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SMART ANSWERS
By Karen E. Klein
JUNE 15, 2000


Profit by Associating with Your Peers

Becoming a member of an industry trade group can help get your startup off the ground

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Q:  I am considering opening a store that would sell various flavors of popcorn. Where can I find a trade magazine that deals with such shops?

--S.W.W., St. Augustine, Fla.

A:  Looking for information on your industry by subscribing to a trade publication and joining the industry association that publishes it is a great idea for any entrepreneur, particularly for a startup. You might try contacting the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, an industry group that targets the gourmet and gift-food market. It has a publication, Showcase, and it sponsors thrice-yearly Fancy Food trade shows, one of which is scheduled to be held early next month in New York. For more information on the group, check its Web site at: www.specialty-food.com/Client/NASFT.asp

Other publications and industry groups focus on snacks, confections, candy, and concessions, so if the NASFT isn't the right fit for you, ask it for some recommendations to other groups. In addition, you should contact your state restaurant association and determine whether it would be beneficial to join, since your business will be subject to many of the same rules and regulations that apply to restaurants in Florida.

A state group may give you help and information that will prove more practical in the long run, and it's likely to sponsor local conferences and workshops that would be easier for you to attend. The Florida Restaurant Assn. (www.flra.com) is based in Tallahassee and can be reached at 850 224-2250.

SUSPICIOUS? Along with doing legislative advocacy, business organizations typically provide myriad resources for their members, including detailed information on how to get a business started, how much capital you'll need, industry trends, annual reports and statistics, member surveys, lists of vendors and suppliers, and networking. Some associations offer group insurance and long-distance phone rates that can save a small-business owner a good deal of money and help justify the cost of membership, which tends to be very reasonable.

"Some entrepreneurs look at trade associations suspiciously, because they feel that they don't want to tell their competitors what they're doing," says Art Manask, whose food-service consulting firm, Manask & Associates, is based in Burbank, Calif. "But they shouldn't look at it that way unless they're asked to share secrets with direct rivals. They should view membership in these groups as a way to share resources, get active in their industry, talk to their peers, and share problems and experiences with fellow members."

Manask also recommends that service providers and wholesalers join the industry associations that their clients belong to, as a way of meeting new customers and learning more about their market niche. "[Associations are] a fabulous resource to get close to those businesses, learn about their industry, exhibit at their conferences, find out what they're facing, and become active as an expert resource for their industry," he says.

WORTH A TRY. How can a new business owner find the right trade group to join? Just doing blind Internet searches can be frustrating unless you have some idea of what you're looking for. Try talking to vendors and suppliers, who will be plugged in to the industry and motivated to help you get started in business. A Cincinnati-based manufacturing company called Gold Medal Products Co. is the leading supplier of popcorn machines and might be worth contacting at www.gmpopcorn.com. Another supplier, based in St. Louis, Mo., is the R.L. Mueller Popcorn & Supply Co. (www.rlmueller.com).

What about getting in touch with successful popcorn stores (not those you would be competing directly against, of course) and asking the owners to give you a few minutes of their time? Sure, you could get a flat-out refusal, but you could also find a generous entrepreneur who remembers what it was like to start out in the industry. Chicago's Garrett Popcorn Co. (www.garrettpopcorn.com), on Michigan Avenue, has developed a national following for its gourmet popcorn, and it might prove to be a marvelous peer resource for you. All you can do is try.

Other resources for entrepreneurs looking to hook up with an industry association: The Encyclopedia of Associations, published by Gale Group (www.galegroup.com) should be available at the reference desk of your local library. The American Society of Association Executives' has an online directory of associations. The Internet Public Library offers Associations on the Net, a collection of more than 2,000 Web sites providing information about a wide variety of professional and trade associations, cultural and art organizations, political parties and advocacy groups, labor unions, academic societies, and research institutions.

Specifically for the food industry, you might try: FoodBoss (www.foodboss.com), a Web site for food-business executives and managers that lists links to specialized magazines. More food association links are listed at www.foodindustry.com/food/links/associations.htm


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