I joined Women Mean Biz Shepton Mallet group in late 2017 after visiting the group as a guest. I’d been thinking about networking for a while but breakfast meetings were never going to work with a young family and the school run and actually I was more than slightly terrified at the prospect of walking into a room full of strangers. Indeed most of my friends and family can confirm that I am likely to be late to any arranged social get together – and that’s down to the same fear… I’d rather someone else was there first and I don’t have to stand like a lemon with no-one to talk to!
However WMB felt different. I visited because an existing member Jane Godwin encouraged me to. She and I had been friends through our children for a couple of years and she knew I wanted to expand the marketing of my photography business. Monday lunchtime was perfect as the studio wasn’t open on a Monday – it was always intended to be a day off but I thought one Monday a month would work well – and what’s not to like about going out for lunch at a nice hotel?!
Now here’s where I need to be honest. I really didn’t make the most of my membership. I went to my monthly meeting in Shepton Mallet and I had a few 121s, normally on the day of the meeting (or having coffee at soft play while the kids played!). I didn’t fully read the emails that came from head office because I put them on one side to read later… out of sight, out of mind! I did my members slot and I came to the Networking Skills training at WMB head office with Philippa (mainly so I could get the business card holder and folder and stop having loads of bits of paper stuffed in my handbag!). Networking skills training taught me a lot – especially about the 1-minute round. I had been trying to cram too much information into it and apparently I came across as sounding very “corporate” – I changed my approach and actually wrote down my 1 minute and it really helped. So if you haven’t yet attended Networking skills then please do – it’s well worth half a day out of your business.
I joined the members only facebook group and whilst I enjoyed the Shepton meetings I didn’t venture to any other groups. I didn’t make it to the Creative & Marketing power group because the meetings were in Bristol and I wasn’t. By the middle of 2018 my photography business was winding down in its current format (it was part of a franchise and I was leaving the franchise after 11 years) and I was working 6 days a week in the studio to try and get things wrapped up before I closed it. My perception was that I was too busy to go to other meetings and as I hadn’t quite worked out what direction I was going to take once it shut I didn’t quite see the point – I thought I would feel embarrassed standing up to do a 1 minute about a business that either wasn’t going to exist or was going to change. I learned a lot about myself last year and I can recognise now that I generally felt like a bit of a failure – l had put 11 years graft into my photography business and I was burnt out. Years of weekend working, managing the business and family during the week and having to defend decisions and miss out on things with family and friends was all taking its toll. What I didn’t appreciate though was that there were plenty of other members at WMB who could have helped me. The network is most definitely NOT just about referrals – it can be about personal learning and growth, business development and even just making friends.
I took the month of August off last summer and spent it with my kids, at home and on holiday. It was gorgeous, I didn’t give work a second thought (normally on holiday I would be checking phone, email, CRM systems, sales numbers etc etc at least daily.) and I then had a few weeks in September when they all went back to school to work out a plan. I didn’t go to my WMB meetings in August and September because they fell in school holidays, so my first meeting for a few months was early October. It was lovely to go back – everyone was genuinely pleased to see me and find out how I was and what I had been up to. And having had a month of slumming around in jeans / shorts whilst pretending to tidy the house I really enjoyed putting a dress and “face” on to go out for lunch!
In October everything changed again! I picked up some photography work – a couple of portrait shoots with previous clients and a big project with a swim school in Bath to photograph all their swimmers during / after lessons and sell photographs for Christmas presents etc. Loved being back behind the camera but I knew I didn’t want to run a business full time again, certainly not yet. I took some time to work with a WMB member Sarah Hickling from Your Time Coaching to talk through options and potential career choices and this opportunity to brain dump with someone fairly removed from the rest of my life was fantastic and really helped.
In November 2018 I started working for WMB in head office with Philippa as the Membership and Operations Manager. When I joined the network 11 months earlier I certainly never expected to be working there but the opportunity wouldn’t have come around if I hadn’t been a member! I’ve learned an incredible amount about networking and WMB over the last 9 months – and it makes me realise again how much more I could have got from my membership. I do believe that being in a peripheral group such as Shepton Mallet (or Corsham, Bradford-on-Avon, Cheltenham, Chepstow etc) means that you need to make more effort to be involved but I would really recommend that anyone does – do get out and visit other groups (either as a sub or guest member) and don’t think that you have just joined one group. I can honestly say that I now understand about the network being a whole community and not just one group of individuals – but I didn’t before. At the Christmas meeting in December 2018 it struck me how well so many of the members from the Bristol groups knew each other (Where’s Wally?!) and how integrated those Bristol groups are. The peripheral groups were exactly that – looking in from the outside like a kid who hasn’t quite got in to the sweet shop yet.
No two days are the same at head office. As a regular member you have simply no idea what goes on and how many balls are being juggled on a daily basis. I can have the best made plans in the morning to structure my day but frequently I can leave the office 6 hours later having done nothing like anything on the list! Most days I speak to members and guests by phone or email, answering queries about membership (such as when the renewal is due, can they change bank account, can they change group, have a new badge etc), organising keynote speakers for meetings (normally several months in advance but sometimes circumstances change – illness, childcare, business crises etc – and we need to find a new speaker at short notice) or perhaps discussing changes or issues in their group.
Workshops need booking, venues need paying, group leaders need support on the day of their meeting, meetings need attending, newsletters need writing, guest bookings and payments need checking, members need shouting about on social media, marketing needs planning … the list goes on! It’s been eye-opening being a part of the networks, it’s inspiring hearing member’s journeys when they are setting up and running their new or existing businesses and it’s also frustrating when things don’t quite go to plan or when members or guests don’t see things quite the same way as you do!
As I leave WMB for the next step and the next challenge, I really do urge all of you to work together and across the network. Make the most of the opportunities that being part of a community across several towns and counties can give you. Visit other groups, take part in the power groups, have 121s with people in similar businesses and completely different businesses. Offer your own knowledge and experience and it will be paid back in spades. You never know “who knows who” – don’t make snap judgements over who might be useful or not because the chances are you’re probably wrong! Go to workshops and learn some new skills for running your business, read the newsletters and emails that come from head office, use the Business Surgery at your monthly meeting to ask questions about that thing that’s been bothering you recently. Chances are someone else has either experienced a similar issue or knows someone who has. Use the Facebook group – it can be so much more interactive and for new members it can be like a window on a new world.
Lastly for those of you who are long standing members, part of the leadership team or members of a large vibrant group please don’t forget about the newer, less experienced, slightly nervous or out of town members and groups…. Perhaps they need a helping hand (or phone call / text / email) to encourage them out of their comfort zone and into the big wide world of networking. Perhaps they’d like to hear how you started out and what you’ve learned along the way. Or maybe they’d just like the offer of a coffee in town. For the newbies among you, be brave… take the bull by the horns and jump in feet first – I wish I had!
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