Rewind back to 1999, when the millennium bug was a thing, Ricky Martin was Livin’ La Vida Loca and most of Europe was handing over its currency and embracing the Euro. A time when people hardly used email or surfed the internet and for anything immediate we used a fax! A revolution was afoot; in a sleepy corner of Shropshire the nub of an idea was being formed. A national organisation supporting women starting and growing small businesses; supporting each other, sharing experiences and skills and doing business together. Something that previously had been unheard of. It sounds so mainsteam now, but just 16 years ago it was radical.
At the time we didn’t call it networking; meeting with like-minded people was the buzz word. The wonderful Women’s Institute, who we presented to back in 2005, were nonplussed by the idea that they were networking. What the WI believed they had been doing for 100 years was facilitating the meeting of people like themselves. Helping each other out, learning new things and getting out of the house. Replace things with skills, helping with collaborating, house with desk and sprinkle in a bit of doing business and you’ve got a network.
WiRE has evolved over the years. From a fully funded support organisation, offering free training and support groups all over the UK (thanks to EU funding). To the women’s business network it is today, with probably the widest reach across the UK. Over 50 networks run by volunteer leaders meeting monthly and attracting usually 15 – 20 networkers at each meeting – that’s almost 10,000 networking interactions every year – powerful stuff!
We attribute this success to enabling our wonderful volunteer network leaders to define what is right for their group. The needs of the group, the geography, the businesses and the members drives the activity and support on offer. New WiRE groups start when a potential network leader identifies a need in their area and puts their hand up. Everything about WiRE is driven from the businesses that make up the network.
We are proud that WiRE Networks are different – warm, welcoming and non-scary is a phrase we use often, and they are like that because that is what the group/members/businesses need. The reality though is that all networks are different. Like WiRE, they exist because they respond to and fulfil the needs of the group. So even though the thought of BNI might fill you with horror – it is doing exactly what its members need, generating leads.
When it comes to networking one size doesn’t fit all; different groups fulfil different needs, some will be all about selling, some about support and some about knowledge. The secret to good networking is to find the one(s) that meet your and your business needs. So before you even sharpen your business cards, decide what you need from a network and why you are doing it. Then research and ask your business contacts, most networks let you go along free as a taster, try out as many as possible to find the right ones.
When you have found your perfect match, follow our tips to make networking work for you.
As a final little treat, the picture to the left is what WiRE looked like in 1999 – no more floating heads!