Networking may be perceived by some as a frightening though necessary evil required to grow a business. Couple that fear with the unknown variables behind transitioning from corporate America to working for oneself, and the collective anxiety could drive a newbie entrepreneur into the fetal position.
Where can a business owner turn to discuss the steps involved to launch a new business or the challenges to come once that business is fully operating? Where can entrepreneurs talk openly about the insecurity and isolation working from home sometimes creates?
Traditional networking groups may provide a platform for people to promote their business and exchange business cards, but rarely do they open the floor to frank conversations about such topics.
Liz Bollinger of Tampa discovered this void as she began setting up her new writing, editing and proofreading business KIS Corp
in 2006. After she met up with friend and graphic designer Summer Taylor who had launched her own company, Good Dog/Bad Dog Creative Design
, a year earlier, the creative pair brainstormed.
Bollinger says a New York Times article spotlighting a professional group known as Ladies Who Launch
provided initial inspiration, though she and Taylor knew they wanted a much less formal atmosphere.
"So many girls we knew had started their businesses and were working independently. It's hard when you are used to a corporate environment, talking to people all day and bouncing ideas off of them, to being on your own," Bollinger says. "You want that kind of camaraderie again, so that's what we were looking to do."
In July 2006, the pair notified friends and business associates of their new monthly dinner meeting, and participation steadily grew.
"We've never done any advertising," Taylor says. "People would just ask if they could invite someone next time, and it grew by word of mouth."
An Idea Takes Flight
Bollinger thought up the name biz-e-chicks
, clever titling, which spells out the group's target audience of female business professionals and entrepreneurs and captures the hectic, fast-paced nature of business. Taylor selected a cheerful, inviting illustration to match the casual, friendly atmosphere the pair set out to create at monthly meetings which Bollinger calls "part support group, part cheerleading squad."
Meetings alternate monthly between lunch and dinner outings and are currently held at The Grape
at Tampa's International Plaza, where attendees will find a loose format with no formal agenda, though co-founders do usually bring a topic for general conversation, such as tax planning, goal-setting and social media.
Biz-e-chicks offers two membership levels: Seasoned Chick, billed quarterly or annually with meeting registration fees included; and Chickadee, billed at a higher per-meeting monthly registration fee. (Walk-in guests also can attend but pay an additional charge on top of standard Chickadee registration.)
Nicole Hisler of Matched Marketing
began attending biz-e-chicks events in 2009 and officially joined last year. She turned to the group for support when she began setting up her marketing business.
"My other networking organizations give me business connections and leads, but for me, biz-e-chicks is about meeting like-minded women business owners that are open and share candidly to help the group as a whole," she says. "I've learned that my challenges are not unique to me."
For some members, the positive energy and encouragement of the group has provided that extra boost of confidence to pursue other professional opportunities.
"I don't enjoy walking into an event where I don't know anyone, but Summer and Liz made me feel instantly welcomed," says Wendy Cassidy, a local business professional and biz-e-chicks member since summer 2009. "I don’t get quite as nervous as I used to when meeting new people and am much more comfortable stepping outside of my comfort zone."
Taylor says that the group maintains its easy-going environment by not enacting lengthy rules and restrictions, such as limitations on number of members in an industry category. She points out that it is not uncommon for three or four graphic designers to be attending the same meeting, yet there is no pressure to compete for business or leads: just a valuable forum to share, listen, and learn from each other.
"I think 'support group' is a good way to describe us," Taylor says. "We want to support your business, your decisions and you as a person, because we know starting a business can be a scary step to take. I don’t think there are a lot of groups like that out there."
Feeding a Need
In five years, Bollinger and Taylor have watched biz-e-chicks evolve, and like any organization, not without growing pains. Biz-e-chicks' newsletter distribution has 500 subscribers and the group's Facebook profile has attracted nearly 150 followers, yet the co-founders are pleased the group has been able to maintain its small, informal meetings which draw on average anywhere from 10 to 15 women at a time. The duo has tested various other membership programs and perks, but Taylor insists she and her colleague are focused on maintaining active and engaged members.
"We're going for quality of meetings over quantity of people attending them," she says. "I know that if I need to solve a problem, I can go to this group and know that someone here can either solve my problem or knows someone who can."
Bollinger says she anticipates the group might eventually offer smaller breakout groups, such as members who are new moms trying to balance working from home with caring for a new baby or creative professionals who want to brainstorm. Regardless of the context of the meeting, Bollinger insists the co-founders will ensure the group continues to grow organically and maintains its intimate, supportive feel.
"When you start a business, you don't have time to go to all of the groups that approach you, so you want the ones that you do attend to be worthwhile and somewhere that you enjoy the people who are there," Bollinger says. "It feels good to know that people want to be here."
Chris Kuhn is a freelance writer who lives and works in the 'burbs of Tampa with her husband and her assistant, a 13-year-old dachshund-Chihuahua. She has been a member of biz-e-chicks since Spring 2009. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.