“I can’t justify meeting up this month,” I’ve thought a few times. “I’ve got way too much work to do.” But then I listen to my gut, make the time, and gladly set off to spend some time with my two fellow solopreneurs. They’ve also become my dear friends.
For the past year, I’ve met up on a monthly basis with graphic designer Nikki Butler and floral designer Caroline Eells Waller of Passiflora Studio to discuss our careers. As a self-employed food writer, editor, and chef-educator, I’ve found it’s vital to create a network of like-minded professionals in my industry so I can keep abreast of what’s happening in my industry and get nitty-gritty advice about stumbling blocks. Though I’m an active member of a number of online writers’ groups and participate in several monthly Google Video Hangouts with other food writers, I especially value my time with Nikki and Caroline. The energy and positivity of our face-to-face meetings helps push me through those sluggish periods when my motivation is low and my focus is flagging.
And doesn’t that happen to all of us, no matter whether we’re working for large corporations or one-woman shows? Small, casual professional groups don’t just benefit people who work from home; they offer inspiration, useful feedback, and helpful perspectives that you may not find through other channels. And oddly enough, investing the time to make them happen helps keep your work-life balance in check.
Nikki once referred to the concept as “building your own board.” If your regular channels of professional development (perhaps staff meetings, conferences, in-house trainings) just aren’t cutting it the way you’d like, maybe it’s time to build your own board.
Here’s how we do it: once a month, we meet in the afternoon for a few hours for open-ended conversation. Sometimes we’re at a restaurant, sometimes it’s at one of our houses. Beforehand, we share our “homework:–a short list of challenges, goals, and accomplishments. It helps us each organize our thoughts ahead of time, so we can bring a few priority items to the meeting.
How did our meetings start? Nikki approached both me and Caroline; the process was fairly organic. But it can be tough to suss out like-minded people to get your own group going. Here’s some suggestions:
- Start by thinking of people who are already part of a larger group you belong to, such as a service organization, sports team, yoga class, or social circle.
- Online groups like Meetup.com and Craigslist don’t really have the traction that larger cities do, so I’ve not found them to be helpful. But an old-fashioned flyer on a public bulletin board might just do the trick.
- When asking people to participate, don’t make it a big commitment. Say something like, “I have an idea I’d like to try, and I was wondering if you’d be interested, too. Shall we meet once and see how it goes?”
- While it helps to all have similar professional backgrounds, it’s actually quite useful if you’re not all from the same industry. Since the payment models of writing (my industry), graphic design (Nikki’s) and floral design (Caroline’s) are all so different, we can swap opinions and experiences and all come away with new to think of things.
- Naming your group might seem cheesy, but it makes the whole concept feel more fully-formed and legitimate. Ours is called SPARK.
- If you don’t feel the chemistry happening after a few meetings, there’s nothing wrong with calling it quits. This is a loosely structured meetup, not a lifelong commitment.
Here are the questions we each consider prior to our monthly meetings:
- My biggest accomplishment since we last met was…
- Something I didn’t get done that I’d wanted to was…
- The biggest frustration I encountered was…
- A recent development or idea I’m excited about is…
- Something I’d like feedback or advice about is…
- Here’s the most important short-term goal I want to accomplish…
- Here’s how that will help me achieve a long-term goal..
Because of Nikki and Caroline’s feedback and encouragement, I launched my website a year ago. I’ve stepped away from unproductive client relationships and built upon the thriving ones. Even if I were to accept a full-time position with a company some day, I’d still find out meetings relevant. You can’t expect your employer to provide all of the tools you’ll need for your career success. It never hurts to load the deck–so you might as well do it with people you admire and enjoy spending time with. We’ve developed a trust and positive vibe that keeps me energized on the 29-odd days of the month when we’re not hashing out our bright futures.