Independent Designers Have Found A New Way To Grow Business Despite The Sluggish Economy

woman shopping fashion

NOW Showcase

This post originally appeared at American Express OpenForumWhen the current economy stinks, an alternative solution to growing your business might be to go rogue and create your own collaborative micro-economy. A socialist behaviour with a capitalist agenda could be the kind of formula that helps small businesses with big dreams survive and sustain growth going into 2012 and beyond.

Consider Eileen Moran’s story. Opportunities started coming her way when she began reaching out to community members in her industry and related communities to form a coalition.

“Running a business is expensive,” says Moran. “To me it just made sense to share the resources so many of us need, and come together individually as a group to achieve something bigger.”

Moran’s initial business was Origin23, an agency that represents green and sustainable designers. By 2008 she’d grown tired of witnessing solo businesses flounder alone in search of sales, marketing and a plethora of basic resources. What inspired and empowered her was what could happen when several small businesses united. Out of desire to do big things with her clients while working with limited funds, she co-created the Now Showcase, a community of progressive, independent, environmentally conscious, locally produced, fashion, accessory and lifestyle design professionals.

Thinking outside of the economy

The formula was simple: A relaxed and comfortable atmosphere where small businesses, from the designers and agents to the buyers and distributors, could congregate and flourish. The idea was merely a reaction to the rising costs of major trade shows that she and many of her designers wanted to showcase in but couldn’t necessarily justify when factoring costs of travel and accommodations on top of entry and booth fees.

“Right before the U.S. market took a dive in October 2008, most of the designers in our community were dealing with the effects of a struggling retail economy,” says Moran. “We decided to band together to create an affordable, community-based trade show offering a discounted rate to designers that helped manage some aspect of the show organisation.”

After four seasons in partnership they doubled their designer and organiser participation. Last year they took their show to Paris. This upcoming season they plan to attend a major trade show in Amsterdam and partner with one in New York.

Constructing a shared economy

Today, Now boasts some impressively productive partnerships between buyers, press and designers. These relationships  have helped the member small businesses under her wing access resources on a much larger scale.

“The Now Showcase has been the launch pad for new ideas, new business alliances and a new breed of design,” says Moran. “We are an LLC and our business is part of the recession’s booming ‘sharing economy,’ except it’s not person-to-person sharing like Zipcar or Airbnb, but rather business-to-business.”

Once Moran and her partners found a core group of designers in their industry they wanted to work with, they started a Google group where they shared resources for printers, suppliers and factories for production.

A “mesh” economy

Shared economic models like the Now Showcase are ideal for the do-er set. Businesses short on funds, but rich with ambition, work ethic and time—along with a supportive community—are ideal for such cooperative coalitions.

“Lisa Gansky refers to this kind of business as a ‘mesh’ business in her book, The Mesh: Why the Future of Business Is Sharing. The Now Showcase is a mesh business that simply takes advantage of an existing business model and leverages sharing as a commodity.”

Designers partnered with Now gain access to buyers and press through a shared space during the particular market week. Moran describes it as being similar to a showroom experience, only without the sales reps and additional fees incurred by a showroom. Being part of Moran’s coalition means designers are linked up with a community of other designers who share a similar vision. That means lots of like-minded creatives designing in collaborations and mindful of preserving the environment and local economies.

Independent businesses relying on trade shows or fairs as their main outlet to access customers can benefit from this collective model. Industries involving food and beverage, art galleries, houseware, lifestyle, software and beauty all have high-profile annual events. The idea is to team up and self-elect a few fellow companies. Those companies, advises Moran, should delegate tasks, share booth space or find a way to access their customers in a satellite space.

“Outside of the trade show arena you see this idea of sharing real estate/land working well for independent farmers and independent food companies sharing community kitchens to grow and produce their goods so we applied the same concept to sales,” says Moran.

A global economy

The Now Showcase has been instrumental in Moran being able to take her clients and her business around the world to access an international consumer base.

“We curated a group of designers to showcase abroad,” says Moran. “On our first trip to Paris we provided weekly conference calls so designers could share information about selling abroad and we were able to share an apartment, steamer rental, mannequin rentals, etc. This made their total cost to do the show our way 1/4 of what they would pay if they went independently. Plus it was more fun to go as a coalition. It’s given us the opportunity to show our lines affordably and offer the same to other designers.”

A do-it-with-others economy

Moran started the coalition with friends who all respected one another’s businesses, ideals and visions. They started with a  team of eight designers who helped with management and evolved into a team lead by the four original partners, who were able to then partner with bigger shows as they gained more experience and connections each season.

Moran suggests the following for DIWO.

1. When looking for designers to collaborate with, find independent business owners that you respect and that possess different skill sets. In Moran’s case, each partner is in charge of art direction, designer relations, marketing and creative collaborations/strategic alliances.

2. Identify and appraise the resources that the group as a whole has, and consider partially bartering for what you offer before investing. For example, one designer was particularly talented at procuring sponsors, so Moran offered a discount in exchange for value of the sponsorships and relationships they helped form.

3. Set up a network for sharing valuable information for all the companies involved so that everyone grows.  Moran’s team set up a resource list for organic suppliers so that when one goes out of business everyone is alerted.

4. Find other companies to collaborate with to cross promote both in your industry and in other industries. For the Now Showcase, the advantages include food sponsorship and collaborating as a collective of independent designers for larger trade shows.

Looking to the future, the Now Showcase plans to continue partnering with bigger, more-established trade shows and bringing their team of green designers to each show. For shows without a dedicated green space or platform, the Now Showcase pioneers the introduction to it.

“We started our trade show thinking we were going to create a boutique style showcase as an alternative for our band of outsider friends in the eco-community to showing at the Goliath trade shows during Market Week in New York,” says Moran. “Now we’re partnering with huge trade shows, travelling to new cities and countries and maintaining our integrity in this growth.”

Now see the new social network that’s definitely worth a try for small businesses >