Joining a trade association, like rushing a college fraternity, can be intimidating. So, many entrepreneurs skip the ordeal. Or, better yet, they start their own groups. Why bother? For the emotional and marketing support that's tough to get from an association with divergent interests.

About two years ago Dan Burnstein, CEO of Negotiator Pro Co., in Brookline, Mass., founded the Management Software Association (TMSA) to support makers of a new category of decision-making programs the press has dubbed "M.B.A.-ware."

At the venerable Software Publishers Association, Burnstein's own product, Negotiator Pro, had been lost in the crowd, and it had eluded the grasp of software retailers and distributors. "It wasn't a screen saver or a database," he explains. Like the products of the other 16 TMSA members, his software is a consultant in a box that teaches management skills.

The marketing benefits. With the birth of TMSA, "all of a sudden we're plugging each other," says Burnstein. "We have 17 people doing PR." Recently, TMSA persuaded a leading software catalog, Tiger Direct, to give its members a price break on a full page devoted to M.B.A.-ware. Association members also feature one another's software in their own catalogs and swap mailing lists. As a nonprofit, the group exhibits for free, or at a discount, at major trade shows.

Like other associations, TMSA acts as a clearinghouse. The group has assisted journalists with a number of high-visibility stories for the trade and general press, and Burnstein, who serves as president, is editing The Digital MBA, a book that will include a sampler CD-ROM of TMSA software.

Whom to invite. "My competitor was one of the first I asked to join," Burnstein recalls. After that, "the challenge was to define our products. There is some awful stuff out there," he says. The founding members agreed that each TMSA applicant's product has to have been reviewed in a national publication. Member companies range in size from solo ventures to those with more than 70 employees.

Burnstein once felt isolated and alone. Now he can show potential customers he's part of a growing trend. He knew the group had arrived when the Software Publishers Association asked a TMSA representative to speak at its annual conference.

The American Society of Association Executives provides free information about starting an association. Call 202-626-2742 to request it.