6 Steps to Business Growth through Community Connections

Community involvement is crucial for small business owners to network and meet new clients. Before you even start your business, your community connections are a valuable resource for discovering which goods or services your community is lacking.

I was able to break into the shade structure industry 11 years ago from a background in political consulting because I realized that businesses offering high-end, aesthetically pleasing shade structures were practically nonexistent in my community despite a high demand. From personal experience and my interactions with neighbors, clients and community members, I knew that sun safety was a pertinent issue in Miami but noticed that many public areas and outdoor businesses were not adequately shaded.

My business, ShadeFLA, was founded with the goal of filling my community's need. Below, I offer some tips on how understanding your community can help you grow your business.

1) Know your community. Every community is different depending on location, climate, and demographics. Involvement in neighborhood or homeowner organizations, school PTA groups, local business councils and other groups allows you to meet people and find out what they are looking to improve in their neighborhoods or their own lives.

2) Know your community's needs. As you get to know your community, you will discover its unique needs and perhaps notice where they are not being met. In the early 2000s, I found that although many tourists and residents were attracted to Miami for its sunny weather, unbearable heat and sudden storms often put a damper on outdoor living. Playgrounds, outdoor restaurants, pool decks, and schools needed shade and rain protection. In a community where tourism is a cornerstone of the local economy, the lack of shade struck me as a lost opportunity. Connections with with local business owners, parents, and community leaders gave me insight into what my community was lacking.

3) Offer a high quality product or service. Identifying an unmet need in your community gives you a powerful competitive edge in the market. You want to offer such a high quality product that no one will be tempted to start a competing business that can "do it better." Further, you want your clients to be so excited about your product or service that they eagerly recommend you their friends and associates. I sourced my first products from Australia, which is in industry leader in tension shade sails. By distributing a product that already had a proven track record of quality, I was able to impress clients from the very beginning.

4) Stay exclusive. Once others see how successful your business idea is, they may try to emulate you and steal away business. One way you can avoid this is by becoming the exclusive regional dealer of a particular product. My company is the exclusive U.S. retailer of the Sun Square retractable sail, in addition to selling other shade products. Offering an exclusive product has allowed my company to stand out from the competition for over a decade.

5) Follow trends. Perhaps you are already meeting your community's needs, have the exclusive rights to a product or service, and your sales are increasing rapidly - great! But communities change, and so do their needs or the way that they seek to fill those needs. I am constantly on the lookout for new products and services that I think would appeal to my current and potential clients. In 2011, I began offering a retractable roof system with both sun and rain protection, a particularly good fit for hotels and restaurants that need to cover a large outdoor space. As this product becomes more and more popular, I have been able to continue to expand my business.

6) Use referrals and community connections to reach new clients. This is common sense to any small business owner, but it bears repeating! Every social or community gathering is an opportunity to network and share what your business is doing.

From startup to expansion, community involvement will allow you to get the information and make the connections you need to grow your small business.