One of the last things I could have imagined myself doing -- willingly -- is joining a networking or support group, particularly a business-related one. I have been more of a go-it-alone fellow. I am also busy and incorrigibly impatient with meetings and relatively unmotivated by the purely financial. So I find it surprising that for nearly a year now I have conscientiously attended the monthly four-hour-plus meetings of my forum in the Young Entrepreneur’s Organization (YEO).
I found out about the group and the concept of a YEO forum by happenstance. A couple of years ago, my company turned to another software firm for aid with a technical problem. After the project was done, the owner of that company suggested lunch. We talked for a time about our businesses and our families and their challenges. He then urged me to look into YEO. His “forum,” he said, had made a great deal of difference to him, helping him make real improvements in balancing the different parts of his life. He told me that I met the requirements for the group: under 40, and founder of a company of a certain minimum size.
I did not follow up on that information, but many months later I was talking to another friend who ran a firm that provides technology support to nonprofits. To my surprise, he also brought up YEO and his forum experience. This friend explained the concept of the forum to me: you join a small group of people (generally 8 to 12) and talk about common experiences in a regulated setting that enforces absolute confidentiality, experience-sharing rather than advice-giving, and a commitment to prompt and regular attendance. I was a little dubious, but also curious. He kindly offered to bring me to a recruitment meeting for the group.
I did not go that time, but I eventually decided to take him up on it. I accompanied him to a subsequent meeting, paid my dues, and joined the organization. I was then contacted by a forum, interviewed by its members, and brought into their group. I was very fortunate that my introduction to forum was on the fast track; my start coincided with a yearly retreat. The whole group took a long weekend in a big house in western Maryland where we got to know each other over foosball, pool, meals and various exercises and activities.
Among the rules of the forum are that what you “say in the room, stays in the room.” But I can say this: my forum is made up of men and women all of whom I like and respect, people running a diverse set of businesses, bearing a great deal of responsibility, all in very different niches than my own. Despite the variety in the substance of the work we do, we face markedly similar challenges at the office – with employees, business processes, time-management, changes in our markets, planning, leadership, and so on.
The forum, however, is designed for communication about far more than just business. And that is where it seems most valuable – a rare place with pre-selected peers with whom you can talk over time about other issues in the life of an entrepreneur. Those issues might include, for instance, how running your business affects you as a father or mother, wife or husband. When you have built enough trust, topics may broaden as the members contend with relationship difficulties, health problems, depressions, bereavements, infidelities or even a crisis in faith -- not to mention the joys and triumphs of life. The forums that function at the highest level, I am told, are able to provide their members a place where they can discuss the sort of things that they might not be able to bring to an employee, a best friend, or even a spouse. I have now met many an entrepreneur who values forum among his or her most prized assets.
As for myself, I have enjoyed my forum thus far as a time-out from the rush of daily worklife. A chance to step back and consider the bigger picture, and to hear from others who are seeking to do the same. The necessity of presenting, once a month, on progress made or difficulties encountered has been useful to me. Over time, my initial skepticism about its usefulness is receding. I recommend the experience to other entrepreneurs.