Goleta Valley Chamber Goes Green / Virtual

By Michael Kramer // Jul 18, 2011 at 03:18 PM

Today Goleta Chamber of Commerce is closing their brick-and-mortar office and changing to a virtual business model.  A small handful of companes are making this virtual model possible, including Ameravant Web Studio.

If ou are consdering a virtual business model, The Pros, Cons, Chalanges and How To's listed below will be a good aid.

ADVANTAGES of a Virtual Business Model:

1.  Immediate financial relief - Rent can be the money pit of your business. The Chamber will now be able to spend more of their money on programs and staff that create and support opportunities for the Goleta and Santa Barbara communities.

2  Virtual Jean Blois Community Room – It’s very possible the Jean Blois Community Room could become a virtual meeting place from the http://www.goletavalley.com/ website.  It is easier for people to meet from their own desk than it is to drive to the Chamber office.  We may experience more participants in meetings and be able to meet more often, if needed. I personally spent a total of 30 minutes in travel to and from the Chamber office for 60 minute meetings. 

3.  Low Member Visits – Kristen Amyx shared only 15% of Chamber Members have ever visited the office.  Going virtual has very little impact on individual members.  Most activities conducted at the Chamber office are Administrative or member committees, not walk-ins looking for resources.

4.  Going Green – Smaller footprint on the environment.  About 50-60 members, mostly on committees, visit the office each month.  My commutes are about 15 minutes each direction.  I’m happy to say I’ll be saving about 1 gallon of gas for each future meeting, and saving drive time.  Between member and staff driving to the office I’m guessing we could be saving about 100 gallons of gasoline each month, or 1,200 gallons per year.  At $3 per gallon that $3,600 is member and Chamber savings.  Going Virtual also means no use of office gas or electric energy.

5.  Instant access to information – The Chamber will now be forced to provide online tools to deliver information over the Internet. The Chamber website is only one tool.  Other tools will be reviewed over the upcoming weeks.

6) Back to the Roots – Chambers are community-based organizations.  Going virtual forces Chamber staff to meet in the community they serve.  For committees I’m on at the Chamber, I’d love to host meeting at my office, and expose my business to other members, and Chamber Staff.

7.  Better Community Support – Chamber Member companies have stepped forward to offer meetings spaces, phone services, internet services, web services, etc.  In this economy grouping together to support each other ensures we all make through this recession.
I recently went to a SCORE Event titled "Secrets of Survival for Small Business in a Down Economy".  Keynote speaker Paul Orfalea, founder of Kinkos, stated “Small companies that group together will survive this recession”.  We all need each other to survive this economy so the pouring out of generosity by Chamber members tells me we care about our Chamber and will help the chamber thrive as they have helped our businesses thrive over the years.

DISADVANTAGES of a Virtual Business Model:

1.  Public Perception - Initial disadvantage is public perception that your organization will not be around long.  Perceived as the “beginning of the end” path.  I prefer to think of it as the "We'll still be here tomorrow" path, and we are making prudent decisions to ensure our service to the community.

2.  Jean Blois Community Room - Bill, you were at the dedication so you know the financial and other support of many companies that made this room possible.  In my opinion this is a big loss for the Chamber going virtual.  Because this is not just a meeting room it would be nice if Kristen gave public recognition to all those that made this space possible.  I spoke with Kristen Amyx earlier this week about ways to replace the physical office with online resources for Chamber Members.  

3.  Storage – The Chamber office has been a good place to store member and community materials, including member packages, annual magazine, banners, member promotional materials etc.  Since the world is moving to communicating through the Web and away from print, the impact of a virtual office will force the Chamber to seek better online ways to manage membership, communicate with members and promote members to the community.

CHALANGES of a Virtual Business Model:

1.  Permanent or Temporary – The Chamber staff needs to ask themself the question,  is this a temporary condition?  Are you looking forward to the day you can return to an office?  If they embrase the virtual model as a new, better, way of conducting business, I believe they will be successful and continue to be a valuable resource to our community. 
I’m not saying having an office is bad. I am saying embracing a full or partial virtual business model cost much LESS, is more efficient and promotes more Chamber/Member interaction and opportunity.

2.  How will the Chamber compensate staff for using their personal resources (office, electric, Internet, storage, car, etc) when working virtual?

3.  How will going virtual effect the Chamber’s ability to raise money?
  a. Personally I think there may be some initial holding back of member advertising but as long as the Chamber continues to host events and provide measureable exposure of member businesses to other members and the community, I don’t see any long-term impact.

4.  Where will Staff and member committees meeting?
   a. With good online communication tools, staff will not need to meet face-to-face very often.  Member committees will meet at each other’s offices or homes.  It’s a great way to learn more about the members you are working with.

WHAT TO CONSIDER if you are thining about going Virtual?:

1.  How to virtually access the computer files needed by all staff?

   a. Answer: Use of FTP Servers or remote access software, like GoToMeeting.com from Citrix.

2.  How will staff stay connected and keep informed about the business events of other staff?

   a. Choose an online Calendar system that allows all staff to view their own calendar, and optionally view a group calendar.  Google offers a no cost and low cost solution.

3.  How will the company phone system work if there is no office?

   a. There are many options.  Ameravant uses a Voice over IP phone system.  Each phone has its own extension and dedicated phone number.  We can connect our phones to any Internet connection in the world.  We can transfer calls to other phones in remote locations, quickly dial other staff extensions, hold conferences and check voice mail. COX offers a good solution for virtual office phone systems.

4.  How to overcome the public stigma going virtual means you are on your way to going out of business?

   a. Be open with your customers and give them tangible evidence you will be there to provide service.

5) How to break the news to your staff?

     a. This kind of news can empower some staff to be more committed to the company or it can make them insecure about their job security, causing them to look for other employment.  At Ameravant when one staff member left, we realized a net cost savings, so to ensure remaining Sr. staff were motivated I gave a pay raise. It was a win/win for everyone!
   b. Be honest about the financial condition of the company and how being virtual will not only ensure staff will have a job but provide better tools for staff and client communication. 

6.  What to do with your office furniture?

   a. Get rid if it!  Don’t store it.  If going virtual is a better solution for your company, sell your office futurnature. The cost of storage can quickly catch up to the low value of used office furniture.

7.  How much does it cost to be virtual?

   a.  After the cost of closing the office, the ongoing costs are minimal.  Many costs are monthly services fees for phone, remote access software, online collaboration tools, etc.

8.  How is bookkeeping and HR information shared among multiple people?

   a. Intuit now has QuickBooks Online.  It’s a fantastic service for a low monthly fee. Multiple can access information at the same time.  There are separate User Roles so the owner may see everything but staff may only be able to post their work hours or product sales.

9.  How do you have a virtual business model and feel like you are not working alone?

   a. At Ameravant we all subscribe to the AOL Instant Messenger “IM”.  We can see when each of us is working on our computers.  If a staff has not been active on their computer for more than a few minutes the IM reports they are away from their computer.  Between Instant Messages, shared calendars, collaboration tools, and Email, we are in constant communication.

Posted in Santa Barbara Website Development, News Release.