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FIND OUT WHAT CHAMBER OFFERS BEFORE JOINING

Q -- I'm interested in starting a service-related business. Should I join the local chamber of commerce? Also, how do I find out if anyone already is using the name I've chosen for my company and where do I go to register that name?

-- D.D., Amherst
A -- Membership in a chamber of commerce can bring significant benefits to many entrepreneurs. But chambers aren't for everyone.

And before you spend more than $100 to join the Amherst Chamber of Commerce, small business experts say you should compare what the group offers its members against what you are expecting to get out of the organization.

Chamber membership has meant more business for accountant Samuel M. Bronsky. The entrepreneur joined the Amherst chamber about a year ago, and he says its meetings and happy hours have brought him in contact with potential clients.

"If you're looking to grow, you need to meet people," he said. "In my field, it is crucial to meet other business people."

Bronsky, whose office is located at 2495 Kensington Ave., initially joined the chamber to take advantage of its health insurance plan. But he says the contacts he has made at various events and the inclusion of his company in the group's membership directory also have been beneficial. Bronsky recently was elected treasurer of the chamber.

"We aren't elitist," Amherst chamber president Colleen C. DiPirro said. "Everybody is welcome to join our group, big companies and small businesses alike."

Ms. DiPirro says prospective members can find out more about the chamber by attending "Business Afterhours," a cocktail reception and trade show. The next "Business Afterhours" is slated for 5:30 to 7 p.m. June 1 at Bassett Manor. New people can attend as guests of the chamber. To sign up, call Ellen Kocian, the chamber's membership director, at 632-6905

There are 17 chambers in Erie and Niagara counties. Some are large groups with professional staffs, such as the Buffalo Partnership. Others are grassroots, volunteer organizations that sponsor community festivals.

Regardless of their size, chambers are more service oriented today, Ms. DiPirro says. Each group tries to provide benefits that exceed the value of their respective membership dues.

Small business experts say you should look at who belongs to the chamber before you join. The Buffalo Partnership may be right for you, they say, if your company wants to do business with the area's top corporations or you're interested in exporting. However, if your clientele is located mainly in one suburb, the chamber in that town will better meet your needs, the experts say.

"A lot of business goes on in the chamber, but you need to be the type of person who can take advantage of the opportunities," said Susan McCartney, director of the Small Business Development Center at Buffalo State College.

In other words, you have to have an outgoing personality.

Companies that rely on direct mail campaigns or mail order for their sales probably won't get much out of chamber membership, Ms. McCartney added.

"If the chamber format is one you feel comfortable with, go ahead and join. Chamber members tend to do business with other members," she said.

Finding a name

Picking a distinctive moniker for your company is more difficult than it seems.

While holding an employee naming contest or establishing a committee might generate a few good ideas, there are computer software programs that can produce numerous name alternatives.

The Salinon Corp. of Dallas sells the $197 "Namer" program, which generates a list of potential names from a few key words. The company also will do all the work for you -- but the price tag is $4,700.

Once you've developed a list of names, consult an attorney who specializes in trademarks. The Trademark Register, available at local libraries, lists more than 600,000 names that are protected and can't be used.

In New York State, if your corporate name differs from your own, you must register it with the county clerk. A Certificate of Conducting Business Under an Assumed Name, known as a DBA (Doing Business As) form, can be purchased at most stationery stores.

Contact the Small Business Development Centers located at Buffalo State College, Jamestown Community College and Niagara County Community College for further information about starting a company and free expert counseling. Also, the Service Corps of Retired Executives will match you with a veteran executive from your industry, who can then serve as a mentor.

The Buffalo News periodically answers readers' questions about running a small business. You can write to "Small Business Q&A," c/o the financial news department, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240.

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