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Excerpted from
Free Agent Nation:
How America's New Independent 
Workers Are Transforming the Way We Live
by Daniel H. Pink

Chapter 7

Small Groups Big Impact:
Reinventing Togetherness
in Free Agent Nation

Copyright 2001 by Daniel H. Pink. All rights reserved. 
Reproduced here with permission of the author.

Statements made at Netpreneur events and recorded here reflect solely the views of the speakers and have not been reviewed or researched for accuracy or truthfulness. These statements in no way reflect the opinions or beliefs of the Morino Institute, Netpreneur.org or any of their affiliates, agents, officers or directors. The archive pages are provided "as is" and your use is at your own risk.  

"Every day, entrepreneurs, free agents, and individual business owners face challenges that they cannot discuss with their clients, their employees, or their families.  So where do they turn?  To their peers.  With peers, they can establish a level of trust that allows them to talk openly and intimately about what's going on.  Developing a support system, which includes peer-to-peer groups, is critical to the sanity of sole entrepreneurs." 
                                                                     --Larry Kesslin (New York, New York)

Vic's Restaurant sits on a sliver of a street in what passes for downtown in San Carlos, California, a cozy city twenty-five miles north of San Jose.  Vic's isn't fancy.  Its cuisine isn't memorable.  (The most exotic dish on the burger-and pasta-packed menu: crispy onion petals with ranch dressing.") But on the third Thursday of every month, the back room of this restaurant off Silicon Valley's El Camino Real becomes a staging ground for one of the most fascinating and revolutionary developments in Free Agent Nation.

            Work even a few months as a free agent--and whether you re a home-based brownie entrepreneur or a freelance C+ + programmer, your friends and family likely will pepper you with the same questions.  Don't You get lonely?  Don't You miss the water cooler?  Don't you feel isolated?  The first part of the answer, of course, is yes.  Free agents sometimes do feel lonely and isolated; they do occasionally long for a conversation around the corroded coffeepot in the employee break room.  But the second part of their answer is often a surprise.  They don't stay isolated.  Instead of laboring in loneliness, free agents across America are inventing an array of new groups to replace the workplace communities many have left behind.

            That's what's happening at Vic's.  About two dozen women have gathered on this April evening to talk business and trade stories.  The women are all free agents--one runs a training microbusiness with her husband, another is an education consultant, a third is a marketing strategist who says she's "between start-ups." They've come to Vic's tonight for the same reasons they show up every month--to network, to find new clients, and simply to get out of the house.  Born in 1998 as the Self-Employed Women's Network--and rechristened the following year as Women Independent Consultants (WIC)--this group is what I call a Free Agent Nation Club, or F.A.N. Club.  It helps members find new gigs and new customers, but it also offers them a forum to discuss issues close to their hearts with people who understand what work is like when you're a pilot instead of a passenger.

            WIC members sit at long tables arranged in a large square.  The conversation is easy, the conversationalists relaxed.  The women take turns.  They offer advice.  They listen.  The session has the flavor of a graduate seminar, a chamber of commerce meeting, and an encounter group--all blended into an utterly new form.  Becoming a WIC member costs $ 1 00 a year, not a bad deal since it buys ten dinners at Vic's and is tax deductible.  WIC has eighty paid members--and another two hundred on its free e-mail list.  At each monthly gathering, the group brings in a speaker--an expert who discusses how to negotiate contracts, how to deliver a knockout presentation, or how to price their services.  But whatever is on the agenda, the broader purpose remains the same: to offer and receive business advice--and to break the isolation that often accompanies life beyond the water cooler.

            "My monthly meeting is something I look forward to," WIC member Elaine Starling told me.  "I count down the days!  It's fun to see my monthly friends again, meet new attendees, and learn something.  WIC is an opportunity to mingle with people who understand what I do.  We face the same challenges and are often competitors, yet we all benefit from sharing ideas, concerns, challenges, solutions, opportunities--even goals and aspirations.  I get so pumped after a WIC meeting that my husband wishes we'd have one every week!"

            Small, self-organized, decentralized groups like WIC are flourishing in every realm of American life.  Princeton University sociologist Robert Wuthnow estimates that "four out of every ten Americans belong to a small group that meets regularly and provides caring and support for its members."' Alcoholics Anonymous, a self-described "informal society" begun in 1935, now has more than fifty thousand groups with nearly 1.2 million members.  Book clubs have become a national phenomenon: In 1990, for example, only one Barnes & Noble store had its own book group; today, nearly all of Barnes & Noble's more than nine hundred stores have at least one in-store book club."  And independent religious small groups, in which people meet to pray and discuss faith outside the auspices of institutional denominations, are surging.  The U.S. has some 300,000 religious congregations, but as many as four million religious small groups.

            But the world of work is where small groups might produce their deepest influence.  F.A.N. clubs and other clusters of independent workers are mushrooming throughout Free Agent Nation.  Their bond is the horizontal loyalty I described in Chapter 5.  Their purpose is both hardheaded and softhearted.  Because they're decentralized, ad hoc, and self-organized, they have eluded much notice.  But their impact is enormous.  These groups challenge the popular notion that America is fragmenting, that community is collapsing--and that the rise of the independent worker only makes matters worse.


[continued]

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Copyright 2001 by Daniel H. Pink. All rights reserved. Reproduced here
with permission of the author.
 

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