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Published 30 August 2012 04:19, Updated 30 August 2012 04:23
Priceless connections: Peer support for entrepreneurs can pay big dividends iStock
After seven consecutive years of achieving 60 per cent revenue growth “fairly effortlessly”, Michelle Gamble’s Marketing Angels enterprise stumbled. The decision to merge with another business in 2008 to cope with future growth ended badly.
“It led to a lot of issues and the integration was tough,” Gamble says. “There was no cultural fit, we had strategic issues, cash flow was tight and my co-founder fell out with one of the other directors and left.” Gamble was then one shareholder among five and was the only one responsible for Marketing Angels.
“I was in a situation where I was solely responsible but didn’t have operational control and the financial crisis hit and hit hard,” she says. “We had shared cash flow, I had three children under five and it was a pretty crazy time.”
In 2010, Gamble negotiated out of the merger and bought back Marketing Angels. “By that stage though the business had lost money and was no longer profitable,” she says. “I had to dig deep and create a plan to rebuild.”
During this time she decided to join the Sydney chapter of the global network for business owners, Entrepreneurs Organisation, for additional support. EO was founded in 1987 by a group of young entrepreneurs and now has 8000 members from 40 countries and its premise is to provide support for business owners through monthly forum groups and education.
In Sydney, EO has 100 members who run companies that exceed $1.3 million in annual revenue and Gamble says her forum group comprising eight of those members kept her in business.
“Without the support of my forum group I think I probably would have given up and walked away,” Gamble says. “Being able to share the challenges and issues I was facing with people who had experienced similar things and could empathise was fantastic. It really felt like someone had my back.”
Aside from the monthly meetings, simple gestures such as receiving an encouraging text message from a fellow member helped Gamble persevere. “It can be very lonely running a business and unless you have an amazing mentor or advisory board you don’t get those little boosts and reminders that really support you.”
Business coach and founder of Real Estate Results Network, Michael Sheargold, says finding the right support is critical for business owners but isn’t always easy. “Knowing who to turn to for advice or perspective as an entrepreneur can be really tough,” Sheargold says. “The options are limited.” Even the most supportive spouses reach a point where they don’t want to discuss the business ad nauseum.
“There usually comes a point when a husband or wife says to their partner, ‘I’ve had enough of this conversation. When you’re home please just be at home’,” Sheargold says. “It shuts down that avenue.” If their friends don’t run businesses they won’t relate to the challenges and Sheargold says it’s not appropriate to open up to employees.
“They can’t talk to their team because part of a leader’s role is to inspire confidence,” Sheargold says. “Employees don’t want to hear the leader doesn’t have all the answers, so who can they be totally open and honest with?”
Joining an independent network with other business owners is one solution many entrepreneurs choose. Aside from the emotional support such groups can provide, members benefit from events, personal development courses, education programs and having access to a large network of people.
To ensure continual benefit for all members in Sheargold’s Real Estate Results Network, every agency must contribute a minimum of four innovations each year. “By each agency supplying four ideas that literally delivers back to all the other members an incredibly impressive shopping list of ideas that might give them a competitive edge,” he says. “I know they won’t implement all of them but a good network relies on business owners having a solid list of ideas to ... choose from.”
Currently 1000 independent real estate agents belong to the network but Sheargold expects membership to double in the next year. “We are anticipating substantial growth in member numbers just because of the frequency of conversations we’re having with people saying, ‘It’s lonely out here’,” he says. “People realise that the market isn’t going to deliver a great year, it’s up to the individual to have the best strategies, structures and processes in place to ensure that.”
The Sydney president of the global entrepreneur network TiE, Dilip Rao, says mentoring, education and networking are the three key ways the network delivers value to members. TiE was started in Silicon Valley in 1992 by three entrepreneurs and, like EO, is a non-profit organisation designed to support entrepreneurs.
Rao joined in 2000 when he was setting up his first company, an online payment facility, Paymate.
“My background was in computing and management consulting and I didn’t know much about setting up a business from scratch,” he says. “The kind of things you do when setting up a new venture are usually quite strange and new for everyone doing it the first time.”
Rao attended some events and joined after discovering TiE was the perfect place to learn from others and maintain his commitment. “It was a great support culture for new ideas,” Rao says.
The global spread of the TiE network proved useful when Rao expanded Paymate into the US in 2009.
“TiE gave me access to an instant network in a foreign market,” he says. “It doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily get money or backing straight away but it gets you going and helps you become part of the community, which is incredibly important for any start-up.”
Because TiE is founded on the cycle of giving, Rao says there is generosity among members.
“In Silicon Valley they call it ‘sending the elevator back down’ and it’s the expectation that once you’ve succeeded you will then help others,” he says.
“Members give their time and money without expectation of anything back, to feed aspiring entrepreneurs and those still on the journey.”
The founder of Zenith Finance and president of the Sydney EO chapter Richard Korda agrees that being part of a global community of engaged and generous business owners is priceless. “The sky is the limit as far as opportunities go to meet people in business around the world through the network,” he says. But these opportunities are just “the cream on the top. It’s the learning, friendship and support that are truly worthwhile.”