Running a small business or operating as a sole trader can sometimes be rather lonely but Shaftesbury Chamber of Commerce is trying to change that.
When Dr Karen Janes relocated from Salisbury to Semley, she missed the interaction, support and idea sharing she had enjoyed as a member of the city’s business associations. So Karen started arranging meals and social occasions for Shaftesbury Chamber of Commerce.
Two years on, the Chamber’s business networking group has helped forge new friendships and brought business referrals for its members. “I had a bit of a choice,” said Karen. “I could either moan about it or I could get my finger out and start a group.”
Karen began chatting with two Chamber members who were having lunch in Semley’s Bennett Arms and the seed of the idea was sown. “I think the Chamber, for some time, had been keen to try and offer something to its non-High Street members, because the Chamber has traditionally done quite a lot for the local businesses who are based in the town. There’s actually quite a lot of small and medium sized businesses in the surrounding area,” Karen said.
Karen has found that the business networking group has been the best way to find like-minded business people. “When I moved out this way, I knew hardly anybody in the area. Living in a small village, I got to know people in the village fairly quickly and I have dogs, so that helps,” she said. “Getting to know people in Shaftsbury takes longer when you don’t have those connections. When you run your own business you don’t necessarily have a job where there are lots of other people that you’re then going to meet just because you’ve started a new job. If you want to have more contacts, you do need to get yourself out there a little bit and get talking to people.”
When Karen started working as a Doctor of Clinical Psychology she was part of a large team. She missed regular interaction with colleagues when she decided to launch her Natural Healing Energy practice and work for herself. Being part of the business-networking group does address some of the issues faced when business people branch out on their own.
“I used to work in the NHS. The main thing I missed when I left was having what they call the ‘water cooler conversations’ – the people you just bump into. It could have been somebody that didn’t even do the same job as you but you just had a chat making a cup of coffee,” said Karen.
“Many of us, when we’re running our own businesses, don’t have that kind of team around us. If you’ve had a bad day, sometimes you just want to say ‘I had a tough customer today’ or ‘I’ve got this problem with my business that I’m struggling with’ or ‘business has been a bit quieter’. This gives you a network of people who you get to know over time, who ‘get it’. They understand and know what the ups and downs of running a business are like.”
The term ‘business networking’ could conjure up images of relentless self-promotion and the cut-and-thrust of the corporate world. But there are no PowerPoint or flip chart presentations in Shaftesbury’s networking group. Karen says that first-time attendees need not fear any pushy, time share-like sales pitch.
“I hope not,” laughed Karen. “I have been to networking meetings over the years that have been a little bit like that. We try really hard with our Chamber meetings to make them friendly and welcoming. We do get people to go around the table and introduce themselves, but it’s very informal. You can simply say ‘My name is Bob and I make cushions’. You don’t have to say any more than that but you can tell us a bit more if you’d like to. We meet over breakfast or lunch. We have coffee together and we just chat around the table. There is no pressure for anybody to perform or to justify anything they’re doing. It is just an opportunity to get to know other business owners.”
The mood of the meetings is relaxed and Karen is keen to remind newcomers that they are unlikely to get immediate business just by attending. The group is great for finding people that you could call on the future. “Maybe you don’t need someone from that business right now but somewhere down the line, somebody you know does. It sticks in your mind so that you then go, ‘Oh, yeah, I know someone who does that’. That’s a really good way of supporting local business and the local community,” she said.
Karen says that knowing who provides local services is useful. “I think it makes business owners look good if one of their customers or a client asks for help about something and they say, ‘You should go and see this person, because I’d recommend them. They’re a solid, honest, trustworthy business. Go to see them’.”
Karen believes that relying on personal contacts is better than just picking a name from a newspaper ad or online listing. “If you need a web designer or someone to do some admin for you, and you come along to a networking meeting and meet somebody who does that kind of thing, that can be a really nice way, rather than just Googling a random person.”
The business networking group is not just for people who have moved here recently either. As Shaftesbury is expanding, the meetings can offer long-established businesses a chance to meet newcomers. “There are houses going up all over the place in Shaftesbury. Whether you are happy with that or not, there are potential customers for your business,” said Karen.
If you would like to find out more about the events, there are details on the Shaftesbury Chamber of Commerce website at ShaftesburyChamber.co.uk.
“We send out regular newsletters and information about how to book the meals. We generally have a meeting each month and we alternate between breakfast and lunch meetings, so you can dip in and out,” said Karen. “We do ask people to consider joining the Chamber if they want to come regularly because that supports the work we’re doing. It is only £40 pounds a year, so I think that’s pretty reasonable for access to all these extra business resources.”
The next meetings are:
Thursday 25th April, 7.45am-9.00am. A breakfast event at High Street Bakery and Café. Gabriela Lerner is a nutrition coach. She will be sharing her top tips for how we can get more fruit and veg into our diets. The cost for breakfast and a hot drink is £7, payable on the day.
Thursday 23rd May, 12pm-2pm. An informal lunch at The Grosvenor Arms Hotel. Erica Wolfe-Murray, innovation and business growth expert, will be sharing tips to help us grow our businesses, increase profitability and improve resilience. The cost for lunch and a hot drink is £12, payable on the day.