From the March 2000 issue of Startups

When Deb Haggerty ditched corporate America in 1985 to launch her own business, she didn't know she'd long for the "team" she left behind. All it took was one week for the former career corporate citizen to realize she needed people around.

"I missed the camaraderie, the give and take, the jokes and compliments that go on in an office full of people," she says. "I realized I needed to get into some networking groups to maintain my sanity and my self-esteem."

Today, Haggerty, president of Positive Connections, a communications skills and recruiting enhancement company, no longer longs for the buzz of the corporate hive. She's too busy with her own network of colleagues in professional and peer groups, as well as frequent interaction with clients.

Weekly, she meets with the local Orlando Chamber of Commerce. Virtually, she's involved with three Internet e-mail groups: SuperGals, a clutch of 10 businesswomen formed in July 1999 to chat online; PowerPals, a group of 15 women who've gathered online since October 1999 to discuss business issues; and CLASS Chats, a Tuesday online chat group that supports authors and speakers in the Christian market.

"Phone and e-mail [contact] take the place of the face-to-face interaction I used to crave," she says. "When I need face-to-face, I go to a networking event."

Working from home in the e-community has drawn many former corporate professionals like Haggerty out of the city and into the suburbs. The transition from close contact with fellow workers to the solitude, even isolation, of the home office can be dispiriting to new and experienced at-home workers alike.

Often, setting up networking groups or online e-mail or chat groups accomplishes multiple tasks. Not only does the effort often result in decreased feelings of isolation-it helps entrepreneurs rebuild bridges lost when they left the corporate environment, as well as bolster their existing skill sets and knowledge bases with those of their peers, says Jim Rohrbach, a speaker, trainer, skills coach and author.

"To be successful," says Rohrbach, "you need to align yourself with organizations where there's a natural synergy."

Come Together

If it's synergy you're looking for, you have a lot of groups to choose from. Some homebased business owners have turned to "professional" networking organizations as lead-generating and problem-solving teams. Business Network International in San Dimas, California, is a business referral and networking organization. Its members pay an annual membership fee, then "market" each other by carrying other members' business cards and making referrals when the appropriate requests for service comes up.

New York City-based Let's Talk Business Network is similar to BNI in that it offers support, camaraderie, networking and coaching. While the $1,995 annual membership fee might be a bit steep for start-up enterprises, in April, LTBN will launch a new community for homebased entrepreneurs, starting at $240 per year.

As "free agency" becomes more common in the marketplace, former corporate citizens are finding comfort and camaraderie in small peer groups, says Dan Pink, a writer on free-agency employment in the new economy.

Whether they're monthly groups or online clutches that share ideas via e-mail or chat rooms, these teams brainstorm together and meet the need for kinship. "These 'free agent nation' clubs function as part board of directors, part group therapy," Pink says.

Miki Saxon confesses to using networking as group therapy, as much for herself as for the small-business professionals around her. As CEO and founder of RampUp, an employee-retention and staffing consulting firm for young companies, Saxon relies on the constant flow of e-mail from her four virtual employees, her virtual chairman and a list of clients to keep her in touch with the world outside her home office.

Saxon also belongs to the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs (FWE), a group of about 450 women with whom Saxon can share leads, concerns and questions online, via phone or in person at group meetings.

Whether it's through FWE or her other e-mail channels, Saxon says people write or call with questions they wouldn't share in the company of family or other professionals. "Without that network, all of us would go crazy," she says, admitting that networking often moves into her personal life. "To keep our sanity, we all need somebody to commiserate with."

More Minds Are Better Than One

Mastermind groups, a concept coined by Napoleon Hill's classic business strategy book, Think & Grow Rich, help small-business owners share ideas in a creative and confidential environment. Where networking groups can vary in member attendance and serve more as informal meetings for business leads, Mastermind groups are a clique of a half-dozen committed members. Each brings his or her own goals and professional insights to a regular meeting.

In running Global Connections Speakers Bureau, Lisa Bell regularly battles isolation and motivational issues. To stave off the loneliness, Bell attends meetings of the local chamber of commerce, the National Association of Women Business Owners and Meeting Professionals International.

In 1997, she went a step further, and created her own Mastermind group to feed her need for creative and critical input on such projects as marketing materials, business positioning and strategic planning. One winter morning, Bell sat with four business compatriots near a pond, opened a bottle of champagne and let the ideas, news, successes and concerns flow.

Their Mastermind meetings are now monthly, four-hour events. Uninterrupted, they share ideas, offer suggestions, inspire and motivate each other, and "recharge [their] batteries," Bell says. "It's a creative process. When you try to figure things out, instead of one mind, you have four."

Create your own Mastermind group as a sounding board for your ideas, using these steps:

  • Draft a team. Contact about six peers in noncompeting fields. Make sure they're thoughtful, trustworthy, creative and inspiring. Keep the group small; larger groups tend to lose control, focus and intimacy.
  • Set a regular schedule. Pencil in a regular day and time to hold the meeting-shoot for monthly at least. If the meetings become too infrequent, their importance and power may be lost. Vary the location-and open with a game-to spur creative thought.
  • Prepare a game plan. Since each member gets some time to present and discuss his or her topics, bring a list of issues you need to cover (a new marketing or business plan, your Web site or collateral design, a new market niche you want to target, etc.).
  • Act. Once you leave, don't let the meeting's power subside. Sit down with your notes and put your partners' thoughts and ideas into action. Next time you meet, report on your success.

Find Your Place

Where can you go to network, expand your knowledge, make allies and increase your professionalism? Try these resources:

  • Read the business section. Scan your local paper to locate meetings of networking groups, industry associations or other venues to share and learn new ideas.
  • Return to your roots. Ferret out your industry's associations or publications, peer groups and other professional organizations where people of similar backgrounds or interests meet and network.
  • Get academic. Call the local university extension service, Small Business Development Center, SBA or Service Corps of Retired Executives office to inquire about seminars.
  • Network online. Search the Internet using keywords associated with your industry or trade. Peruse Web sites and participate in discussion groups related to your area of interest.

Group Mentality

Want to rebuild your "corporate" camaraderie? At-home workers can gather a clutch of confidants and peers with whom they can share ideas, rejoice in new assignments or lament about business lost. And, if you can't join one, you should start one.

Here are some tips to starting a networking group of your own:

  • Start with a self-assessment. Why do you want to create a peer network? What are you looking for from the group? What should your members get out of it, and what can they give back?
  • Develop your "30-second spot." Learn how to express what you do concisely, so others will be intrigued enough to join your network.
  • Act as if you're looking for a new job. Spin the Rolodex, figure out those people you'd like to know better and believe you could learn from. Choose up to five you think would be interested. Talk to them about it; ask them whether they know up to three more who might be interested. Max out at 25 people. Meet regularly online or offline. Get enough people involved that, if you're meeting regularly, enough people will show up to make it worthwhile.