Vigilance, Wooden Toys and Evil Realtors

By Beacon Staff

Myers Reece’s story last week about the Northwest Montana Association of Realtors (NMAR) hiring a Governmental Affairs Director set off a colorful discussion about the evils of Realtors in the story’s online comments area.

Unfortunately, that colorful discussion missed the most important point brought up by Myers’ story: that small business owners must be vigilant about what’s going on in their industry.

Last week, I wrote about the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA), which – unless changed – will put an entire industry of mom-and-pop toy and clothing makers out of business as of February 10, 2009.

The House version of this bill was first signed by Rep. Rehberg back in December 2007, shortly after it was rushed to the floor in response to last Christmas’ spate of toy recalls.

It’s difficult to say when the handmade child products industry realized they were in trouble. The Handmade Toy Alliance appears to have been formed in October or November 2008 – after the bill became law (their website was registered Nov 23, 2008), but that’s just one of the affected industries. Digging around on Google, there’s barely any activity on this issue before November.

Overall, it appears that most handmade children’s product businesses were not watching Washington.

Normally this sort of thing is done by an industry’s national, regional or state trade association, assuming they are being vigilant (noting that vigilant is not the same as blindly partisan). However, many cottage industries haven’t organized themselves (or have but not well enough), leaving this work to individual business owners.

No matter what your politics, you cannot afford to assume that Washington and Helena are on your industry’s side. You cannot assume that they are aware, much less able to fully consider and understand how the things they write into bills can impact (or destroy) your business.

I suspect you have enough trouble keeping up with all the news and developments in your industry. Try doing it in hundreds of industries. That’s the difficult task they’re up against.

Here’s an example that hits close to home: In April 2007, a Montana House representative from Bozeman proposed to create a Do-not-mail list (HB718).

Let’s debate that for a moment from a small business perspective. Imagine that you start a new business tomorrow. One of the best ways to get leads for your new business is with a laser-targeted offer to the perfectly selected list of prospects.

Except …. you can no longer mail to people you don’t know. You can’t call them. You can’t fax them. I guess you just have to go door to door, or spend big bucks to advertise to everyone instead of just mailing those who are most likely to be interested.

Laws like Do-not-mail make big business the clear winner. They already have market share, a customer list and cash flow to eliminate industry newcomers who have no relationship, no mailing list (and laws preventing use of a purchased list), no way to call or fax, etc.

Watching over policy making bodies for potential impacts they’re making on your business is smart business, whether you do it yourself or join a trade organization that does it for you.

The actions of the NMAR were prudent ( and no, they aren’t my client ). You’d be wise to find some way to follow their lead before a piece of incomplete legislation destroys or radically alters your business. Start with one of the trade associations that watch your industry. Research them carefully, as there are effective ones and there are those that excel only at cashing checks.

The recent controversy over the Whitefish doughnut serves as an example that you must pay attention. When governments get cranky with citizens over a request for public documents, they should expect the scrutiny to heighten – not evaporate. As long as industry watchdogs remain ethical and legal; officials have to expect that their actions will be monitored. Thomas Jefferson would be one of the first to suggest the need to be vigilant and I sure won’t argue with him.

It is not the job of government to create new ways to crush or suppress small business, but it is your job to be vigilant about theirs.

PS: Merry Christmas!

Want to learn more about Mark or ask him to write about a business, operations or marketing problem? See Mark’s site or contact him at mriffey@flatheadbeacon.com.

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