A Chamber of Commerce Near-Death Experience

Originally published on January 24, 2018 by The Montrose Daily Press

“A lot of times people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” -Steve Jobs

Exactly one year ago, the Montrose chamber of Commerce hired a new executive director. At that time, the Chamber was operating out of an outdated and oversized building on the edge of town. The walls were lined with brochures and business cards and the back rooms were filled with even more brochures and business cards. The feel inside the building was stale, uninspiring, and definitely didn’t say “we drive business.”

The chamber held monthly networking events, known as “Business After Hours” where an average of 20-30 people “self-promoted” over wine and beer to the same 20-30 people they’d “self-promoted” to the month before. The organization housed three sub-committees: Redcoats, Government Affairs and Young Professionals; none of which were finding much success carrying out successful programming.

A couple of years ago, saw two different executive directors and as a result of the perceived instability, revenue and membership suffered. Conversations were circling about the survival, relevancy and necessity of the Montrose Chamber of Commerce. Conversations that had merit and weight.

As the new executive director, I was not ready to accept that fate just yet. As an organization, we knew the world around us was changing. We knew we had to do something different or we would become another Blockbuster, Hastings, or Sports Authority.

Chambers originated in the 1500s. They were created so businesses could band together to promote, network, and most of all advocate their voices as a collective to local government. And since the 1500s, there has yet to be much innovation for Chambers of Commerce. Time for a facelift. The Montrose Chamber of Commerce aimed to change the face of the industry with our efforts, but we first set our sights on Montrose.

Instead of looking at the situation as a set of problems we had to navigate around — we wiped the slate clean. We sought to understand what people were seeking in a business services delivery system. Many conversations about business services ended in the same place: people weren’t sure what they wanted. Thus an incredible opportunity to paint a new landscape of possibility.

By far the most transformative and innovative change the Montrose Chamber made in 2017 was selling the outdated and oversized building and moving all operations of the Chamber inside Proximity Space. It is true that Proximity Space has a cool, hip and inviting environment. It is true that the spaces say “innovation,” “creativity” and “inspiration.”

But, there is actual depth to why coworking and chambers may be the perfect pairing for not just our chamber, but chambers across the country. Being inside the coworking space has given the chamber alive “lab-like” environment full of small business and entrepreneurs. We see, hear and become part of their struggles, triumphs and daily operations. In this modern and fast-paced setting, the chamber can better understand and apply the delivery of business services through relevancy to today’s business owner.

Additionally, research shows nearly 40 percent of the American workforce is “untethered” or have the ability to work from anywhere. Fourty percent of business people can work anywhere! That drastically changes the landscape of people chambers are trying to reach. Coworking offers a direct inroad for chambers to these individuals. We are able to understand how they would like to connect with other like-minded professionals. We then provide those connections by creating small communities. Additionally, untethered workers typically possess different skill sets than we would ordinarily see in our community. Through interaction with these individuals, our chamber and others who may embrace this model, access these skill sets and thus form a better global mindset of the workforce we serve.

Finally, we all live in the “Shared Economy.” Like or not, today’s consumer has an expectation of collaborative consumption. People have developed a distaste for “the middle man”; they now share rides with services like Lyft and Uber. They share their homes through AirBNB and VRBO, and they share music through apps like Spotify.

Coworking and its communal office space concept optimizes the use of space and makes it affordable and accessible for all types of business people. Over the past year, the Montrose Chamber of Commerce and Proximity Space have grown into more of one entity than two. We both care about networking, promoting, and advocating for the interest of small business. We both put our purpose before profit, and we are both membership based. Coworking has allowed the Chamber of Commerce to speak the shared economy language in a fluency that even the most critical ear can appreciate.

Author’s note: I am expecting my first child tomorrow, Jan. 25. In the event he does not come on time, I will follow this week’s column next week with a second column addressing the additional changes we have implemented at the Chamber since January 2017. In the event the baby is on time, this column will feature some talented guest columnists for a few weeks and you can expect my follow up column at a later date!

Chelsea Rosty is the executive director of the Montrose Chamber of Commerce and director of Business Innovation, City of Montrose. Reach her at chelsea@montrosechamber.com.