Was it small business or the internet that changed my life?

Seafront bikes

Seafront bikes

It is no secret that I started my own business after the world of employment left me, and I could not get another job. There was no grand plan. I just got “on my bike” to get some money coming in.

Back then, 2002, the main way of getting business (I thought) was advertising. I have written before about the money spent on directories such as Yellow Pages and Thomson Local. They were a waste of time and that was because they really said nothing about my business apart from listing it under a category, but also because customers were actually talking to each other, exchanging information on-line, and yes, getting out of the door and networking.

I did not have much idea about social media in those days, but they were early days. I wonder how much I would have become involved if it had not been for business needs. Would I ever have “done” Twitter and Facebook? I suppose it was the other way round as Facebook was first, but I “do” Twitter a lot more.

It is not as though I ever was exactly afraid of computers. I am a techy sort of guy. I had a Sinclair ZX81, a BBC computer and an IBM AT PC running DOS. I programmed in Sinclair BASIC and in MS BASIC, not very well, but I had the enthusiasm. I frequented bulletin boards. It did not make me social.

In 2003 I had realised that face-to-face networking might be a good idea. I had a business coach who thought it was, though he had not tried it. I went to the local Ecademy group, and three days later met Thomas Power at a seminar in London. He and Ecademy taught me so much about networking, on-line and off-line that it is hard to imagine a business or personal life without it.

I have become a very social person, and social media and on-line marketing are how I get most of my business. Of course the biggest benefit is in making so many new friends; real friends who have helped me as I hope I might now and again have helped them.

I know a lot of employee techies who do not really “get” social media. They may mess around on Facebook but I wonder if they have really made new friends as I have, or whether they just interact with the old ones. Some techies view all social media with disdain and are paranoid about personal security and identity theft. They know how everything works, but they cannot see the purpose or the potential, only the low-risk threat.

For myself and my business there is a great world out there, I have made a lot of real friends I could not have found in any other way, and I am grateful. I think I am a totally different person from the one I would have been, stuck in a job in town. I feel I am happier and more at ease with myself as an independent player, and have been set free by the tools I first found through Ecademy. Being in business brought me to social and business networking. Would the second have happened without the first? I don’t know.

Has your life been changed in the same way?

Closed and open networks in the 21st Century

Under orders

Do you like being told what to do? As a small business owner, I don’t, and I don’t suppose you do either.

To be honest, I never really have liked being told what to do. When I was an employee I had to be at the start, but as I became more experienced and senior, generally most of my bosses allowed me to get on with it. A hands-off approach to management is usually the right way to go, and as I had been treated, so I treated others. I always thought that the best way to get employees to do their best for you was to be nice to them so that they liked you and didn’t want to let you down. Actually I am not sure that was mostly a conscious process; after all if you treat people well they should like you and aim to please.

Out of jail

So, when I gained my freedom, one advantage of having my own business was that no one told me what to do. Of course I have always sought advice. I would be stupid not to, but I have never been under an obligation to anyone other than my clients, for whom I do my best.

In order to gain more business, or indeed to get any at the start I joined several networks. One was a well known breakfast networking organization, but I also joined two business groups. Both operated on the principle that accredited members won work and that which they couldn’t or were not directly qualified to do themselves, they farmed out to other better qualified members, taking a commission for the work won. It was not the done thing to sub-contract to non-members.

The Dark Ages

I suppose that was OK in back in the mists of time a decade ago and when the internet was still a clumsy child and not the sophisticated fast-growing brash youngster it now is. It was OK when my business was also a child and the networks and I were products of a pre-internet age.

These days I want to work with the best people I can when I am managing a project. I have gathered a large network and would want to bring in whomever I wish who is most suited. I don’t expect a commission for subcontracting. Either I would hope for reciprocal referrals or I can sell on the sub-contracted work at a profit. I am not demanding that people give up to me some of what they consider their due reward.

Freedom

I know many more people than I did. I have met them through Ecademy, LinkedIn , Twitter and other on-line networks. I have met them off-line face to face so that I know that I like them. People move on from other networks, but they don’t necessarily move on from mine, unless I decide I couldn’t work with them. My network is in my head even if their contact details are not. I work with whom I like.

The trouble is the old closed networks still like control of their members. They like to tell them what to do. They like to tell them with whom they can work and with whom they can’t. Incredible isn’t it?

The Real World

I value my old networks very much, by which I mean the members with whom I have worked. The networks are the people in them, not the founders or owners. The founders are facilitators now, not controllers. If they don’t let their networks grow up and their members work as they wish the networks will not survive in formal form. Of course any network must have acceptable ethics, but not restrictive rules which might even constitute a restraint of trade.

Freedom and flexibility are what all businesses need now, not just small ones. As long as we are ethical in our approach and stick to what we are good at, please don’t tell us what to do, or with whom we are allowed to work. That is so Last Century, isn’t it?.

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Referral networking and Dunbar’s number

Six degrees of separation.
Image via Wikipedia

I have been thinking more about the networking butterflies and why I believe there is a need to concentrate on just a couple or so referral groups. We know that it is important to see our network contacts, who are of course people, on a regular basis. It is only because we see them often enough that we can be comfortable with them and trust them with our reputation when we refer them.

I think we can only have so many people in our trusted social networking community and beyond that we may have contacts we could suggest and but probably not have the certainty to recommend. Our close referral group is probably restricted to Dunbar’s number. Robin Dunbar, who came up with this number is a British Anthropologist and Wikipedia explains “Dunbar’s number is a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person”. It is best you read the Wiki article, but many of you will have come across this theory before. The number is 148, rounded up to 150 and I can buy into that.

I don’t think we need to get confused with having large numbers of contacts on-line. Thomas Power, chairman of Ecademy, believes we should have as many as we can. That does of course give rise to the “you never know” factor based on the theory that we all have only six degrees of separation from anyone else on the planet. I don’t really buy that one, but we can get lucky, and it allows the random possibility which recently found me a client in Australia via Twitter, from where I am certainly separated by a considerable distance. Thomas has an exceptional memory for people, has met more than nearly all of us, and the random process gives rise to great connections. However, my more modest but large number of network connections would not allow me to recommend without checking the provenance of any offer and ability of any person or company to deliver.

So, back to off-line referral networking, and into my special area which is breakfast networking. I am not comfortable in trusting and recommending huge numbers of people because I am still rooted in the tribe or village size of about 150. Furthermore, in any village there are going to be a few villagers we are not so keen on and don’t like to be with. Of course, some people leave our network village, and some join, but if I go to too many networking communities I feel I will get confused as to who to refer to whom.

What do you think?

© Jon Stow 2010

Related post: Networking, hunting and butterflies

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Social networking and a testimonial

I had been going to write another piece about the person who insulted a guest and embarrassed his potential project colleagues, but it occurred to me that I could not do better than refer to my friend Penny Power’s excellent recent article Why Your Social Networking may not be working which shows how we need to move away from a closed and selfish attitude in a social networking environment and to be open and giving. It is a change which many coming out of a corporate environment are unable to make without adopting a completely different mindset. Some never do.

I was lucky enough to first meet Penny five or six years ago and whilst I am far from perfect I got a head start in better understanding the fundamentals of networking, coming on top of my initial BNI training of course. Get to know Penny. You will be pleased you have!

Read the article and enjoy.