“Surround yourself with smart people, remove obstacles, and get out of the way,” says Christopher Short. The new executive director of the New Paltz Regional Chamber of Commerce is describing his own hands-off type of leadership style, but his concept applies just as well to local entrepreneurs seeking guidance from the Chamber on how to build their businesses. “I’m a big believer in lifting up the team, and empowering those around you. If you surround yourself with smart people, let them do what they do well.”
On the job since September, Short brings to the position an extensive background in marketing and strategic planning, with more than 20 years of experience working with small- to mid-sized businesses, international corporations and nonprofits on how to promote their businesses through communication and leadership. And his experience in traditional video and streaming production offer new possibilities for local businesses to get their message out effectively: anyone who thinks a membership in the local Chamber of Commerce is only about mixers and meetings has a surprise in store.
Short’s ideas to help small business owners thrive go beyond the simple networking and advertising strategies that worked in the past, with an understanding that in the 21st century, business owners have to meet new expectations to compete in a “noisy” world.
Succeeding in business these days is about being genuine and accessible, he says, offering curated stories that evoke emotion and drive engagement. “What you really need to do is tell the story and tell the human side behind your business. People buy from people. When it comes to branding nowadays, that ‘behind the scenes’ is really important. The motivation behind the business, why a business started, and why it means so much to the business owner. Giving a personality to your business is really where branding is going in the future.”
In the two months he’s been in New Paltz, Short has already had many one-on-one conversations with local business owners to determine what their concerns are. “A lot of the conversations I’m having revolve around them wanting to know how to get the word out about what they’re doing. When it comes to branding, they struggle with the idea that they have to create ‘content.’ I say to them, ‘You don’t need to create content. Just document your life — pictures of you working in the kitchen, you going to a trade show — and share what you want to share about who you are.’ This comes back to the idea that people want to buy from and work with people.”
One of his goals as executive director, says Short, is to redefine the value of a Chamber of Commerce membership. “So that instead of just a meet-and-greet, a handshake and a business card, we’re making meaningful connections to businesses, strategic partnerships within our community, as well as providing value on the back end for the business to grow and thrive. What gaps can I fill for them as a Chamber so that I’m a resource, an extended piece of their talent pool? And having that mission tied to education and digital marketing.”
One of the realities of being an entrepreneur or a “solo-preneur” these days is that the business owner is “chief cook and bottle-washer,” he notes. “They’re doing 18-hour days and they don’t have time for early-morning or after-hours mixers. So one of the main enhancements I’m working on for the Chamber is to create a small business academy. All of our lectures, our educational modules, will be recorded or documented to create a library for all of our members to go in to on demand, when they have the time. We’re an on-demand society, so why not reinvent the Chamber to reflect that and bring value to our membership by following that trend.”
A podcast is also in the works, he adds. “I’m a big fan of podcasts myself. If you’re commuting or running your business, you can have the podcast running in the background and you might be able to learn some marketing tips or how to set up a website. We’ll have interviews with members, using it as another modality to broadcast the message not only for the Chamber, but for the local people we work with directly. Instead of the 30-second soundbite you might get on the radio or social [media], we’ll have a half-hour, or hour conversation with a business owner about what their mission is, where do they see their business moving forward. And share the ‘why’ — I think a lot of people want to know the ‘why’ of a business.”
The podcasts will also fuel one of the traditional roles of a Chamber of Commerce, which is being a trusted source of referrals. “Personal connections still matter. I like to take the “URL” to “IRL,” [In Real Life], and use that as a way to actually make social [media] social. Not just posting something out in the ether, hoping that it’s going to resonate, but having a conversation.”
Short also has plans to make the New Paltz Chamber’s website more user-friendly, organizing the information in the way that people use it. “I want to revamp our website to align with the motivations of the people coming up for the weekend, to make it more experiential as opposed to just a list of members. We’re mapping this out already; if someone is coming up for an extreme weekend, ‘here’s the bike tour, the hiking trails, the kayaking.’ If you’re a foodie, here’s a tour of all the restaurants. So it aligns to the way people live, and is not just a list of services.”
A lifelong resident of the Hudson Valley, much of Short’s professional life has played out in Dutchess County, where he was born and raised. Currently a new resident of Highland, Short is looking forward to “embedding himself” in the New Paltz region on this side of the river, a place he already knows well from years of enjoying recreational activities in the area that include hiking, biking and fishing.
He has two children; a son, 13, and daughter, 15. Both are as active in sports as he is. “We’re a sports family,” Short says. “If I’m not working, I’m on a court somewhere watching my kids play sports.” His daughter is on the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) travel team for basketball and his son is involved in wrestling and track. “One of the things I’m most proud of is watching my kids take some leadership cues that I’ve tried to embody with my positions over the years, and seeing them apply that even at their young age. Watching them be leaders in their own right is something that means a lot to me. And volunteerism is big in our family, showing how you can pay it forward.”
Prior to heading the New Paltz Chamber, Short sat on the board for the Southern Dutchess Chamber of Commerce that later merged with the Poughkeepsie Chamber. For the last ten years, he’s taught a ten-month course through The Chamber Foundation’s “Leadership Dutchess” program that educates business owners and others about community involvement and leadership skills such as conflict resolution and crisis management. He also won the “40 Under 40 Shaker Award” in 2008 for demonstrating a strong commitment to the Hudson Valley as a next-generation leader.
Because the New Paltz Chamber is smaller than other regional Chambers, Short says he will be able to have more one-on-one face time with all the members. “And for me, it’s that personal connection that really stands out, that drew me here. I want to continue that legacy of really having those touchpoints with the local community. It embodies what the New Paltz area is all about.”
One of the challenges New Paltz business owners face, says Short, is the transience in the community, with college students who come and go and weekenders who come up for recreation and then leave. Balancing that reality with the year-round population creates a unique situation for business owners in reaching each of those groups.
Since taking the Chamber helm in September, the new director has made a point of making himself available to local business owners. “And they don’t have to come to me, I’ll come to them,” he says. Invites come in regularly to tour local businesses and he’s making a practice of doing that. In addition, Short has been meeting with the college, the mayor and the fire and police chiefs to really understand his new community and the Chamber’s role within it.
This Sunday, November 10, the Chamber will sponsor its second annual New Paltz Challenge: River to Ridge Fall 5K & 10K. Thursday, November 14 the Chamber will host its 2019 Business Recognition Awards Dinner at Novella’s. For more information about events or Chamber membership, visit the Chamber’s Visitor Center, 257 Main Street in New Paltz, call (845) 255-0243 or visit http://www.newpaltzchamber.org/.