Miracle Baby and Baby Gift Supply. "We
learn from each other," Bliss said.
Bliss visits the message boards at www.mompack.com, a site for mothers
that own businesses, and www.qflea.com, an online flea market with
discussion groups for owners, among others. She and other members,
whom she's met from other email groups, have pooled their money to
advertise in national magazines. The ads direct readers to a Web site,
with images that link to each owner's home page. "We can't afford"
to advertise otherwise, Bliss said. "We leverage what we do separately."
Bliss paid for the ads with PayPal, an eBay company that handles
electronic payments. She has enough with her online community to share
advertising costs with it, she said. "If I got scammed, I'd call
PayPal, and get my money back."
She's come to rely on the tips she reads in the forums. "The
best piece of advice I received was to be selective about shipping
internationally. It's a crapshoot. So if they say don't ship to a
country, I just wouldn't."
Bliss did meet some of her online group at a taping of the "Live
with Regis and Kelly" show, of all places. "One of the people
from the group knew Kelly Ripa," Bliss said. "She got VIP
seats. It was the first time we met each other."
Still, it's a competitive environment. "Everyone's selling.
I don't tell them future plans. They could swipe the ideas,"
She would never participate in a venture suggested by a stranger
- someone neither she nor her online community knew, she said.
Not every piece of advice or encounter will be on the up and up -
just as with face-to-face networking. That's why it's important to
implement a bit of scrutiny.
"Every now and then you get an unreasonable customer,"
Hirschfeld acknowledged. "But those are few and far between."