Sunday, September 30, 2012

Top ten lessons learned

It’s hard to believe that Company of Women just celebrated its 10th birthday.

As I reflect back on the past nine years, I admit that I’ve personally come a long way – from someone timid about speaking in public to someone comfortable on the stage. To someone who didn’t like to drive on the highways, to a person who will mix and mingle with the best on the 401.  Now driving in Toronto, that’s another story, but guess I am still a work in progress.

But apart from the personal fears I’ve overcome, I have also learned some important lessons about running a business, and admittedly, some the hard way.

1.  Dig deep and know your target group

I’ve often observed that while we think we know who we want to reach, we don’t dig deep enough to analyze the who, what, or why.  This summer I went through a marketing exercise and had to actually name my target group – Audrey, Stephanie and Caroline. It’s funny how once you put real names to them, they become real people and as a result, your strategies to attract them become more real too.

2.  Can’t please everyone

Like many women, I tended to be a pleaser, ever keen to keep everyone happy.  I would look at evaluations after events and wonder if people had been the same event as they rated a speaker.  Some would think she was fantastic and others felt she shouldn’t give up her day job. So I quickly realized it was impossible to satisfy everyone.

I was also super-sensitive so when someone didn’t renew their membership or made a negative comment, I would take it personally, feel rejected and get defensive.  These days I have come to realize it is not about me, it’s just business.

3.  Date first and get it in writing

I would leap into a business relationship, because on the surface it seemed like a good fit, then when the “honeymoon” period was over, discover we didn’t share the same values and vision, or how we would achieve our not-so-shared goals.  Now I like to “date” first before moving in with someone.

And while I would believe that we’d discussed everything and it was all clear, often it wasn’t and when assumptions were made, it would come back to bite me.  So I have learned to spell it all out and put it on paper, so there is less of a risk of miscommunication.

4.  Realistic expectations  

Everything takes longer than you think, especially when you are doing something for the first time.  When finding your way in unknown territory, it can be so easy to get lost.

I’ve also observed that sometimes people have unrealistic expectations on what they will achieve in attending a networking event.  Many come thinking if they hand out enough business cards, they will leave with business. If only that was true. 

It takes time and it is all about building relationships, not how many cards you have collected. Nor can Company of Women promise to deliver you business if you are part of our group, that is up to you.

5.  Involve others, delegate

I guess I bought into the myth that women can do it all and I sure would try.  Looking back I realize this was a big mistake because I would end up undertaking tasks that just weren’t my forte and not a good use of my time, plus errors would be made.

Reluctant to give up control, I would not delegate to others for fear that they wouldn’t do it to my way.  A rather self-defeating attitude which meant I ran the risk of burning out, fast. I also missed the opportunity to discover that doing it differently might actually be better.

Being driven and focused on business, I would sometimes work silly hours just to get something done.  Keep that schedule up for too long, and it catches up with you – and it did.  This past winter, I got sick.

So this year we’ve set up committees to plan big events.  I am relying on others to share their expertise and provide feedback on what would work for them.  And you know what, it’s so much better.  By sharing the responsibility, it lightens the load.

6.  Surround yourself with positive people

This leads me to my next point – that no one achieves success on their own.  You need a team of people to make it happen.  The key is to surround yourself with positive people who are supportive of you and believe in what you want to achieve.

7.  Don’t get complacent, change your game

We’ve been going strong for nine years now, but when we started we were the only game in town.  That’s not the case today.  You’re only as good as your last event and there are plenty of other groups out there now offering events to support the small business owner. So it is important to listen to your customers, ask them what they want which may well be different to what you want to deliver, but it is not all about you.  Be flexible and nimble when opportunities arise.

8.  You are never too old to learn

With social media there is always something new to learn.  I find I just master one aspect such as Twitter, and along comes something else.  But you know what, there is a sense of accomplishment when you grapple with and learn a new concept. 

The brain cells welcome the opportunity and while you may feel your hard drive is full, maybe it is time to download some of the old way of thinking, and free up space for these new ways of marketing, because they are here to stay.

9.  Givers gain

Are you a giver or a taker?  Sadly over the years I have met my share of takers, who pick your brains, get what they want out of a relationship and then disappear never to be seen again.  Mind you that part is OK, because do you really want to be around people who just take?  No. 

It’s like friendships.  I have a couple of friends who I meet for dinner once a month.  We’ve learned to “share the air and care” but if one person has a challenge, we focus on her.  Another month, it could be someone else’s turn but the help and support is reciprocated.


It is all too easy to get caught up on what didn’t work, and what went wrong, but be clear on what success looks like, and celebrate and honour those moments.  It can be little things. 

I like to think I am a connector (matchmaker) bringing women together.  For me, when I connect two people and it works, now that’s success, and it feels good, really, really good.

When I embarked on this journey with Company of Women nine years ago, I had no idea where it would take me.  But what I do know is that I am glad I did, because I have met some wonderful women who have become close friends. And it can’t get much better than that.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Take time to celebrate

With our 10th birthday coming up at Company of Women  my focus of late has been on parties and celebrations!

It therefore seemed appropriate to me that we talk about celebrations at our recent breakfast meeting. So as a way to get the meeting off to a positive start,  I had the women each share something they had to celebrate as they introduced themselves.

It was fascinating. 

The celebrations ranged from personal successes like surviving heart surgery, a new grandchild or getting married, to those of a more business nature – like finishing school, finding direction and physically opening a business after four years of persistently trying to make it happen. 

Each success was important in the life of the person and each marked a transition, a life changing moment.

As I sat and listened, it caused me to marvel at our resilience and determination to make life work for us.  For some it is hard work, digging through the dirt and baggage from the past, and yet they do it. In fact, not only do they do it, but they do it well, arising from the ashes as someone with wisdom to share to help others.

I applaud the courage and fortitude it takes to poke around at stuff we would rather keep a lid on, yet intuitively we know that we can’t move forward until the can is open, and the contents dissected.

How often do we reflect on what we have in our lives to celebrate?  Not enough.  This conversation got our meeting off to such a deeper, more meaningful start and we left seeing each other from a different perspective.  In fact, we’ve decided as a group to continue the dialogue.

I remember one year at our conference we had a discussion about celebrations, and the facilitator chuckled as she shared with me that one young woman, a lawyer from Bay Street, looked absolutely puzzled and horrified at the thought of celebrations in the office.  It was a completely foreign concept for her. How sad.

Life can pass us by so quickly and if we don’t take the moment to “count our blessings” to say thank you, to share our successes with one another, we’ve lost that opportunity to be grateful for what we have, who we are or how far we have come.   All too often we focus on the negative, and as they say, like attracts like, so you really don’t want to go there.

Let me ask you, what do you have to celebrate?  Tell someone.  You might be surprised at how that changes the conversation.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A brave new world

How long has it been since you ever tried to do something new?  It can be a bit scary to step out of your comfort zone, but it can be fun too as in some instances, you have nothing to lose.

At least that’s how my girlfriend Anne and I view our new venture which we will be launching on September 22.  Both of us have either moved or are in the process of moving, and when you have lived in one place for years – in my case 28 years - you can bet that you have accumulated a fair amount of stuff that needs to be shed and found a new home.

So what are we up to?  We have set ourselves up as … wait for it…. The Antique Annies, and on Saturday, we have a booth at the Aberfoyle Antique Fair, and  I can’t tell you how much fun this has been.

First we had to cull our loot and see what would fit under the “antique” category and fast as I would put items aside, my husband would declare them off-limits.  Fortunately he has, of late, got with the program and is more willing to part with his treasures, but it was tough going at the start.

And it is tough to part with family heirlooms, but I just know I am not going to polish that silver, nor am I ever going to don my mother’s fur coat.  So it has been a cleansing process as I have weaned myself off parts of my childhood.

Once we’d sorted through what we had, we realized that we really knew nothing about what to charge, and so we went off to do our due diligence and check out the prices at different antique shows.

Trouble was we never left empty-handed, something we hadn’t factored into our fact-finding mission.  Heaven help when we are at the show – I fear we may well leave with more than we brought, which would truly defeat the purpose of the whole exercise.

We’ve also checked in with antique experts who have helped us come up with reasonable prices. As Anne observed, it’s not really about making lots of money, but we also don’t want to find that we’ve just “given away” a real treasure.

Another part of our research has been on how to best display our goodies, and we’ve been quite creative, I think, on how best to “stage” our booth.

So all told, it has been fun, and surprisingly relaxing as we’ve prepared ourselves for our maiden voyage.  If you’re at a loose end on the 22nd – come along and visit us, you may find one of our treasures just calling to you and we’re ready to barter.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Timing is Everything

I heard a funny story the other day from an acquaintance.  I’ll call her Mary in order to protect the guilty.

She was sharing that she strategically chooses the best time to slip expensive purchases past her husband.  She knows that as a principal he is really busy just before March Break and before school starts in the fall, and so that is when she zeros in to make her major purchases. 

This year she bought a brand, spanking new, stainless steel fridge.  “It was weeks before he noticed” she observed and her children joined in the fun, wondering just how long it would take for Dad to catch on that they had a new fridge.

It made me chuckle, but there is also some business truth in this too.  Timing is key when you are launching a new program or product.  Choose the wrong time and you’ve missed the boat, especially with products for the holiday season.  People start shopping earlier and earlier, and in the magazine business, think six months ahead.

It is not just the timing that you have to know, it’s your customer too.  This woman knew her husband so well that she knew when he would be distracted.  How well do you know your prospective customers?  Do you have the breakdown of when and where they are likely to purchase what you have to offer.  It would be good information to have in your back pocket. 

Of course the other trick, especially with husbands, is to make them think it was their idea in the first place.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Collaboration vs. Competition

When I worked as a community developer, much of my job was to bring agencies and organizations together to look at combined efforts to resolve community issues.

Much of the time it worked, because while there were sometimes funding or territorial issues, most non-profit organizations shared the same values and tended to look at what was best for the client, rather than getting into who “owned” the client.  Our focus was to take a holistic approach to the family and their problems.

It isn’t quite that simple in the private sector as business owners are always looking at the bottom line and there is an element of WIFM (what is in it for me).  Certainly it needs to be a win-win situation for all the parties involved, but when you take an abundance approach and try to work together, the end result is far-reaching.

I’ve always believed in the value of collaboration because when you pool efforts and talents, you can both be successful, and more to the point, the client benefits.

But it is not always that easy, and sometimes I have leapt into partnerships that have backfired down the road because we hadn’t clarified our end goals or how we would achieve them.  Much of the time, in hindsight, we also didn’t share the same values which is crucial to any business relationship.

That’s why I am so excited about Company of Women’s new partnership with Women in Biz Network.  Not only do Leigh Mitchell, Founder of Women in Biz Network and I share the same values, but we are both driven to helping our members succeed.  And while Leigh and I could get a tad carried away in our altruistic efforts, her partner Fay Chappele keeps us grounded and focused on the bottom line. 

By combining our efforts, we will provide even more services and benefits to our now 400+ members but there is also an opportunity for young entrepreneurs to network and meet up with more seasoned business owners.  We can all learn from each other.   

We also bring different skill sets to the partnership, meaning that between the three of us, we can reach further and potentially achieve success much faster, than if we slogged away on our own.  The key is we respect each other and recognize the expertise that each brings to the table.

Now admittedly we are in the “honeymoon” stage but I have a good vibe about this one and with all the lessons I have learned (the hard way) in the past, I am confident it is going to work, and if it works for us, it most definitely will benefit and work for you.

And talking of you, who could you partner up with?  Is there someone in your sector with whom you could cross-promote? Is there the potential of working together?  Perhaps there is a joint project you could work on as you build trust and become comfortable with each other. When you are both targeting the same client group, it can be more fruitful to combine your efforts.

As Helen Keller said “Alone we can do so little, but together we can do so much.”