Networks: What Are Your Options and How Do You Choose Which Ones Are Right For You?

No matter where you are on your journey as a purpose-driven entrepreneur, you will be looking out for networks to increase your knowledge and support your growth. With thousands of options around the globe, in all shapes and sizes, you may be overwhelmed.

Where do you even begin? With limited time and resources, how do you select the networks that will give you the most in return?

At the beginning of my career, I handpicked which networks I got involved with and how I spent my time to both increase my knowledge base and the people I surrounded myself with. That has served me well in many ways, leading to a wide range of new relationships and opportunities that have allowed me to expand in the direction I wanted. I believe it’s important to dissect the ecosystem and all the options available to you instead of just blindly jumping into networks.

Each network has its own personality. Some characteristics that serve as a strength and benefit to you will be a weakness to another entrepreneur. Some of us thrive in competitive, high-energy spaces. Others prefer deep reflection in a one-on-one conversation or with a small, trusted group. Understanding where you fall on this scale, and what you need to gain right now on your entrepreneurial journey, will help you to give more and gain more from your networks.

Like any other investment, we also need to think of joining networks in terms of return on  investment. How much time will my membership take? What is the lifetime cost versus the reward? Based on the future goals of my business, is the network worth giving up company equity for? If so, how much? These are all important questions that most people may not think of when joining networks, especially in the early days.

The five examples below showcase in detail how unique networks can be. These are by no means recommendations, but rather suggestions about how to think when navigating through the selection process. As you read, use the examples to more deeply understand your entrepreneurial personality, to clarify your goals right now on your journey and ultimately to select the right networks for you.

Join a Regional or Local Hub

I am going to start with exactly what I said I would not do and recommend something to you. No matter what stage you are at as a changemaker, from concept to world domination, you must familiarize yourself with your regional support network. These organizations are primarily set up to nurture and expand the social impact sector in your region.

They are often funded by governments or foundations and focus on building awareness and understanding around social impact as a whole — think tourism boards that promote your country’s destinations in order to bring in tourism money. In this same way, regional institutions are excited to share your organization externally. Free publicity anyone?

Take Social Enterprise Malaysia, Social Enterprise Scotland and Social Enterprise Canada for example. They couldn’t be more varied in setup — from Canada, a network of organizations affiliated in leading a network; to Malaysia, a branch of an individual organization; to Scotland, a registered company limited by guarantee. However, what they have in common is that they are a key support system for furthering social impact companies, and therefore you.

Be aware of: barriers to entry, as they all have varying methods for getting involved. Some networks will offer free resources on their website open to all and others will ask for your email in exchange for helpful email newsletters, while the larger institutions may have an application process and membership fee requirement.

Step one: Don’t let institutional support go un-utilized. Always research your regional institutions as a starting point. Compared to other types of networks, they are often useful and cost-effective, no matter what stage you are at or where you are focusing your impact. However if your regional institution has barriers to entry, find out more about the types of entrepreneurs and businesses involved. Timing is everything, so maybe you sign up for the newsletter to stay in the loop and postpone the membership fee until you can fully reap the benefits of your investment.

Insight from an entrepreneur: “As a member of my regional institution, we have access to events (that are cost-free for members), we can view a listing of all other network members, and most importantly for me, we have the capacity to bring our voice when they lobby governments and policies … As with any network, you get what you put in.”

Learn and Collaborate from Your Living Room

Regional institutions may be limited to major cities, and you might find it challenging to find a core group in your area. If so, e-learning groups may provide a great network for you despite this challenge.

+Acumen branches out from a nonprofit venture fund that has about 20 chapters in major cities around the world. Its online “Master Classes” are available to anyone interested and cover a wide range of topics that mirror their organization’s expertise and focus. E-learning courses can also provide the ability to connect with like-minded individuals who are enrolled.

Be aware of: structured assignments and deadlines to follow. Because they are meant to provide deeper support and community engagement, they will often be more involved than one-time webinars and free online toolkits.

Step one: Think about the level of flexibility you need versus the level of community engagement a course offers, then pick the right blend for you. Start with a low-cost offering to make sure that the organization’s courses meet your expectations versus the price. There is not always a correlation between high-priced online courses and quality.

Insight from an entrepreneur: “If you are someone who enjoys structured learning and workbooks, this is for you. Loved the resources they included, the reading and examples we worked through. Some really creative methods of collaborating with others on the course. Although the course leaders are good at motivating you and reminding you of deadlines, you have to have the time to keep up with the pace they set.”

Tap into Expertise and Funding at Incubators, Accelerators and Fellowships

Incubators, accelerators and fellowships, financed through sponsorship and member equity retention, are networks of experts ready to take your organization on a growth spurt. If you are looking to raise seed capital, they are ready to finetune your proposal.

What do selected members benefit from? Beyond a set program run by experts, entrepreneurs may benefit from accessing mentors — which can turn into a long-term relationship, using coworking office space, getting documentation reviewed, gaining access to funding opportunities and joining an alumni network. You may have heard of the giants in this area such as Echoing Green and Ashoka, who select fellows for whom they then offer support, but you should consider looking more niche. Pi Labs, specializing in property innovation and EyeFocus, specializing in eyecare tech, are examples of accelerators that focus their attention on specific sub-industries, providing you with more detailed support from experts in your field.

Be aware of: unique criteria that will differ greatly from one program to the next. Each group will have it’s own model and will pick companies based on their particular funding goals, i.e., clean tech, women-led, idea-stage, etc. The application process will often have several steps and you may need to give up company equity from the get-go.

Step one: It may feel wonderful to be selected as a fellow of a well-known group, but consider more niche programs that will better support you in your particular journey and industry. Really vet the program and look into the experts that mentor participants before spending hours on online applications to make sure that it’s the right reason to give up equity. The decision must not be taken lightly.

Insight from an entrepreneur: “You get lots of advice as a startup. It is important to remember that it is just that, advice. You still need to go with your gut feeling and mix it in with the myriad of conflicting information and range of options out there. Giving away equity is always a big decision, but sometimes you need to take a leap of faith in order to grow. But explore your options first, there may be different markets to sell your knowledge to that may give you the revenue you need in the short-term to help you towards your bigger goal. Don’t make decisions that conflict with your personal values. It will just make you unhappy in the long run.”

Share the Day-to-day Grind at a Coworking Space

Taking on the role of a changemaker is not glamorous and requires grit and determination. Connecting in-person with other entrepreneurs during the day-to-day grind of running a business can be invaluable and give you an energy boost, from impromptu questions answered to brainstorming sessions by the coffee machine.

One example is Impact Hub, a global network that currently has 86 hubs in over five regions across the world and is still growing. With the main focus of providing a physical workspace for its members to convene and work, Impact Hub also brings its community together through events open to non-members. If you are an “organization of one,” loathe isolation and are inspired when surrounded by others, these types of communities are packed with energetic, creative and social individuals from entrepreneurs to freelancers and mentors that hang around offering advice.

These networks, and others similar to them, are built around a membership model. Hub leaders request a meet-up with anyone keen on joining the local network to see if you are the right fit, which sounds a little bit daunting. What I personally love about these hubs is how they benefit a range of entrepreneurs, from those focused on impacting their local communities to those who are expanding across the globe.

Be aware of: the varying levels of membership offered. Impact Hub offers five options that vary in amount of time available to spend in the space, and as the price increases, so do the small perks such as locker space. As a rough estimate, the UK hubs start from 72 to 270 pounds per month and also offer a swap program — your pro bono skills in exchange for membership.

Step one: The space you work in needs to inspire and motivate you to work to your best abilities. Going to see the space when it is in full swing and understanding what is on offer to you as a member is an important step in this process. If you can be working at home for no extra cost, what is on offer that will improve your work experience and grow your organization?

Insight from an entrepreneur: “Being a member of Impact Hub is an excellent way of being involved in some great events as well as an amazing support network — just knowing that an organization and space dedicated to bringing together social entrepreneurs is inspiring. As a source of great training opportunities, Impact Hub creatively encouraged me and my team to upskill in areas where we really needed to. I was also able to learn about and access funding through an event that was held at Impact Hub. So, that in itself has been invaluable to our growth.”

Dig Deeper with Coaching and One-to-one Advisory

For those of you who are more productive working on your own or looking for one-on-one support, individual coaching and one-on-one advisory options offer tailored support for you and your organization.

One example is Creators for Good in Turkey, a strategy consulting agency working with value-driven female entrepreneurs, which offers four different packages depending on where you are on your entrepreneurial journey and what milestone you want to reach next. Using the internet to her advantage, the founder, Solene Pignot, focuses on online consultancy sessions and creates content that she circulates with her clients.

The depth and breadth that this type of network offers is enormous — from individuals working on their own to institutions filled with experts. You’ll also come across those who offer a broad range of expertise, like business planning and management, versus others who focus on just one topic, like crafting your pitch.

Be aware of: the cost tied to this personalized experience. As a reference, you can expect those advisors and coaches who have more experience to be more expensive. I would challenge you to take a chance on a newer, cheaper individual who may have been personally recommended to you, against the more costly options. All you need is someone with more knowledge than you in a topic for it to be a positive return.

Step one: I would suggest asking your existing ecosystem for recommendations as you dissect your options. When you have a selection of advisors or coaches that you are excited about, begin the conversation. Most advisors will offer a free first session that they will use to asses how they can support you, and you should use it to understand what they will offer you for the investment you are making. To really use this experience well, be clear on where you are on your journey, bring any materials you have created to date and be clear on what you are looking for support with.

Insight from an entrepreneur: “In an effort to connect with like-minded individuals, I reached out to an advisor and took part in a free one-on-one Skype session. With coaching, each person will gain something unique based on their goals. I personally gathered tiny tidbits of information that proved to be invaluable for several areas that I had been insecure about. We talked about crowdfunding, pricing and developers, and have become friends and supporters of each other’s endeavors since then. Even if you don’t end up signing up for ongoing coaching, the connection and initial discussions are always worth it.”

The social impact arena is growing, and with it the number of support networks available to you. Don’t let it overwhelm you; analyze what is on offer and see what investment is right for you. Don’t be drawn into a support system just because it is well-known or prestigious. There are literally thousands of networks out there, and the smaller, localized one around the corner may be the network that suits both your personality and your unique entrepreneurial journey.

This article was originally posted in Rank & File, Issue 3 published on 18th January 2017.

Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Unsplash

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