Why some people don’t want help

When we are out networking we tend to offer our help where we think it’s needed. I don’t mean by trying to sell; most of us know better than that. However generally we try to connect people, to make suggestions, to offer an introduction if we see that person’s business might have a synergy with another. We will not be turned down. Even if the suggestion does not come to fruition, most open networkers will give it a go.

It is difficult to switch off our general helpful natures, and if we meet business people who are not experienced networkers, or in our leisure time, we will still offer help where we can. As networkers we tend to know more people, so we are in a position to do so; we ourselves may even be able to help.

The strange thing is that sometimes we will just be turned down flat. Some people will not want their territory invaded; many people are private, both about their business and their personal lives.

We do not need our enthusiasm to get in the way and stop us feeling their emotion. We need to learn to back off and let them deal with their affairs in their own way, and we must not take it personally. It may be their loss, but it takes all sorts. We must respect their wishes.

© Jon Stow 2010

Networking and knowing when to say “thank you”

My grandfather always said giving was a selfish act, because we took pleasure in making the gift or helping someone else. I am sure he was right. Giving does give me a nice warm feeling inside as it must for most people

We all know that to be successful networkers we should give, and give unconditionally, and in business networking we give in order to build trust. We benefit later on from referrals and recommendations, sometimes years later. In the meantime we take pleasure in the giving.

None of that is new. We know all that. So if someone asks for help, we spend time in helping and take quite a lot of trouble, and we get not even the most perfunctory thanks from the recipient, how do we feel? We gave unconditionally. We expected nothing, did we? Well, we would like to know that we had been of assistance, but if we receive no thanks it is harder for us to trust the person we helped. Perhaps that person just uses and takes from people. We hate to judge the person but we are left not knowing,

Saying “thank you” is so important.

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Why we need to take an outside view in business

I am in a reflective mood. I am coming to the end of an engagement helping a client; an engagement which should not be ending. This is not just because obviously an income stream will stop; I have other clients. It is that there is so much more I could do for them which they just cannot see, being such an introspective inward-looking business.

I started with this client when their firm was experiencing extreme pain due to loss of (mainly) staff but also internal disputes. My few months there have alleviated the pain and now they feel much better. However, they do not seem to realise that so far we have just dealt with the symptom and we need to cure the illness so that we do not have another bout of sickness in six or nine months time. Treatment would not be difficult if they allowed me to help. I could cut my time with them by 50 to 75%. It would not be a costly experience for the client and my work would pay for itself many times over.

I have the advantage of being an outsider able to look at the whole business rather than being an inside navel-gazer, not able to look very far, and certainly not able to look even at what competitors are doing. I can see a lot more; I have the perspective of distance and height to see the whole picture, and I wish I could persuade them as to what they need to do. I do not need to do it for them; they need a corporate exercise regime, which is why I would only need to see them occasionally in the role of a “personal trainer”; just a visit to keep them on track.

All this has made me think that I too need an outside perspective on my own business. Maybe I cannot see my wood for the trees. In the next month or so I will be having a check up from a outsider on all my marketing and probably on the whole way I approach my business.

What will you be doing that is different to help your business be better, and do you agree that asking a suitable outsider to look at your business may be what you need?

© Jon Stow 2010

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Why arrogance has no place in business

I have been reflecting recently about the danger of arrogance in our business lives. I think it can come to some people through complacency. They feel that they know what they are doing, they have been doing it a fair time, and they know best. An attitude like that may lead to bullying too.

An arrogant person may indeed know his or her subject very well, and be very good at teasing out the finer points in their analysis of problems they seek to solve, but an arrogant person is also someone who does not communicate properly with the people who most need their help. An arrogant person ultimately is someone facing the risk of failure, because without being able to talk to or persuade people, any solution proposed will not be heeded.

Some of you may be familiar with the TV series “House” starring Hugh Laurie as a brilliant doctor and diagnostician. The premise of this very good programme originating from Fox in the US is that Dr House hardly ever sees patients because he in not interested in them, only in the diagnosis of their illness. He is very self-centred and very rude to almost everyone, but he is protected by his team of doctors who deal with and talk to the patients as well as carrying out any necessary tests. Dr House is also a bully, though he always thinks that his bullying is for the victim’s own good. Of course this is entertainment, and one needs to see a few episodes to enjoy the in-jokes and characters, and like many beers the series is an acquired taste.

In fact the premise of the progamme is not so absurd. I understand many doctors do become very arrogant, though perhaps not usually quite to the degree of the Dr. House character.

I am sure most of us have known arrogant but clever people in our working lives, including some who were bullies too. Imagine if we small business owners and employees adopted this attitude with our clients and customers. We cannot rely on our team to protect us. Imagine we believed we knew everything there is to know, and our clients were wrong and did not know what was good for them. Suppose we did not listen to them. We might understand their problem and make a diagnosis, and we may know how to fix it and provide a solution, but if we just told them – barked it out – they would feel intimidated and shy away. We would lose business that we should have gained and our clients would not get their solution unless they found someone more amenable who was as capable as we of delivering it.

Arrogance can be the price of experience and of knowledge but a little humility can go a long way in engaging our clients both in the formal way and in helping to solve their problems.

© Jon Stow 2009

“House”

Hearing is not listening

One of the ways I like to relax after a day’s work or at weekends is to go for a walk. In common with many people, it helps me unwind and relax, and often I will have new ideas or know the solution to a problem I have been wrestling with. Sometimes I know the answer with such clarity that it seems obvious, and then I wonder why I had not thought of it before. Probably this is because once you know something it is just obvious to you.

When I am off on one of my walks, I do not think about work too much with my conscious mind. It is the subconscious which comes up with the ideas, but I do not worry if I do not get inspired. There is always another day and another walk.

What I do consciously when out is listen. It is fairly rural around where I live and I listen to the birds singing and calling, I listen to the trees and grass rustling, and to other background sounds such as a woodpecker hammering away. Of course I look also, and may see an interesting bird or a fox or a rabbit or a squirrel or two. The May blossom has been spectacular too, and well before the month of May and there is a new badger excavation only a hundred yards or so from home.

I always think it a shame that so many people out walking or jogging have their iPods or other music devices plugged in their ears. Not only are they missing the sounds of the country and surroundings, but somehow they do not seem to see either. Many almost walk or run into me with their concentration elsewhere, and they are missing (to my mind) the joy of their independent existence in a world full of life, of sound and of colour.

Sometimes it does not take too much adjustment to listen. If I have company on my walks (my best thinking is during solitary walks) I will say to a companion “Can you hear that bird calling or woodpecker drumming and isn’t that flower in the hedgerow pretty?” and then my friend (or my stepdaughter the other day) will notice, and then start listening and observing. That’s important, because the sounds are there all the time, but listening is the key to observing and learning, and I am happy to learn all the time.

I was at a networking meeting this morning, and though I have some reservations about the format, its USP is that it is very informal, though as with any networking group, one does need to be there every week. What I noticed today was that rather than everyone thinking about his or her one-minute sales message whilst others were giving theirs, there was comment and feedback. For once, attendees really were listening and learning from the others at the meeting, which is so often not the case. If we listen, we can help our fellow networkers find what they are looking for, and that is better than just saying when the opportunity arises “I know a bookkeeper or a builder or an insurance broker”. If you listen, you can learn and help others. If you just hear you are wasting your own and everyone else’s time.

© Jon Stow 2009

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Bankers, untimely schadenfreude, and how to avoid their fate

I felt a little sorry for the ex-banking chiefs being quizzed by the Treasury Select Committee yesterday. They are genuinely bemused by the state in which their former employers, the banks, find themselves. We are talking specifically about the two Scottish banks, RBS and HBOS though others took risks and have made considerable write-downs of assets.

The reason I feel a small amount of sympathy is that they are akin to drivers who have been careless in the maintenance of their vehicles. There have been annoying rattles, and maybe the car has not been serviced. If there is a major failure in an important component (and in this case the wheels came off) then one should not be surprised that there is a nasty crash. Just the same, the actual event is shocking to the drivers and these guys are not over the smash, which has been very traumatic.

While it is easy to be wise after the event and we as spectators might have indulged in a little schadenfreude had we not been so badly hurt as passengers in the car, it is a lesson to everyone to make sure that we know every part of our business, and what is working well and what isn’t. The bankers took their eye off the ball. Northern Rock was by no means the first bank to fail. We had the grisly spectacle in 1995 of an old traditional bank, Barings, being brought down by the reckless actions of one man, Nick Leeson, the famous rogue trader.

The recent banking debacle was more of a cultural accident in that they were doing what everyone else was doing in the sub-prime market in the US. At the same time no one apparently thought of the risk, or what would happen if the US economy had a downturn and the domino effect on the market. Those of us in small business knew months before the initial crash in 2007 that the UK economy was struggling too, and we commented on it.

Anyway, we should all look at what we are doing in our own businesses; what works and what doesn’t, and what we should change now because it is going to stop working very soon and need to be replaced. I have stopped using Yellow Pages and Thomson’s because directories do not work for me. They work for other people but not for my businesses. Don’t do things just because other people do them. I am constantly reviewing my marketing, and need to think about whether other people getting on their bikes in the light of the large job losses which actually give my business more competition.

What about you? Do you take a step back and look at your business? Are there areas of risk you should try to eliminate? Is your marketing for purpose in the current climate?

I am taking my own advice anyway. If you need another perspective on your business ask an outsider; even ask me!

Workplace tribalism

In the week that we learn from the CBI that 38% of small businesses have laid off staff in the last quarter of 2008. Workplace tribalism many of us will feel uncomfortable over the strikes at the oil terminals and elsewhere over the employment of foreign labour. At times when the economy is weak and there are job losses, workers of larger organisations tend to blame the foreigners for their problems, whether or not the local labour force is qualified to do it; indeed as we know in more recent and prosperous times foreigners have been doing low paid jobs that resident workers (not just British workers) have not been prepared to do because the pay was not good enough. At the Lincolnshire oil refinery where the recent wave of strikes started the workers brought in are from an Italian contractor. I suppose it is pointless to mention that these workers have freedom of movement within the EU and British citizens are entitled to work in Italy if they wish. There would be arguments over the effect on family life but no doubt these issues have already been addressed by the Italian families providing the contractors at the Lindsey plant.

I do not want to get into the issue of prejudice. That is a touchy subject and one on which I am hardly an expert, though I was once shouted at in racist terms (no, twice, come to think of it) and it is pretty unpleasant to be on the receiving end.

What the whole business of apparent xenophobia in the workplace does bring into focus is the tribalistic “we are all in it together attitude”. In a large business the workplace camaraderie is often a great asset in ensuring that all workers pull in the right direction. In the same way that the print industry skiving which existed up to the seventies was proliferated by its own culture, it is also true to say that such sticking together can make for better and greater productivity and less shirking on the basis that the lazy let everyone down. At the same time an unsatisfactory work culture can lead to a lowering of morale and lower productivity due to a loss of respect and loyalty for management. I have seem both ends of this spectrum when an employee.

Anyway, a workforce that sticks together is admirable, but because employees become used to a stable environment, when something goes wrong there is a need to apportion blame. I have written recently about those in charge taking responsibility. We in our own businesses know that we are largely responsible for our success and avoiding failure. However, sometimes accidents happen; at least events over which we have no control even if we think Governments or regulatory bodies ought to have had. I do not think we could quite have imagined in 2005 or 2006 (2007 perhaps) that a steel producer providing material for ships, cars and particularly construction would suddenly find itself short of orders. It is no good blaming the company or its orders. They had a niche in the economy producing materials that were needed and they were hostages to fortune. It is not their fault if they have to lay off workers any more than it is the car manufacturers fault if they have to close for months because no one is buying new cars. In as much as these companies and their workers can be, they are victims of an accident. It is human nature to blame those closest but if there are culprits they are further away.

The point is that as employees we are paid weekly or monthly. We know that the money will appear and while we might do our work diligently we only have responsibility to ourselves and our comrades. The fear over the potential or actual loss of a job is terrifying. How can we survive? You need someone to blame close at hand. I know, I have been there, but lashing out and soft targets is not the way.

Small business owners are making hard decisions over job cuts and have to face the music and their workers. Some businesses could not be viable with less than a certain number of workers if the work is hands-on. I saw an example on television this morning of a small bakery down to a core of five staff. For many there is just a minimum number of workers without whose output the business cannot pay the rent and make any money. It is even harder for small business owners to make tough decisions because they are close enough to their workers to be part of the “tribe”. However when out of a job you are out of the tribe which is a terrible shock, and an owner letting an employee go is at risk of being out of the tribe or family too depending how the other employees take the loss of their comrade.

Despite my comments about taking responsibility, I am not going to say that laid off workers should all start their own small businesses. That would be absurd, especially given the current economic climate. Some may and I wish them all the best. Doing something for yourself rebuilds self-esteem which is the biggest loss when you lose your job. Nor is this a “be positive” pep-talk though It does help to be happy with what we have. As a population we will not be as badly off ever as in the only two Third World countries I have visited where the level of poverty and especially poor sanitary conditions was shocking for me even though I thought I was prepared. No, we have to stick it out, help families who have no incomes through taxation of our own and future incomes as we can. This is not a sermon, so I will not say we should be thankful; just remember that we are better off than many, no matter how long the recovery takes.

Just look past the tribal culture and be tolerant. Almost the whole world is in this economic mire and we will not solve anything by using our valuable workplace tribal culture to bash foreigners. If we have to let people go, handle the matter as kindly as possible and if we do know of any niches with our friends, businesses, see if we can facilitate a move through our network.

© Jon Stow 2009

Owning our mistakes–not an earnest business blog

We all make mistakes. We try not to, but admitting to failure is a way of helping us to do better. Fortunately for most of us, the errors we make will be relatively minor in our work activities, but a big blooper can be a source of considerable worry. I remember getting something badly wrong when a junior manager back in the eighties. I was terribly upset, and it took me months to put it right, though I did without any damage in the end. It was coming up with the solution that took a lot of thinking. I learned from it, firstly to be more careful, and secondly to give myself more time with testing issues. With hindsight, I had too much work put on me because of the resignation of a colleague at the time and the long term sickness of another. There was a lesson there too in that one needs to know the pressures on staff, which my senior manager and bosses were unconcerned about. Those mitigating circumstances were not enough to let me off the hook in my view. The actual mistake was mine.

I can also think of mistakes I have made either in making career moves or not making them at one time or another. It is however no good thinking “if only I had done this” because if I had done something else at any point I would not be where I am, which is quite happy even if not a billionaire (yet). In business for myself, I have made mistakes, mainly in persisting with the wrong sort of advertising way after it should have been clear it wasn’t working.

Someone whom I knew and alas is no longer with us was a man full of bright ideas; indeed he was a very clever man. He was good at inventing new processes and was an excellent engineer. Something he was not very good at was business, exploiting his ideas or indeed being able to understand whether there was a market long term for the concepts he came up with. He would have been better working with and trusting someone who had a better business brain than he but because of his considerable ego he always knew best; he thought anyone who doubted his abilities to turn his ideas into money-makers was obviously wrong, and consequently his companies would go bust. Ultimately he was risking not only his reputation and means to carry on future projects, but also the security of his loyal family who ultimately had to pay a considerable price because he thought he was always right.

This brings me to the British Government. We have a major economic “downturn” as they call it, but it is clear that we have a serious recession perhaps even comparable with the crash of the early thirties. The Prime Minister blames events in America, and of course they have had a huge impact on all of us, and I am not going to bore you by going through that which you already know. Nevertheless, we (in UK) are much less able to ride the storm than our compatriots in other Northern European countries, largely due to the level of borrowing the Government already has, and the even higher level it is facing in an attempt to buy its way out of the slump with building projects etc. to create jobs. These splurges of our money are described as investments, but we all know that investments have to be in viable long term projects that will return a decent amount in the future. There really is no way of calming a storm once you are in it. You have to ride it out. The expenditure announced by the Government is enormous compared to the likely return even if these expensive jobs which are being purchased are viable long term. Of course the savings to income ratio in Britain is amongst the lowest in Europe, and of course not encouraged by Gordon Brown’s pensions grab, his first act when becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1997. The same move also hit small income investors in British business, who were denied the privilege of reclaiming the tax credits on dividends as had the pension funds. Therefore people have not rushed out to take advantage of the ill-judged and expensive cut in VAT. Few have any cash to spare until the storm blows out.

Coupled with all these mistakes is the failure of the regulatory bodies to do their job, partly because of the splitting of responsibilities. We had the Equitable Life failure over seven years ago, which should have woken up the FSA (whose faceless members later failed to spot the dangers of the US sub-prime market and the practices of the lenders). The FSA, the Bank of England and the Treasury needed to take swift action over the Northern Rock affair which was the first serious breakage, but dithered. The “independent” Bank of England’ was obsessed with the housing market (not translated into wondering where the mortgage money was coming from) at the expense of business, and it was apparent in early to mid-2007 that interest rates were actually far too high. I discussed this with colleagues at the time and found the other day an email on the subject.

The Government is complaining that somehow it is not its fault that the economy’s wheels came off along with those of some other nations, but they did not spot the wheels were loose and tell other nations about their loose wheels. Now we have crashed and we are more badly hurt than many. The consequences for the UK and (which I will talk about soon) the knock on effects for Third World nations who depend on us to a greater or lesser degree are frightening. Somehow the Government and its ministers are not taking responsibility for their blunders, and surely they cannot do so unless they acknowledge them like the rest of us. Their egos are their weakness, but that is why they are politicians. They are no different from my engineer with the bright ideas and no inkling as to how to harness them. They may understand that they are wrong but won’t own up.

Sky News has been trailing their new programmes fronted by Jeff Randall, former BBC business Editor latterly with the Telegraph. Jeff says in the clip “If I were Prime Minister I would resign”. So would I, but that would amount to taking responsibility, wouldn’t it?

© Jon Stow 2009

Referral networking and serendipity

Once upon a time, well in 1985, Dr. Ivan Misner, my fellow Ecademy BlackStar more or less invented referral networking, at least in the formalised way we see it today. Following my accreditation course to a well-known network of business advisers, or management consultants as they were more likely known twenty or thirty years ago, I was assigned a coach. I had weekly telephone meetings with him to assess my progress in getting work and to help me with my marketing. Remember, this was still in the Dark Ages of 2003.

One day, Coach said to me “You should think about joining BNI or BRE”.
“What are they? I asked.
“I don’t know” said Coach “but they are on the list of marketing tips I am supposed to mention”.

Well, even though it was the Dark Ages they had invented search engines and I would have used Yahoo in those days. I tracked down the local BNI franchise and after a false start try-out with a bunch (or a Chapter) which had totally lost direction I joined a pre-launch core group which was to become a full blown BNI chapter with whom I had breakfast every week (and attendance is essential unless you can send someone to stand in for you).

The big advantages of referral networking are that you learn to get on your feet and sell your business in (usually) one minute and, because it is expected of you, you learn to sell not just your own business but that of the other members all the time you are out seeing your clients. It is a huge confidence booster especially when you are feeling your way in business, and it is great to feel you have the support of other members.

I have to say, though, that BNI was not a great success for me in terms of promoting the business adviser – management consultancy type business, which is ironic given that Ivan was a management consultant when he came up with the idea of BNI. The members of our Chapter were all rather small businesses themselves and not my ideal customer. That was in itself fine, because the aim in BNI and clones of it is that the other members sell your services by passing your business card to their clients or customers, recommending you and promising that you will call. No, the problem for me was that the other members of the Chapter were B2C businesses whereas for me it would have been much better if they had been B2B offering office cleaning, industrial electrical contracting, office furniture fitters or something akin to that, meeting owners of larger businesses with a number of employees. I had similar issues with another referral networking group I joined subsequently.

Still, I was nearly three years in BNI, and stayed mainly because I enjoyed the atmosphere and liked most of the members. I was Membership Coordinator (VP) twice and in my second time ran the meeting for four months after the Chapter Director (President) upped sticks and left. I enjoyed that immensely, which is amazing for someone who was nervous of doing his sixty seconds, let alone a 10 minute presentation when he first started out. Towards the end of my tenure the Chapter’s printer cane up to me at the end of the formal part of the meeting and told me it had been the best run in his three years in BNI. I must have been doing something right! It still did not help me get any business and eventually I decided to leave because of the huge time and investment which was no longer paying off.

Why “no longer paying off”? Didn’t I say that I got very little business advisory work? Well, that’s true. However, this was where the serendipity factor came in. When I joined the core group there was already an accountant filling the relevant category which included the area of my particular expertise, which is direct taxation. He and I became good mates and as tax was not his forte I provided a sounding board for him. My friend was in the process of taking a step up from his small local firm (just him) to joining a firm of accountants in London. They had inherited a major tax investigation into the affairs of one of their clients and when my friend joined they had no one of sufficient experience to deal with HM Revenue & Customs (as they now are) in such matters. I was called it to work solely on this one client, for whom I obtained a very good settlement.

Anyway, I earned for myself over a period of nearly four years some tens of thousands of pounds from this work, which was not related directly to what I was marketing in BNI. The point is to get out there because you just never know.

While I was not a great success in marketing the business helping-hand work I had diversified into, I learned a great deal from BNI though the philosophy of “Givers Gain” which is basically the art of giving in order to get. It is a hard thing to get used to for some, but in fact one can get great pleasure from helping others; I always have, but in case you think I am building myself up here, I have to say that giving is fun. My Grandfather used to say that giving was selfish because one really did it to please oneself. Combine that with giving in order to receive and that is doubly selfish, but it is a great way to go about business. Knowing that one has referred many thousands of pounds of business is in itself very satisfying too.

Give BNI, BRX as BRE has become, or a similar organization a go, especially if you are B2C and dealing directly with the public. Remember you have to be at the meetings, not just because the rules say so, but because you need to gain trust and be seen as reliable and reachable in case there is any slight problem with a referred customer of client. Know that your BNI or other colleagues will work hard and do their best for the referred client or friend because otherwise they will let you down too. Give out as much business as you can and if you receive a fraction of that you will be happy and prosper. And there’s always serendipity. You just never know.

© Jon Stow 2009

Surviving the recession blues

These are strange times. There is constant news of job losses in the UK and of course in the US, and no doubt in may countries around the world. We hear of “rescue” packages launched by Governments, the most recent being that announced in Germany this morning. I wonder about all these stimulus measures taken by central government. One cannot create large numbers of jobs in sectors where products or services are not in demand, and throwing taxpayers’ money at something is in the end not in the interests of the greater population who have to pay for it.

Let us not get too depressed though, because the real answers will be found by business itself, and by those who may be condemned as short-term opportunists, but whose business acumen in spotting those opportunities will be what pulls our economy and the world’s economy round, Only this morning, Tesco has said it will create a further ten thousand jobs. That’s quite a lot even for a supermarket chain that is by a street the largest in the UK, and was at the last count I saw the second largest in Europe behind Carrefour.

There will be other large companies who will move quickly. Fast feet are useful to have in a changing and difficult market and where there is a possibility of filling in gaps left by failed businesses who were less adaptable. That is where the new jobs will come from, and where the root of the recovery will be.

In the meantime there are a lot of people who find themselves without a job, and many of those are finance professionals who worked for banks, in insurance, and in accountancy etc. I myself worked for various firms of accountants, small and large over the years. There is an irony that many firms of accountants, especially larger ones, call themselves “business advisers” and yet many of those who have been laid off from that sector will not have a clue what to do. It is a big leap from being employed with a monthly salary you count upon having to having no job and not knowing how to start making money again in a weak job market.

I have written elsewhere that when I found myself in the position the newly redundant in our sector are now in; seven years ago I did not want to be without a job and indeed thought I was a pretty good performer. It was all a complete surprise. It took me the best part of a year to reconcile myself to running my own business. Now of course I would not want to do anything else, but it required a complete change of mindset in order to start a business in the area which I knew most about. I had no choice in many ways as it was a question of survival at a time when prospective employers could enjoy window shopping for employees and wasting everyone’s time, whilst discounting those more mature candidates who might know more than them and show them up. You would think they could look beyond that to the valuable experience they could draw into the business, but that is human nature.

My concern for many financial professionals is that their particular skill will not adapt well to a small business environment. One cannot easily set up a bank on one’s own, and corporate finance or even corporate tax on their own are not areas for very small business. This type of work has to be part of a package with other services. I was lucky in that I could adapt much of what I already knew, though it has been a long march. Adaptability is key though, and the sooner our newly redundant can change their mindset the better. After all, being redundant is not to be taken personally. It is nearly always an accident as mine was, and it is important after initially licking one’s wounds to reestablish one’s self esteem. We always have skills someone else will need.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (I can always rely on him) said “We do not live an equal life, but one of contrasts and patchwork; now a little joy, then a sorrow, now a sin, then a generous or brave action.”

The brave action is what is needed and in future pieces I shall discuss the generous element required when talking about my networking experiences, starting with referral networking six years ago.

Jon Stow