As noted on its Web site, the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), with 600,000 members, is the largest advocacy group representing the concerns of small business owners in Washington, D.C. and in all fifty state capitols. According to Fortune magazine's "Washington's Power 25" survey, the NFIB is the most influential business organization and the third most powerful lobby group in the United States (behind the NRA and AARP).
Founded in 1943, the NFIB seeks to influence legislation on both state and federal levels while acting as a business resource for its members. During its recent bi-annual summit held in Washington, D.C., we spoke with NFIB executives about the organization and its take on technology and small business. We also met and talked with members about ways in which technology impacts their business.
Setting the Agenda
As a bi-partisan, member-mandated organization, the members decide what issues the NFIB takes on. Susan Ridge, vice-president of communications at the NFIB explains: "The membership votes on the issues three times a year. We follow a variety of issues and send the ballots with typically four or five issues in per ballot. We layout both sides of each issue, they vote, and the majority decision sets our public policy and tells us how to lobby the legislature."
To keep individuals or groups of members from wielding too much influence, the organization maintains a sliding scale for dues, with the top capping at $2,400 a year. The sliding rate also recognizes that businesses face good and bad times, allowing members the flexibility to maintain their standing even when times get tough. Each NFIB member holds one vote.
The top ten issues members have instructed the NFIB to take on include (in order of importance):
- Cost of Health Insurance
- Cost and Availability of Liability Insurance
- Worker's Compensation Costs
- Cost of Natural Gas, Propane, Gasoline, Diesel, fuel Oil
- Federal Taxes on business Income
- Property Taxes (Real, Personal or Inventory)
- Cash Flow
- State Taxes on Business
- Unreasonable Government Regulations
- Electricity Costs (Rates)
Technology, Small Business and the NFIB
Though clearly not a top-ten issue that requires immediate legislative pressure, the NFIB acknowledges that technology is a crucial and inescapable part of small business. "Even the most basic-sounding business an auto repair shop, for example is tech driven," says Dan Danner, NFIB vice-president of public policy. "Technology is not an option. It's what you need if you want to be in business today. Still, most small businesses are behind the technology curve. Over and above the NFIB's legislative purpose, education is an important role, and we do whatever we can to help our membership learn about, and gain access to, technology."
Danner notes that the NFIB is currently addressing a number of issues including tax investment initiatives, research and development tax credits and tax incentives that impact the ability of small business to invest in technology.
Broadband expansion to rural communities is another issue that Danner says the NFIB is watching closely. "High-speed Internet access is a business necessity, not an option," he says, "and the bulk of our membership is rural-based, not urban-based. Although there's not a lot of legislation on this issue yet, we oppose taxing Internet access and we're committed to making sure broadband service is accessible to small businesses everywhere."
The NIFB hasn't taken a position on the more controversial issue of Internet sales tax primarily because the organization is based on majority-rule. "We have significant numbers of members on both sides of the issue," says Danner. "It's a complex situation."
Who Is the NFIB?
The 600,000 members represent a range of industries, including high-tech manufacturing, retail, agriculture, professional services and construction, to mention just a few. The majority of the membership (55 percent) employs five employees or less; and72 percent of the membership employ fewer than 10 employees.
Of course, those are just numbers. While at the Washington summit, we spoke to several members and found men and women who are both passionate about their business and enthusiastic about the NFIB. All of them acknowledged that technology is critical to their business although most consider it a frustrating necessity. Here's what they had to say:
Joe Byrd, a former chief of the Western Cherokee Nation, currently runs a business building convenience stores in Oklahoma. Beyond his own business, Mr. Bird's concern extends to business opportunities for other Native Americans. "In order for Native Americans to make gains in education and business, we need to focus on today," he says. "We can honor the traditions of our past, but our future is in the present. The NFIB has listened to us like no one else and received us with open arms and let me tell you, that's not typical."
Byrd started out owning a convenience store and found it necessary to invest in technology. "I had no efficient way to monitor the inventory. I had to make that investment. Learning about technology is another way in which Native Americans can make the transition to the main stream, and the NFIB promotes accessibility for us to get the technology attention we need."
Christian Cavey of Maryland works in the insurance industry and has been an NIFB member for 24 years. "With NFIB, guys with five or 10 employees have someone working for us on the issues we set forth. It doesn't matter if you're a florist or a dry-wall guy; you have a voice in the organization."
At the mention of how technology impacts his business, Cavey laughs, "I need it, couldn't work without it, but I'm not the kind of guy who can deal with it all. I'd rather hire someone else to take care of it."
Alzada Knickerbocher, an independent bookseller and the president of her regional trade association, the Northern California Booksellers Association, is frustrated in her search for decent integrated software that can handle point-of-sales, inventory management and financials. "The technology is out of date and service is bad," she says. The less we have to do with the technology that backs us up, the better. Technology is not what we want to focus on. We want to do what we're good at being out on the floor selling books."
Lauren Simonds is the managing editor at SmallBusinessComputing.com
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