Industry-Specific Online Forums: A Small Business Perspective

Paul Downs, owner of a small business that makes custom conference tables, explains what he finds useful about an online forum for the woodworking industry:

You may find this surprising, but woodworkers are like doctors — there are many sub-specialties, each with its specific tool set and procedures. Woodweb hosts forums on each of these, along with a business and management forum, and one for everything that doesn’t easily fit a category.

It’s free. The site is supported by advertising. If I were selling equipment or offering a job, there would be a nominal charge, but it’s cheaper than classified ads in the local paper.

Free access makes sense for casual activity, like posting a question or discussing ideas. Charging for services like equipment sales or job listings, that a member would expect to pay for elsewhere, makes sense especially when the costs are lower than elsewhere, and the return is likely better because of the community’s highly relevant audience.

Downs also comments on the active role site administrators play in maintaining the quality of discourse, policing spam, and paying attention to regulars:

The site is their livelihood, and they are very attentive to regular posters. They recognize that good participants make the site interesting and improve their business.

He addresses – and dispels – the idea that business owners wouldn’t want to talk to competitors for fear of losing ideas:

Those are the people I want to hear from most. I know that a lot of small-business owners are paranoid about someone stealing their great ideas, but that’s ridiculous. Really, there is enough business in this enormous country to go around. Once you get beyond your fear, competitors are the best people to talk to.

He writes that this perspective is positively influenced by the competitor whose business is located in the same building:

When I moved in, we made an agreement not to poach each other’s employees, as that could be very harmful to both of us. With that settled, it’s been a terrific resource to have a competitor to check with regarding pay rates, the landlord, materials suppliers, etc., etc. The Internet forum puts me in touch with shops all over the country, so this benefit is multiplied many times over. I can get candid opinions on tools, suppliers, ways to deal with customers, and how to handle employees, all from people who live the same life I do.

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