1-On-1: Eric Sharpe On Running A Business Association

Farhad Chikhliwala 02 March 2015 0 comments

The 1-On-1 Interview Series is a special feature on the Wild Apricot Blog in which we interview standout members of our Small Membership Advisory Community.

For our eighth 1-On-1 session, we spoke with Eric Sharpe from the Savannah Downtown Business Association in Savannah, Georgia. Eric is a local entrepreneur and is an active member of  the association’s board and marketing committee.

Wild Apricot: Eric, could you tell us a little more about your organization?

Eric Sharpe: The Savannah Downtown Business Association is an advocate for businesses within the Savannah area. We do not exclude anyone in the surrounding area, we’re really here to provide information, support and cultivate businesses within the Savannah region. That’s our purpose. We have about 300 to 400 active members during the year and we have grown tremendously over the last couple of years, thanks to using your software.

We have found over the years that you can’t just have a business organization that meets once a month and then everyone goes back to doing what they do. We have attempted to create an atmosphere where people talk and learn how to better conduct business from each other, while helping new businesses that are just starting out in Savannah.

So that’s really just a snippet of what we try to do in terms of cultivating, we try to nurture businesses from any size - small to large.

How did you get involved in the first place?

I’ve been a member of the business chamber for the last two years, I’ve been on the board for just over a year, maybe a year and a half. I’ve known about it for many, many years thanks to friends who have been a part of it. However, as a small business owner I wasn’t sure if the cost justified the means. And going to these monthly meetings, there’s a cost for that, you have to pay for lunches and so on and so forth. But, you know, ultimately just the relationships that I’ve built with people and the information I’ve gathered has been worth it.

Events: “It’s all about providing great content and value”


You mentioned the cost of the monthly meetings and lunches. Could you talk more about those events?

Sure thing. We have monthly luncheon meetings where we always bring in a keynote speaker. We try to arrange them based on the time of the year and kind of what’s going on, something that’s topical in the market. For example, we were bringing a man who has invested a lot of money in Savannah recently. We thought that he would be a great person to bring in so that he could speak from his own voice about how he has conducted business here in Savannah. He just recently became a part of the business community here over the last year and it was important to hear what he had to say.

What does having a good guest speaker like that do to event attendance?

It definitely brings in a lot of guests. Whenever you run a business organization like a downtown business association, you’re going to find a lot of guests coming in based on the speaker topics. And what you need to do is share that there’s a value behind the organization and it’s not just a one-time, “oh we brought in this great speaker and the food is great, that’s it”, you know. You’re going to go back to your desk and then you’ll wait until another year until we have another good speaker. No, it’s all about providing great content and value for someone showing up to the events.

How do you organize an event like that? Could you walk us through a typical event?

Our events start very early, they start before 12 o’clock. We usually allow for about 30-45 minutes of networking and then we just kind of start a rolling lunch line. Then our president Ruel Joyner will get up to speak. He just says a couple of words, you know – some of the positives and negatives of what’s been going on in the industry and around Savannah. And then after everyone has sat down and started to nosh on their food then we bring in the keynote speaker.

“Member spotlight” to bring in new members


Apart from having great speakers and good food, we noticed you have something called “member spotlight”. Could you elaborate?

Yes, we figured out we had an abundance of space in the large meeting room that we gather in and so we allow for tables to be put out. I think we have up to 10 tables where any organization that’s a part of the Downtown Business Association is allowed to set up a display every month. It’s first come, first served. We typically like to give preference to people who have been with us for a longer period of time, but we always love new businesses coming in and signing up and showing what they have to offer because that’s an important spotlight. It’s just another free offering that we provide.

Has that been successful in bringing in new members?

Yeah, absolutely. I can say personally I brought in three new members just based on the fact that they knew the value was great, but the ability to be exposed to a room filled with 150-200 members and movers and shakers in the community, that was huge. They signed up right away, it was no-brainer for them in terms of return on investment.

“They don’t have time to fool around”


Lets talk about leadership. How big is the board and how would you rate their efficiency?

Our current board is probably a good 16 to 18 people. We have an executive committee that meets an hour before our board meetings and they discuss certain things in private based on what needs to be executed. They really decide more of the nitty gritty stuff and then will bring things to the board and then we all vote on it. So it’s nice have them helping out with that.

Our meetings are one hour or less. We really end up executing things efficiently and we run through at least 10 different items every time we meet. When you’re meeting with business people in the middle of the day, things just have to get done. They don’t have time to fool around.

Committees are often underutilized. Could you elaborate how yours function?

That's the way we break things up. We’ll have a marketing committee, which I’m a part of. We’ll have a committee that will meet based on getting new members in. We’ll have another committee based on events making sure that there’s a programs director, and that there are people to help out with that – making sure that everything’s executed. Committees are a great way to go if you have a large enough board. Even if you have two people on board for a committee, it creates an accountability which to me is very effective.

The idea of having a membership committee is very intriguing. Could you speak to that a little bit more?

Absolutely. We decided, at least since I’ve been on the board, to invigorate a committee that would be responsible for getting new members as well as member retention. We decided that if anyone was to leave the Downtown Business Association, we would do sort of an exit interview and figure out why they were leaving. We’d love to just know why. It’s going to help us figure out whether or not what we’re doing is the way business needs to be run.

In terms of gaining new members, it’s great to have one or two people within your board whom you can direct new or prospective members towards. I love walking the streets of Savannah and finding “For Sale” signs that get taken down and a month or two later when a new business is in there. I’ll just walk in and say “hi” and introduce myself and talk about the Downtown Business Association. But then I have someone who I can really direct that person to if they are genuinely interested. And then that person can proceed to set up a meeting, grab coffee and then just talk a little bit more about what we do. Because I might not have all of the answers, but I know that they do.

"Wild Apricot has been great"


What is Wild Apricot’s role in all this? In what ways has the software helped you?

Wild Apricot has been great in terms of the financial aspect, it has streamlined everything. We use QuickBooks and just the ability to connect those two things together allows us to do recurring memberships, so we don’t have to worry about members not paying. And if they don’t, then we know exactly who it is – who has yet to [renew] their membership.

We can also do event registration, so we know how many people are coming to the event. Sometimes our events sell out, (I think about half of them did last year) so it’s great to have those numbers ahead of time so we can send out email blasts with a registration link. Then we send out another email blast saying “hey the event’s halfway filled – you only have five, seven days left to sign up, click on this link to guarantee your seat otherwise that’s it, you’re going to miss this great speaker.”

The woman who is running that is Sherry and she does this as her only job. Sherry is fantastic. In her own words, she is not tech savvy at all, but she really enjoys using Wild Apricot to make these changes. She said it’s perfect for her.

What’s next for the Savannah Downtown Business Association?

I think ultimately next year’s going to be a transitional year for us. I believe our president is on his way out so it’s all about maintaining the same quality that we’ve been used to. It’s so difficult to maintain that year in and year out. Every time a cycle happens you lose information, you gain a new direction and it’s all about taking the ship and keeping it going towards the final destination, which is making sure the businesses see us as an advocate.

Thank you Eric. You've done a great job of speaking about how a business association runs.

Well, thank you very much, I appreciate it guys and thanks so much for providing a great piece of software that really allows us to grow.

Full interview recording

This post offered just some of the highlights of our one-hour interview with Eric Sharpe. If you’d like to listen to the full audio recording, you can listen in through our SoundCloud channel here:


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Farhad Chikhliwala [Professor Apricot] Farhad Chikhliwala [Professor Apricot]

Posted by Farhad Chikhliwala [Professor Apricot]

Published Monday, 02 March 2015 at 8:30 AM

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