As the owner of a small business, with a tiny marketing budget (you know, the “hmmm, shall I buy a new filing cabinet or place an advert?” kind of size) there came a point a few years ago when I realised that staring at the phone and willing it to ring was not perhaps the most sound new business strategy. Don’t get me wrong, this strategy had bizarrely worked wonders for my business before that point – my friends would be slightly unnerved by my comment that I could do with a new client, only for the phone to ring within twenty-four hours, on the end of which would be someone wanting to pay me money. Then the recession happened. Or three recessions, as I consider them: one financial recession, and two children. These days, it is just as likely to be a cold call as a client on the phone. Or the nursery telling me that one of the boys is ill and I need to collect them (shudder).
And if I get one more call to inform me that I am missing out on some amazing PPI refund I may well eat the phone in frustration.
So, I turned to networking. Reluctantly. In fact, this word does not really do justice to the horror I felt at the thought of networking. It combined all number of things that were a challenge, or simply an anathema to me: finding clothes without smears of children’s bogeys on them in order to look vaguely presentable, small talk with strangers, talking about my business over and over again, feigning interest in someone’s soul-regeneration-through-prayers-with-crystals business, trying not to swear too much… it all seemed like very, very hard work. There was just no way this could be a good thing for my business. Or me. So I resisted for a while, and then begrudgingly found an advert for a local network meeting at lunchtime. There was one drawback – apart from the obvious, that is was networking – it was women only.
Now, I don’t wish to be disingenuous, seeing as I am a woman and all that, but at the mention of the words ‘women only’ I tend to smile nervously whilst backing out of the room at pace.
I have never had much truck with anything that excludes half the population, except perhaps when it comes to toilets. I like men. I like hanging out with men. Most of my friends were men until I had children, but now my life is crowded with mums like an indoor play area on a wet Tuesday afternoon.
I feared that it would be all girly, and pink, and the conversation would be about jam making and blusher (okay, I admit, I may be slightly behind the curve in terms of female topics of conversation) and there would be a warm, fuzzy, overtly caring-sharing feeling hanging round the group like some cheap perfume. I almost gagged just thinking about it. But, the only other options were breakfast or evening events, which for a working mum with a working dad in the mix, is just crap. I did see a mid-morning networking group that encouraged working women to bring their kids along to the meeting, at which point I did gag.
Kids and business? This seems like a match made in hell.
It would be bad enough trying to do business with my own kids in tow, let alone trying to small talk through gritted teeth as darling little Jonny has just rammed his fire engine into my foot. Again.
So, with my bag stuffed full of business cards and trepidation, off I went to the venue. The first woman I spoke to was friendly enough, and I started to think that I had been foolish to worry that I wouldn’t enjoy this. That thought lasted approximately thirty seconds before she stated: “Networking saved my life. It has been amazing.” I think I may have momentarily frozen to the spot, drink poised inches from my lips.
Oh god. Please no. Not a networking evangelist.
I managed to squeeze out a small smile whilst wondering if pretending to faint would be the best way to extricate myself from this predicament. She then proceeded to ‘share’ her amazing experience. In fact, her whole bloody life story. In great detail. With a complete stranger. I lost the will to live around the point she was thrown out of her marital home, and was pleading for a lightening bolt to come and strike me as she described her problematic son. Actually, let’s be honest. I was rather hoping the lightening bolt might get her.
“Lovely to chat,” I blurted out as she took a rare pause to breathe, “I just need to nip to the toilet.”
I sprinted to the toilet and looked for a back exit. There was only a small, high window which even before two children, would have been an optimistic squeeze for my hips. My hips are definitely child bearing hips; they had themselves prepared from about the age of eighteen. So reluctantly, there was no alternative but to return to the fray. I introduce myself to another woman, standing alone. That should have been a clue right there, the fact she was alone, but in my panic not to return to the Over-Sharer, I launched straight in. It turns out, this woman had nothing to say. She managed to tell me her name, and that she was an accountant. Or was it a chartered surveyor? I have no idea. She spoke so quietly, in absolute monotone, that it was difficult to hear anything.
Most of the time, the only way I knew she was talking was because I could see her lips moving and feel my will to live leaking from every orifice. She was like a black hole of enthusiasm, sucking the life blood out of anyone within four feet.
“Lovely to chat,” I said, filling the awkward silence after I had told her briefly about my business and had received a small nod in return. “I just need to nip to the toilet.” And off I went, to stare in the mirror for a bit and wonder if they could serve my lunch in here so that I didn’t have to talk to anyone else.
But it was no good hiding, so back I went, just as everyone was taking a seat at the table. I made a bee line for the chair equidistant from Over-Sharer and Black Hole, and was astonished to be greeted by normal, friendly women with a great line in sane conversation and absolutely no desire to tell me their back story. We actually managed to talk about our businesses and about being a working mum, and none of them even mentioned jam or blusher.
And that was that; I put my fear of women only networking in the back of my drawer and ever since, have only pulled it out when conversation veered toward risotto recipes or too many collective ‘aaahs’ when someone says something supposedly sweet or shares an ‘oh so cute’ photo. But it turns out that there is something great about being part of a network, particularly as a business owner working solo.
Conversations with Snappy (see, I did tell you I gave me stapler a name) can get a little dull, and he is rubbish at voicing an opinion.
Although to be fair, he can’t be beat when it comes to holding bits of paper together. He plays to his strengths, that one, and you can’t say fairer than that. Being amongst other business women, being able to be honest about how much having kids impacts on your ability to do business at times, being amongst women in clean clothes whilst not being sat on a red vinyl floor and being used as a climbing frame by your one year old, being able to start and finish a conversation without a protracted pause to feed snacks to whining children or wipe a leaky nose, is really rather good.
Networking. Hmm. There might be something in it after all.