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Peer Power: An Entrepreneur's Guide to the Groups

Valerie Freeman, Founder and CEO, Imprimis Group, Inc.

In the mid 1980s, shortly after founding my placement agency, Imprimis Group, Inc., I joined the local Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce to drum up business. I went to the meetings and trade fairs, met people, followed up, and sure enough, business began coming my way.

Local Chambers, I was learning, are all about supporting local businesses, fostering relationships, and encouraging companies to do business with each other.

Back then, though, women business owners weren’t getting much respect. They lacked credibility and thus weren’t able to get financing. It was a struggle, and I, for one, didn’t want that.

So I joined another type of peer group, this one for women only, namely the then-fledgling National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO). Through NAWBO, I met a woman whom I subsequently hired to help me get exposure in the media.

I didn’t know anything about public relations, but she did. What’s more, she took me seriously. I landed on the cover of the now-defunct Entrepreneurial Woman magazine, and I was quoted in publications across the country, among them heavyweights such as the women’s magazine, Cosmopolitan.

Peer Power

It was the NAWBO affiliation, in other words, that led to the contact that helped put my business on the map. And it has been peer groups in general that have enabled me to build Imprimis into a $20 million company, with 100 employees, and 800 to 1,700 workers—whom we call “associates”—placed with employers at any given time.

In short, I’m a peer-group fan, and I’d recommend that all entrepreneurs take advantage of what these organizations have to offer. The trick is to understand that—just like the Chamber and NAWBO—the organizations differ in significant ways. Entrepreneurs need to research the groups and join those that can best enable them to reach the goals they’ve set for their companies.

In all of the peer organizations, you’ll find like-minded entrepreneurs who want to become supporters and even friends. You’ll secure the help you need to build your business. Some, such as the Chambers and NAWBO, are open to all, whereas others, such as Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), limit their membership to founders of companies with a certain revenue level.

Still others serve subsets of the entrepreneurial community, such as women or minorities. Among the most selective are those that solicit members by invitation. Once a member, however, you’ll find opportunities to participate in subgroups, in which a handful of entrepreneurs meet regularly, drawing from their own experiences to help each other solve issues specific to their businesses.

Effective Elites

As a peer-group advocate, I’m currently a member of about a dozen groups that range across the broad spectrum of types, as I have been for the past two decades.

Once past the start-up phase, I’ve found the support and relationships necessary to take my company to the next level in the groups that are selective. Through the Executive Women’s Roundtable, Inc., for example, I met a young woman a few years ago who was leaving her corporate job to start a software consultancy.

She was strapped for cash, so I let her use space in my office for a year without paying rent. When she went on the Roundtable board, she, in turn, made an introduction for me that enabled Imprimis to secure one of its largest clients. Whereas I had been a mentor to her, we’re peers now, actively engaged in doing business with each other.

Another feature of the selective groups involves sophisticated programming that sharpens business thinking. A few years ago, on a trip to Japan sponsored by The Committee of 200, whose all-female membership is limited to senior executives and entrepreneurs whose companies have attained a certain revenue level, I learned that the Japanese value quality, control, and improvement.

I was having quality issues at Imprimis at the time—we weren’t training workers fast enough to effectively meet the needs of our growing roster of clients. So I took the observation to heart and hired a consultant who specified strategies for eliminating steps in our training program, enabling us to cut the time to develop workers.

Intimate Circles

In the subgroups, advice becomes company-specific, and peers become contacts you can engage even outside of the group structure. I’m currently a member of two subgroups, the “Of Counsel” section of the Roundtable, and “Mastermind,” a group of eight women I myself put together a few years ago. In addition, I’ve been a member of a YPO forum; in fact, I was the only female in a group of eight in that subgroup.

Recently, I turned to a peer from “Of Counsel” to help me tackle an issue with a long-term worker who had lost interest in the job. The peer holds a senior-level human resources position in a corporation. Her advice was for me to speak with the worker to ascertain if the situation could be turned around, and if not, to terminate quickly. Her view is that employers tend to wait too long—to the detriment of their companies.

Beyond Business

Peer groups aren’t all work and no play. In fact, they offer opportunities that educate, support, and entertain. Through the International Women’s Forum (IWF), which maintains a network of contacts in cities throughout the world, I have friends to look up wherever my travels take me.

At a recent YPO presentation, I learned about the inner workings of a symphony orchestra—not that much different from those of an entrepreneurial company. In the 1990s, I toured the Clinton White House during a fascinating engagement arranged by IWF. On another occasion, thanks to The Committee of 200, I dined with the two female Supreme Court Justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor.

For pure pleasure, I once accepted an invitation from a woman I met in a peer group to spend the weekend on a hunting expedition. Her corporate employer maintained the lodge that we used.

Working the Groups

Not all groups will suit the needs of every entrepreneur. In my case, I dropped two—one that disbanded after the most active member died, and another whose programming wasn’t as extensive as I would have wished.

Your job is to similarly evaluate the groups and match them to your needs. The following suggestions might help:

  • Join a Variety of Organizations. You’ll best secure the assistance you need by piecing it together through memberships in groups with differing agendas. While it is possible to join too many groups, you can—and should—handle memberships in five or six.
  • Participate. I attend about 10 to 20 functions a month, including subgroup meetings, speeches, and other events. You should, too. Otherwise, what’s the point?
  • Make an Effort. Some founders consider groups cliquey, but I consider them what you make of them. Make the effort to introduce yourself to people you want—and need—to know.
  • Reach Out. Networking, you’ll find, is all about giving as opposed to getting; the getting comes only after you give. Start by giving—a contact, a lead, a piece of advice—to someone else.
  • Stick With It. You can’t expect results after just a month. Indeed, it takes more than a year even to begin reaping the rewards of group affiliations. Tenure really does matter.

In sum, you might look at working the groups in this way. You’re a busy entrepreneur with more than enough to do and no time for organizing the networks that lead to the contacts that enable you to build your business. That’s what the peer groups do for you. You’re lucky to have them.

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