Growth Strategies
Online message boards catch-on with entrepreneurs

by Adina Glenn
Re-printed from the Long Island Business News

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 rules.

"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 the group."

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 is discouraged.

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 said.

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."