Agent Nation: How
America's New Independent
Workers Are Transforming the Way We Live
by Daniel H. Pink
Copyright 2001 by Daniel H. Pink.
All rights reserved.
Reproduced here with permission of the author.
page five of six | previous
Like most business leaders, Norm Stoehr has an inner circle.
What makes Stoehr's inner circle different is that he's
franchised it in six cities. During
the 1970s, Stoehr, fifty-nine, made a tidy sum running a
construction business, owning restaurants, and developing real
estate in Peoria, Illinois. In
1978, then in his late thirties, he moved to Minneapolis.
"It took me two years to go broke in the restaurant
business," he says. Hoping
both to rebuild his finances and to help others avoid some of'
entrepreneurship's pitfalls, Stoehr began organizing seminars for
fledgling businesspeople to teach them the basics of running a small
operation. As he
brought these micropreneurs together, he made a surprising
discovery: They initially came to the seminars to listen to him, but
they continued coming to subsequent seminars to talk to each
other. And the more
meetings they attended, the more their questions and concerns began
moving away from the nuts and bolts of hiring and financing, and
toward murkier issues like how to balance the demands of being both
an entrepreneur and a parent or what to do if your business partner
decides he doesn't want to be in business anymore.
"I discovered that the single, biggest problem inherent
in business ownership, entrepreneurship, and free agency is
isolation," Stoehr told me one Sunday afternoon in
Minneapolis's Calhoun Square. So
he began a company called Inner Circle, which brings together
individual entrepreneurs from different industries to talk business
strategy. One morning a month, a dozen of them meet at a hotel for
breakfast and a skull session.
Unlike in most F.A.N. Clubs, Inner Circle members pay to
join: $5,600 per year. "How
does that grab you for breakfast once a month?" Stoehr
facilitates each session, which ,usually centers around a particular
member discussing her business and seeking advice from the others.
While they're required to "be positive," Stoehr
says, they also aim to make the presenter uncomfortable--to ask
tough questions, to challenge her assumptions, and to make her
clarify what her business is, where it's going, and how she'll get
there. Stoehr, who's
now franchised Inner Circles in Baltimore, San Diego, Fargo, and
Seattle, says 90 percent of Inner Circle members renew--despite the
hefty price tag. "It's
an expensive breakfast, but very inexpensive strategic
Inner Circles and its cousins are what I call
entreprenetworks. They're more formal than F.A.N. Clubs and usually
more expensive. In some
ways, they've become the chambers of commerce of Free Agent Nation.
Entreprenetworks are often less explicitly social than their
counterparts, but they operate and succeed by nearly identical
you even get business," Stoehr says.
"That's a bad reason to join, but an outcome of the
process." He bristles at calling what his members do
“networking," since he believes that term has a
"tarnished image." So he's redefined networking in the
free agent economy: "It's being other-centered--letting go of
your own agenda long enough to hook into somebody else's
Stoehr’s venture is just one variety of entreprenetwork
that has emerged to serve free agents.
Some entreprenetworks are more overtly about generating new
business and finding sales leads. Yet what powers even these groups is less unbridled greed
than a unique strain of free agent altruism.
Consider Le Tip, one of the largest such "business
leads" groups, with 450 chapters and nine thousand members. Its monthly meetings begin exactly at 7:16 A.m. and end by
8:31 A.m., and each attendee's task is simple: provide two sales
leads to other members. The
tips are recorded by a "tipmaster," and members who fail
to help others are expelled. In
entreprenetworks, it is better to give than to receive--in part
because giving to others encourages them to give to you.
Reciprocity oils the gears of horizontal loyalty.
As one Le Tipper gushes in the firm's promotional video,
"Where else in the world can I get over thirty people to
represent my company and speak to people in the community about what
I do without having to pay them?
All they want in return is for me to do the same for
them." Business Network International (BNI), another lead
referral organization for self-employed business owners, with more
than 24,000 members nationwide, is similar.
BNI's motto is perhaps the most succinct expression of the
ethic that animates these groups: "Givers gain."
An entreprenetwork with a slightly broader mandate is the New
York-based Let's Talk Business Network. (One of LTBN's founders,
Larry Kesslin--himself a refugee from General Electric and
Westinghouse--is quoted at the beginning of this chapter.)
LTBN began as a radio talk show and grew into an
entrepreneurial support group with affiliates in Vancouver,
Philadelphia, New, Jersey, and Washington, D.C.
LTBN's $1,495 membership fee entitles participants to monthly
breakfasts, a library of videos and books, seminars, and a community
of like-minded people. "It
would be easy enough for ire to stay in my own little virtual world,
doing my own little thing with my business and not meeting other
people face-to-face," says Arzeena Hamir, who runs her own
Vancouver-based online organic gardening products company.
"LTBN lets me meet other business owners and get the
support that's so often missing for online entrepreneurs."
Entreprenetworks provide micropreneurs with a sales force, a
team of strategic advisers, and a few dozen sympathetic ears.
And they succeed by abiding by Stoehr's notion of being
"Let, me tell you where the real value comes in,"
Stoehr told me, ]emitting forward in his chair.
"Not when somebody's giving you advice. The real
'Ah-ha!' comes about when you're sitting there as part of a group
assessing the other person's issue.
It has no resemblance to yours.
And all of a sudden, you get a breakthrough thought.
Because you've emptied your mind of your own garbage to get
into somebody else's, ideas can come out.
I see that over and over again.
The real value comes not when you’re working on your own
deal, but when you're working on somebody else's." In Free
Agent Nation, givers gain.
Page five of six | next
Copyright 2001 by Daniel H. Pink. All rights reserved. Reproduced
here with permission of the author.