Published on July 17th, 2012 | by Ashley Sheets
Setting up an Ethical Business Network – Part 2
When Katie Fewings, founder and director of Ethical Weddings, wanted to meet like-minded business people in Brighton, she set up an ethical business network – but it wasn’t all plain sailing. In this, the second of two articles about her experience, she reports how the ambitions began to unravel from their hopeful beginnings…
The first ‘Our Ethical Network’ event had been such a success that we adopted an ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ approach to the second. Meeting in the function room of a pub we again got a bunch of ethical businesses together and let them get on with sharing ideas and solving problems. We did some subtle introductions and made sure everyone had a name badge but then we left them to it.
We thought we had the essential ingredients for a successful ethical business networking event:
- Mailing list of ethical businesses – check
- Cheap or better, free venue – check
- Mid-week evening – check
- Lots of email reminders – check
But when it came to Our Ethical Network event #3 things weren’t quite so rosy. Yes, it was raining, yes, the football was on, yes, it was nice in a way to have a more in-depth conversation with just a handful of people but we now had to look at why we only had a handful of people out of all those enthusiastic supporters who came along to events #1 and #2.
We realised we were missing that extra special ingredient. The first 2 events had worked because there were new people to meet, new companies to discover. But the pool of ethical businesses is limited (or rather was then – it is much wider now) and the preponderance of 1-man-bands in the sector meant time out of the office was at a premium – reserved for proven useful, valuable extra curricula activities.
We started to brainstorm ideas and a keen new member joined our planning team – Karen from Green Minded. We looked at feedback from the previous events: one of the things people appreciated the most was our introductions that forced them to speak to different people rather than only those they had come with. How could we do this again – but x10?
After intensive planning and much debate on the logistics we did it. About 30 businesses came along and the result was stressful, noisy and chaotic but kind of successful.
There were flaws – 2 minutes per networking couple wasn’t long enough, tables were too close together making it too noisy, we didn’t have a clear record of who had spoken to whom.
But those who risked their sanity to join in found having to pop the selling point of their business and what made it ethical into a nutshell clarified their ideas about their company (a chance to hone that pitch). And while most were nervous before the evening began, they thanked us for putting them in front of so many new contacts.
We should do it again, they said. And we should do speaker events, workshops, get each member business to lead a session on a different ethical issue.
We agreed. But as we went on to organise a speaker event (poorly attended) and a Christmas do (fairly well attended) we realised we were devoting more and more time and resources to the network for little return.
Back to square 1
So there we were – back where we started. Struggling with the dilemma of trying to be ethical and needing to make some money.We put it to the Our Ethical Network members: these are the issues, what should we do?
The gist was this: they liked the network being there, they had made some useful connections, had some good times but they weren’t prepared to pay for it – at least not on a monthly or annual basis (which would allow us to plan, save us some stress and give us a rough idea of attendees).
Just ‘meeting in a pub over drinks’ remained a popular option – but this still required someone to be there every month, even if nobody else turned up, and as I was now based in Worthing with a little one in tow it wasn’t going to happen. And of course the global Green Drinks movement already caters to this crowd
We tried to take the network online using LinkedIn groups but the impetus had gone and the virtual world makes so many demands of us now it is almost harder to organise a meeting here than in the real world – it takes just as much time and effort if not as much expense.
It seemed that Our Ethical Network had run its course. And that was ok. It was time to let someone else with new energy take on the challenge of inspiring and connecting all these small ethical business owners who had so much to share but so little time.
A few conclusions
From the challenge of setting up Our Ethical Network we’ve realised a few things.
- To make a successful network you need more than a bunch of email addresses and a free venue
- The promise of an organic pint isn’t enough to draw the ethical masses
- If you’re going to run a network it either needs to support your own business (we kind of lost sight of ours while we were trying to sort things out for everyone else) or be part of your business (for example an ethical events company running an ethical network)
Networking is important; I’ve almost given up many times and it’s the people in my networks who’ve kept me going. Ethical businesses in particular need a safe space where they can be honest with one another. There is an extra pressure to running an ethical business that you are a pioneer, blazing a path for a new way of doing things, a better way, and you’d better make it work or you let the entire sector down. We need to meet others who understand this – and who can tell us it’s ok if it’s not rainbows every day.
So we’re thrilled that the Brighton and Hove Chamber of Commerce has stepped into the breach with the Green Chamber Collective. They are always looking for like minded people to run, host or speak at one of their many events. For more information, contact Danni Craker at firstname.lastname@example.org