Small-business owners in Brandon and South Shore are building their own online social networks sharing ideas, discounts and a simple message: buy local.
Grow Brandon already counts 51 small businesses as members and they are growing fast, said Darrin Tyson, who founded the group last month.
"So far, I have just been going door-to-door but the response has been amazing," said Tyson, a chiropractor with an office on Lumsden Road.
Businesses that sign up — membership is free and there are no dues — are listed on the group's website ( growbrandon.com). They are then asked to keep other members in mind when making purchases or referrals.
The message resonated with Michael Tennaro, owner of the Book Corner in La Viva Plaza at Lumsden Road and S Kings Avenue.
"A lot of people are conscious that small businesses are important to a local community but they don't know about them," Tennaro said. "I have been here 20 years and there's not a week that goes by when someone doesn't come in and say 'I never knew you were here.'
"Hopefully as a group we can now introduce ourselves to a larger group of people in the community."
Jimmy Picanza, a small-business consultant, hears those types of concerns regularly. He founded the South & East Hillsborough County Business Owner's Network last month to address them.
Picanza plans meet-and-greet sessions — members post news of deals, sales and upcoming events on their Facebook group page. Like Grow Brandon, there are no dues or fees and like its Brandon counterpart, membership has surged: In just over three weeks, the group has nearly 200 members.
"It gives small businesses the opportunity to explain their business to other business owners in the hope of getting business or referrals," said Picanza, co-owner of Pivotal Business Services, a small-business consulting company based in Brandon. "We are looking for avenues to get the word out and hopefully find some synergy between companies."
A commitment to buying goods and services from local businesses also keeps money in Brandon, enriching the local economy and creating more jobs at home, Tyson thinks.
"I love Best Buy but that money leaves our community. Money spent at a local business stays here," said Tyson, a Brandon resident.
"Make it locally and spend it locally," sums up Darcy Hermida's reason for joining Grow Brandon.
"It's all about community support and helping each other grow," said Hermida, co-owner of Bootleggers, a beer and wine home-brewing supply store on Oakfield Drive.
A member of the Greater Brandon Chamber of Commerce for two years, Hermida dropped her chamber membership this year citing finances — it was costing $375 a year — and time.
"You really have to be present in the chamber to take advantage of everything they have to offer and we just couldn't be there."
Tyson doesn't see his group as competing with the chamber though. "We are doing something entirely different. They go after every business in town. This is a niche group where locally owned businesses are making a commitment to buy from each other."
Membership in a local chamber of commerce and a smaller social networking group go hand in hand, Picanza thinks.
"I see us as more of an add-on to chamber membership," said Picanza, a FishHawk Ranch resident. "But eventually I believe you will see chambers changing and moving away from events where people have to drive and physically show up."
Tammy C. Bracewell, president and CEO of the Greater Brandon Chamber of Commerce, said she welcomes the new small-business groups because she favors any program that helps businesses prosper.
Bracewell also doesn't see the fledgling networking groups as competitors because they do not offer the variety of services a chamber typically does.
"We offer . . . advocacy and representation at local, state and federal levels, business training and professional development, business referrals, affordable and effective advertising products and visitor and tourist information." Bracewell said. "Chamber membership is an investment."
Overall, chambers appear to maintain a significant role in the community. A recent membership drive by the Riverview Chamber of Commerce netted 167 new members, a 44 percent increase.
In the short term, Tyson is polishing Grow Brandon's website — it still includes template pages — and planning a membership meeting once he reaches 100 members.
"A lot of the business owners who have joined know more about social media than I do and have all types of ideas about making our group bigger and better. I want to get to 400 members. That's my target number."
Kevin Brady can be reached at email@example.com.