As someone who has experienced some success in business, I like to give back wherever I can. Nevertheless the same is true for all of us: our time is our most precious commodity. I am incredibly busy. I choose to be this way; it is how I like to live life. Full, often going too fast and always accepting I make mistakes along the way.

One thing I learned early is often people do not value free time given in exchange for a coffee. I don’t feel I get the reward for my own time if I agree to the one-to-one mentoring that is often requested of me. I always feel honoured to think I can help others but I also have big goals still and time is a very valuable commodity. That said, I do want to give back and so I try to give my time wherever I can for local events and talks. I aim to do learning with lots more than just a couple of business people in the room, therefore always hoping for the multiplier effect.

Earlier this year I decided to try something new, and with the help of the local newspaper I set up a regular monthly meeting in a local coffee shop.

We call it “Entrepreneurs’ Table,” and on the second Monday of every month I head to a local independent coffee shop in Salisbury to meet local business owners. Here I do my best to offer help and advice, answering questions where I can. We’ve been going for a few months now, and there is a good group of local business owners who come along. As well as getting advice from me, they can chat and bounce ideas off each other, share problems and in a compact hour we try and aim to theme according to the pretty standard seasonality of most companies whilst taking into accounts specific needs of individuals.

I sometimes arrive with a particular topic in mind and will talk about specific area of business I think people may need to know about; other times things are more fluid and we just chat and come up with our own topics. Because my time is limited, I try to be as strict as  I can about staying for one hour only. Once the hour is up I am usually on my way to another meeting, but I know that often people will stick around afterwards and carry on talking. I especially like the fact we do this in an independent coffee shop, so we are bringing them business as well.

At our last meeting we had the owner of a care agency, someone who resells cloud packages, a physiotherapist, a copywriter and the owner of a vegan shop, as well as several others. You might think they would have nothing in common – but they are all running a business which needs to run at a profit, and so there are plenty of things each person can bring to the entrepreneurs’ table.

For me this is incredibly valuable because I get to stay in touch with small business owners in a wide variety of niches. I get to find out what their problems are, and it feels good to be able to help where I can. Like so many things, this is a two-way street. I offer advice and talk about my own experiences, but I also listen to what other people say. After twenty years, I am still learning as much as anyone else is, and there is always something new I can pick up through talking to others. So why not make it a regular thing, and get to know my local business community whilst also learning, and giving back? I always come away kicking myself about thing I have forgotten, with reminders of more stuff I want to do and sometimes new things to try.

All of this leaves me wondering: why do other successful entrepreneurs not do the same? If every city in the country had one or two successful business owners who would spare just one hour per month to help out their fellow entrepreneurs, imagine what we could achieve!

You don’t need to be a business expert, or even an expert in your particular field, to set up your own group. 

I’ve written recently about the true cost of business, and how time spent at pointless, untargetted networking meetings can just be a big waste of time and effort – but setting up a small group where people with more experience help those with less can bear rewards for all concerned. There is always value to be had in connecting with like minded people, and if you can be disciplined about timings and topics of conversation (absolutely no “how was your weekend” rubbish), everyone stands to gain from this – even the venue if you can find a good, independent coffee shop who can give you table space for the hour. We start at 8am which of course does not suit all but alas that is how it has to be.

These days a lot of networking groups are set up as much as money spinners for the organisers as anything else; this is not what I am suggesting here. While networking does take place and I am sure people do exchange business cards (they would be fools not to, after all), this is more about coming together to share ideas and best practices. For the price of a cup of coffee we can all share our pain points and get some advice from others who have been in a similar situation.

The life of an entrepreneur can sometimes be a lonely one; if all of our family and friends are employees they can find it hard to relate to the mad life of an entrepreneur, and we can find it hard to get constructive ideas, criticism and feedback from those around us. The first couple of years of Pacific Direct were the most lonely of my life as I battled to learn valuable business lessons on the job. I think a lot of entrepreneurs are in the same boat; we set up our business and run with it, and don’t really foresee the problems until they are staring us in the face. So why not help each other? In addition to this the failure rate of many small companies and start ups is in the very early years period. Perhaps just one conversation exchnage where people learn new skills on offering credit, know how to ask for money owning and make less mistakes in employment will help some companies thrive and not just survive.

As I’ve said, you needn’t be an expert in any field. Even if you are just two steps ahead of the next person, you can at least show them how you managed to jump that particular hurdle – or just listen to their problem if you’ve no actual experience of it.

My challenge to you then, is to set up your own Entrepreneurs’ Table. Approach your local newspaper or independent coffee shop, and see if you can’t do a little giving back for yourself. Take it from me: it feels pretty good to know you’ve helped someone avoid a hole you fell into yourself once upon a time.

Written by Vicky Charles

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