A swath of silver lining in the economic crisis is creativity. Particularly in the tough market of Las Vegas, small-business people have had to use their imagination to survive. Many have learned to barter goods and services, build trade groups, use networking and otherwise move outside their comfort zone in order to keep making money.
When Trisha Surani posted a question about immediate needs on the Facebook group she recently founded, Las Vegas WA HMs (Work at Home Moms) and Mompreneurs, she received the following response: "Forget everything else; family comes first. We're having a hard time making ends meet. We need resources to network, whether it's face to face or online. We need customers. Now."
"Socializing is fun," she says, "but people need business."
Although the rules have changed, people are still finding that the best way to get the business they need is the old-fashioned way: one introduction at a time.
The International Reciprocal Trade Association describes bartering as "man's first form of commerce." The evolution of barter illustrates how contemporary technology streamlines an ancient practice.
Online communities like Craigslist have made it possible for product makers, service providers and tradesmen to advertise to an audience that can shop by category, keyword and region. In this environment, bartering flourishes. On any given day, you can find at least a half-dozen ads like the one a user named Molly placed on March 1. The self-described certified fitness trainer and nutritionist was looking to barter her skills for salon services.
The IRTA estimates there are 8 billion organized barter exchanges annually in the United States. "Organized" means brokered by companies like AllCity Barter, a local IRTA member.
Founder Steven Lebow says AllCity Barter grew out of a larger networking effort he launched two years ago to help boost business at his orthotics company, Foot Efx. To keep the networking group free to attendees, he used bartering to pay for refreshments. Seeing the bartering business's potential, Lebow spun it off into a separate enterprise, which he now runs.
It works best, he said, for professionals who have excess hours when they're not doing anything. In those hours, which would normally be lost time, they can work for something they need.
"Let's say I have an attorney who comes to me and wants to sign up," Lebow explained. "I send him $1,000 of legal work. He does it. That's sitting in his account. Then, one day he cracks a tooth and needs to go to a dentist. I send him to a dentist. It costs $1,000. He's not writing a check for it; it's paid for by time he would've wasted anyway." The actual cost includes only materials used and overhead.
The same can be done with inventory, although Lebow warned that it only makes sense for manufacturers and wholesalers whose cost of goods is less than 40 percent of the sales price. Otherwise, it eats into their profit margin too severely. Brokers like Lebow charge a commission (7 percent in his case) on the transaction.
The advantage of using a service like AllCity Barter rather than doing it oneself, he said, is access to a wide variety of goods and services. Because AllCity operates on an international software platform called Barter 21, it has 9,000 members nationwide.
"The cheapest thing we have in barter is a manicure for $10 to $15," Lebow said. "The most expensive I've seen is a house in Australia worth $2.8 million." Although he fulfills a lot of requests for carpeting, facials and massage, he also can do all-inclusive vacations.
"It provides a nice income stream," he said, noting that he kept his day job at Foot Efx. "I enjoy helping people save money in their businesses and networking, so there's personal satisfaction."
Bartering won't work for a company like Handyman Las Vegas, which focuses on commercial and industrial projects, said General Manager Steve Patterson.
Instead, Patterson and his colleagues at the Southern Nevada Trade Alliance pool their resources to help raise the tide that will float all their boats. SNTA, the brainchild of Martin Garage Doors' Ken Martin, is an advertising collective. The 15 member companies -- all contractors in the building and construction trades -- brainstorm ideas for marketing their services, then contribute funds to execute chosen ideas.
The group meets about once a month, and a recent product of their collaboration was a refrigerator magnet displaying all member companies and their contact information.
Martin said members trade ideas on business practices that are working and, although it's not the primary purpose of the group, they'll often refer business to each other. Such help is critical in an industry crushed by the recession. Martin estimates new construction work is down 70 to 90 percent from prerecession years.
"In the (Las Vegas) valley, not only did our new home construction go from 25,000 per year to maybe 2,000, but also lots of people were laid off. The unemployment and foreclosure rates are sky high," he said. "Those are our customers. Our service calls are down, our retrofit business is down, and new business has nose-dived. We sell a lot of chewing gum and baling wire."
In such an environment, Patterson added, aggressive marketing is not optional. Having SNTA has helped his company adapt its approach to the new reality.
Only licensed and bonded companies that do high-quality work were invited to join the alliance. Martin said that was to assure they'd be sharing sound advice.
"What works well in this economy is networking," he added, "making alliances with businesses and others in the community."
Hi, my name is
Networking didn't come into fashion with the recent recession, but it has taken on a whole new meaning with the scarcity of clients and jobs. Spend a little time searching online for networking events, and you'll quickly see there is something for everyone.
Some groups are situation-focused, like Surani's WAHMs and Mompreneurs. She says she created the group so that women in a specific situation -- balancing working at home with caring for a family -- could support each other through best practices and cross-marketing.
Other events are industry-focused, such as Rashelle Roberts' Brew, which took place for the first time in Las Vegas in February. The workshop brought together artists, designers, photographers, videographers and other creative professionals for a guided idea exchange at Brett Wesley Gallery in the Arts District downtown.
As owner of InVision Coaching for the Creative Professional, Roberts offered the workshop for a fee, but she said she hopes it will take on a life of its own, fostering independent collaboration among those who attended.
One attendee, freelance artist and photographer Richard King, said getting together with other people in his field, but from different stages in their business development, was fruitful.
"I've been working a lot in the last two years to set up my art again, and it was good to start thinking like a businessman again," he said. "I needed to sit down and define clearly what I want to be doing. My vision line just hit me."
Whereas Roberts structured Brew with handouts and group work, Candy Caverley said she started Network LV, a free monthly business networking event, to be the exact opposite: casual and fun.
"My fiancé and I went to a few different groups, and they weren't for us," she said. "At the first one, we got a slap on the wrist because we were two minutes late. In another one, we got in trouble for talking."
Her response is a happy-hour gathering where people are encouraged to loosen their ties and get comfortable with potential colleagues. Caverley's activities -- business-card bingo, a raffle with donated prizes and free tickets -- are designed to help people mingle and laugh, rather than think too hard.
Still, there's a method. She said, "When you get to know people on that level, you learn more about them. It fosters comfort and trust. For that reason, we get a little more business done. We have solid contacts."
Caverley said she had 90 RSVPs for the March 1 gathering, and these include a loyal core group that has been attending since the event started two years ago. These devotees refer business to each other and sometimes barter services, she adds.
Ahead of the curve
According to those who have had success with it, the shift to relationship-oriented business tactics isn't a passing fad.
"The kind of human interaction that occurs in networking and customer ratings -- that seems to be the wave of the future for businesses everywhere," Martin said.
He added that it extends beyond peers and vendors to customers. In the age of online ratings, it's more important than ever to take care of and help customers -- not only so they don't trash you on Yelp, but also so they refer you to others.
"It's much bigger than the SNTA," Martin said. "It's a way of life now in business."
If that's true, then the companies that have learned these strategies in dire straits will head into the recovery with an advantage. Because of their creativity, they've already mastered the next big thing in business.