Small Group Networking Among Entrepreneurial Peers
Brian Scudamore, Founder and CEO, 1-800-GOT-JUNK?
In 1996, seven years after founding a small junk-removal business in Vancouver, I set a goal to rapidly grow my business. As a young entrepreneur, my biggest challenge was learning how to achieve this.
I began looking at peer networking as a way to learn and grow from the advice and experience of other business owners. The Young Entrepreneurs’ Organization (YEO) is one of the highest rated peer-to-peer networks with chapters across the nation. YEO brings together local business owners whose companies individually generate more than $1 million in annual revenue.
Convinced that peer-to-peer networking was just what I needed, I joined YEO in 1996. In doing so, I was assigned to a forum group of eight other members. We met monthly and exchanged ideas, goals, and challenges in powerful brainstorming sessions. Each person brought important insight into managing and growing a small business and gave their unbiased opinion to other forum members. Candor was possible because members weren’t competitors, partners, or in any other relationship that would preclude the free exchange of ideas.
The Power of Peers
In my case, the value of peer networking was more than just incredible business advice. Not surprisingly, the members of my forum have also become some of my closest friends. I can honestly say that my peer network was one of the most important factors in enabling the expansion of my business.
In 1998, I renamed the company 1-800-GOT-JUNK? and started positioning for nation-wide expansion. By 2004, our system-wide revenue topped $38 million and franchisee numbers reached 140 locations. 1-800-GOT-JUNK? is now poised to hit a revenue goal of $100 million in 2006.
In recent years, I have also expanded my quest for mentorship, making professional development and education a top priority. In 2004, I joined the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO). Similar to YEO, this network brings together high-level executives whose businesses generate more than $8 million in annual revenue.
Additionally, I have spent the last three years taking part in the “Birthing of Giants” program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology where founders of hyper-growth companies learn how to create a successful and sustainable business. Finally, I attended a similar Executive Educational program at Stanford University and made a point of visiting the corporate headquarters of Microsoft, Dell, and Starbucks to network and learn what has made them successful.
I hold a core belief that peer networks can change your business by providing necessary advice and support. While networking does occur, it is not the primary function of a peer forum. In fact, if you join just to make contacts, you will short-change yourself, likely receiving the opposite effect. It has been my experience that the more you give, the more contacts you make.
For example, when I began my junk-removal business, I lacked the necessary knowledge to build the financial foundation needed for growth. Some of my forum members suggested alternative financing strategies, such as tapping the equity in my home, and even provided names of banks to contact.
On another occasion, they recommended that I set up a formal Board of Advisors and explained what I should look for in potential candidates. Forum members gave advice on how to go about finding those people, and as a result, I have had a five-member Mentor Board of Advisors ever since.
Now, it might appear that some of these suggestions are fundamental. However, a large part of what makes peer interactions work for entrepreneurs is the simple support they provide. In walking each other through these various scenarios, peers help each other build the confidence necessary to execute.
In 2004, when I determined to take my business to the next level, I again reached for help from my entrepreneurial peer groups. Having attended programs like “Birthing of Giants,” I was armed with new ideas and a new approach to business. One of the most successful suggestions I implemented involved holding a daily meeting for all employees. We now call this meeting “Huddle.” It is a daily forum, ensuring that in spite of rapid growth all employees are communicating and can clearly understand the vision of the business. We share everything from financial metrics to frustrations.
In growing my business, I have always found that my peer forums provided invaluable outside perspective to specific challenges. When I was debating the decision to franchise, some forum members advised against my strategy, arguing that a franchised junk-removal business would invite too many competitors.
After much debate and discussion with my forum, we decided that I should focus on franchising right instead of not franchising at all. Their specific suggestions were to centralize the order-taking portion of the business—and thus lock in the customers—while permitting franchisees to build fleets of trucks and refine the removal work. In setting up a toll-free number, central call centers, and a Web site to monitor bookings, we have allowed all 140 of our Franchise Partners to focus on growing their businesses. Essentially, we removed the distraction and worry about who will book their jobs.
As my business expands, I’ve also relied on the advice from my peers in YPO, who run larger companies. Recently, I brought to the table the matter of whether I should hire an Executive Assistant. Members advised that if I do, I should view the person as a partner and search for someone whose skills go beyond just the ability to fax documents. It was excellent advice that I am now acting upon.
Making Peer Groups Work
It goes without saying that I would recommend peer groups for all entrepreneurs looking for support in building a business. In considering whether to join, it’s important to understand that being a member is more about giving than it is receiving. If you aren’t prepared to share useful suggestions from your own experience, then peer networks aren’t for you.
I am a mentor to a number of young entrepreneurs and recently worked with a group of my forum members to help focus their businesses. I explained the importance of creating a vision and worked with each person to design what I call “the painted picture.” I made sure everyone understood that this is a tangible vision of where they hope to take their business. Since then, each member has thanked me repeatedly and expressed how vital “vision” has been to their growth as an entrepreneur.
When it comes to maintaining a network, I feel it is both the quantity and the quality of time that matters. In the case of my peer networks, both YPO and my local chapter of YEO require that members miss no more than one meeting a year. In fact, a member recently flew in from India to attend the session!
In addition to participating in forums, making it a habit to attend the larger-group functions sponsored by these organizations is imperative. In my case, I go to about three functions a month, including the two forum meetings. Larger-group events, such as speeches, aren’t as personal but do provide opportunities to mingle and build relationships.
Peer groups are all about giving—giving of your time, talent, expertise, and support. The irony is that this kind of giving is also the best way I know of for getting—getting the support, information, and resources you need to build a thriving business.