Networking can be the most effective way of making valuable business contacts and sharing ideas with other founders. It can also help you meet new people and advance your career. There are plenty of groups around, but finding one that meets your needs isn’t always easy, and for some entrepreneurs the solution has been to start a group of their own.
In 2014 digital marketing consultant Debbie Clarke was new to business, had attended a few networking events, but found them stuffy and full of people in suits trying desperately to sell.
“I wanted to create something that I’d want to go to,” she says. “Somewhere comfortable and based on building genuine relationships, rather than leaving after an hour with a handful of business cards.”
With a clear vision in mind, she teamed up with two other local business owners, Jeanne Booth and Beth Marriott, and launched the Blue Stockings Society, a networking group for women. “Our goal was to enable people to speak openly about running a business and ultimately create lasting connections,” says Clarke.
Set up costs were minimal – and had to be as they had no funding. One of the founders ran a local café and had a space they could use for holding events. Charging £25, they provided good food and wine and invited speakers for each event. The first event, which had invited women they knew, was a sell out. With the launch of a Facebook group, word spread and membership grew quickly. Today the network has over 1,000 members in the Facebook group and around 30 women attending the monthly brunch meetings.
To other budding network founders, Clarke says: “If you’re living in an area where there’s no network that you feel comfortable in, you won’t be the only one thinking that. Find a venue, send out invites and grow from there. But make sure you charge, it takes more organising than think and you could get frustrated doing it all for free.”
Leapers, a networking group that provides career support, was founded by independent strategy and innovation partner Matthew Knight. This was in the summer of 2017 after he had resigned from his job without another role to go to.
“I’d never resigned from a job before,” he says. “I’d previously been self-employed, so it was the first time I had to write a resignation letter, work out a notice period, and properly job hunt.”
Knight had long been fascinated by the changing nature of the workplace and decided to journal his own experience and encourage others to share theirs. He started writing on LinkedIn, and received a huge response. “There was a groundswell of people feeling the same way; that careers and work are things you can actively design to work for you, rather than passively waiting for the next job,” he says.
Knight decided to create a place for conversation around that topic aimed at people in a similar place or mindset wanting to make an proactive decision about how they work. He created a Slack channel, openly invited anyone on that journey to join in, and Leapers was born.
“There were zero set-up costs, all it took was a little bit of time to create the platform where we can chat, and some curating, nurturing and love,” he says “There are some costs to running the network, but right now, mostly it’s just time.”
Leapers, which Knight describes as part support group and part product business, now has close to 500 members, and growing. The first product created is the Manual of Me, a tool that helps people explain how they do, not what they do. Predominantly an online network, Leapers will hold its first event in London later this year.
Knight’s advice to others planning to start a network is to be clear on what you hope to achieve with it. He says: “Don’t start something because you want to influence a group of people or own a concept, but see if you can try and solve a genuine problem that a group of people have, and bring those people together to solve it.
For food marketing expert Vhari Russell networking was part of the job, but she had become increasingly disillusioned with attending events that offered curled up sandwiches, terrible coffee and featured too many life coaches and accountants. Four years ago, along with fellow food marketer Cat New, she launched her own, Grub Club Cambridge, a B2B food networking group offers food and drink, a very relaxed networking environment.
“The setup costs were very low and essentially constituted the cost of a website, as we used Eventbrite as the ticket sales platform,” she says. “The events are funded by ticket sales and sponsors, with tickets priced around £55 per event, and you only buy tickets for the events you wish to attend.”
The events are aimed at food and drink professionals, including producers, retailers and restaurateurs, and the group is sponsored by a packaging company that creates branded ‘goodie’ bags for attendees containing information and products from others attending the event.
Since hosting its first event four years ago the group has gone from strength to strength, picking up numerous Networking Group of the Year awards, averaging 40 attendees per event and attracting 40% new visitors at each event.
The key to success, says Russell is keeping it simple and focusing on quality rather than quantity and sharing your passion. “We love working in the food and drink industry and still derive a great buzz from connecting with like-minded people and making things happen.”