Tight budgets and soft sales during the recession pushed savvy business owners to turn to each other for free advice rather than hiring consultants. What began as a cost-cutting measure is still yielding invaluable benefits as business picks up, according to members of three, informal peer-to-peer business support groups.
Members say they look forward to their monthly gatherings to share contacts, tackle tough problems and brainstorm together to dream up marketing strategies. They also rely on each other for motivation and inspiration.
The group spun out from a gathering of socially-conscious business owners started by Jody Weiss, founder of Peace-Keepers Cause-metics. Her company sells natural lipstick and nail polish and donates its profits to organizations helping women. Before founding Peace-Keepers, Weiss was one of the few women sports agents working in the male-dominated profession. She now devotes her time to helping other female entrepreneurs succeed. “I want to show women can work really well together.”
“We always ask, ‘how can we help each other and what information can we share?” said Alison Raffaele, a beauty products entrepreneur and member of Beautiful New York. “In fact, Jody shared a contact that helped me get a $20,000 loan from the Small Business Administration.”
The members of Beautiful New York all make beauty or personal care products. Juara Skincare makes and sells Indonesian-inspired complexion products. Raffaele is a make-up artist who sells a line of concealers and foundation. The only rule is that members don’t compete directly with each other. In fact, they look for ways to promote each other’s products as well as share distribution channels and sales reps.
Raffaele said sometimes members benefit by asking if a vendor is reliable or whether a boutique pay its bills on time. “We are all looking to increase our distribution channels at a time when the channels have changed.”
Metta Murdaya, founder and owner of Juara Skincare, which sells 22 skin and body care products containing ingredients found in Indonesia and elsewhere, said she looks forward to the monthly gatherings because they “keep everyone energized.”
“The one thing we have in common is that we are female entrepreneurs in the New York beauty space,” said Murdaya. “We meet to share resources, sales reps, distributors and press contacts.” She said they’ve also held successful joint marketing events.
Two Minnesota-based entrepreneurs took the peer-to-peer counseling model a step further by agreeing to serve as vice presidents of each other’s companies. Michelle Massman owns a marketing and event management firm that produces an annual women’s showcase. Shaun Johnson is the founder and co-owner of Tonic Sol-fa LLC, an entertainment company that owns and manages a successful all-male a cappella group. Tonic Sol-fa not only performs sold-out concerts, but sells thousands of CDs, individual song downloads and produces and performs in popular holiday specials for PBS.
“When Shaun and I first met, we were inches away from being totally burnt out,” Massman recalled. “The first conversation we had lasted three and a half hours. After that, we started looking at each other’s companies in a different light. It is great to have someone to help you dig in and work on new strategies.”
Although Massman and Johnson initially worked together to solve business challenges on an informal basis, they now serve as vice presidents of each other’s companies and pay each other for their time and services rendered.
Being of service to each other and the world is what draws together members of Spirit Bus, a group of New York entrepreneurs who believe that “in order to build your own success, you have to help people build their success,” according to Peter Oppermann, founder of Shoji Living. His company makes custom-built Japanese sliding doors out of sustainable materials. (Learn more about his company in my next Open Forum column).
“Being an entrepreneur can be a little lonely,” said Oppermann. “So, we get together once a month to exchange ideas, inspire and support each other.”
In addition to Oppermann, Spirit Bus members include a former hedge fund manager, a homeopath and two marketing consultants who all agree that the more successful they are in business, the more they can help other people.
If you aren’t interested in forming your own peer support group, check out two existing organizations that rely on a more formal model. The Alternative Board is an international franchise organization with more than 3,000 members in the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and Venezuela. Founded the 1990 by business author, Allen Fishman, TAB hosts monthly meetings as well as providing consulting services. Fees vary depending on the location, so contact TAB for details.
The Women Presidents’ Organization, has 82 chapters and 1,500 members in the U.S, Canada and U.K. Members are required to have $2 million in annual revenues ($1 million if it is a service business). WPO members meet monthly with a trained facilitator. The basic annual membership fee is $1,650. Contact WPO for more detailed information about joining.
Jane Applegate is a small business author and keynote speaker. The author of four books on small business management, she is currently working on a new, revised edition of 201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business, published by John Wiley & Co. The Applegate Group provides marketing strategies for big companies serving small business owners and produces film and video projects.